BEL+T designs a DIAgram … a relational framework for teaching online

A/Prof Kate Tregloan, Dr James Thompson, Dr Pippa Soccio and Huiseung Song with the Built Environments Learning + Teaching (BEL+T) group

The revisioning of ‘old normal’ face-to-face design education in an online environment in a short timeframe is a very wicked problem indeed. In our Faculty, ‘design’ has influenced the modes, the conceptualisation and the foci of this shift over the past semester, and our preparations for the next. 

This post has been prepared by members of the Built Environments Learning and Teaching (BEL+T) group at the University of Melbourne (UoM). In it, we unpack a relational framework for moving design learning and teaching online through a sequential presentation of our Guidance for Moving Online resources and described by our DIAgram. We outline how this approach has been applied in an Australian university context, and ask what it may offer other contexts. It may be useful to consider this post alongside DDE’s Creating Distance Design Courses guide available here, which provides a valuable and complementary approach.  

BEL+T DIAgram (2020); DOI 10.26188/12870047

Institutional Context  

The BEL+T group, within the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning (ABP) is an academic group focussed on the sustained improvement of educational outcomes for built environment disciplines. BEL+T conducts research and consults with teaching staff in BE disciplines to this end.  We are also very lucky to draw on group members’ design expertise while responding to the changes of context experienced this year. 

ABP offered few online learning options until March of 2020. Fortunate to be located on a beautiful and historic campus, and to have access to workshops and contemporary making technologies, and to new studio spaces, the focus of design education was ‘hands on’ and ‘face-to-face’. Suddenly driven from the campus by COVID-19 and impacted by isolation and social distancing, we needed to develop ways to understand, communicate and inform new needs and approaches to this new world. This was made more complex as the same semester marked the introduction of a new LMS for the institution, challenging staff with a less familiar online environment, and further raising the difficulty level. In response, we developed and shared an initial framework on the BEL+T pages in the five-day space between the office and working from home(!). We looked for advice that would support teachers to deliver subject content, support interaction, and effectively assess online.  

We simplified some of the complexity we encountered in order to communicate to teachers in those early days. Over time, early dualisms comparing synchronous and asynchronous approaches were enriched by global discussions and shared publications (including DDE blog posts), as well as local testing and development, to enrich our understandings as well as their representations. As an action-tested consensus began to emerge around effective delivery methods for the built environment and design disciplines in our Faculty, more complex and nuanced questions arrived: How can I make online learning experiences more engaging? and I’m worried about my students being disconnected from each other and our faculty – What can I do?

As we prepared to support a (more) planned—but still surprising— second online semester, we needed to draw together what we had learned from the Faculty’s initial move to online teaching and learning, and to translate this across multiple cohorts and programs. We needed a diagram and the ‘spatialization of a selective abstraction’ (Garcia, 2010: p.18) it offered, and to use the development and application of this tool to help make sense of the new world, to guide our actions and to evaluate their impact. The DIAgram that we designed represents the elements, influences, aims and mechanisms we identified, and continues to challenge us to consider its application for the specifics of subject area, cohort and learning aims.

Learning Engagement and Belonging : Foundational Aims  

In our development of the DIAgram and the conceptual framework it represents, some foundational aims for good learning experiences, wherever they take place, remained crucial foci. These are Learning Engagement and Belonging. The significance of these is indicated by their central location in the DIAgram’s design. These foundational aims guided our daily discussions by reminding us and others that ‘what we are designing is not a product: it is the experience of that product and how that engages learning’ (Jones, 2020: p. 11).

A key prerequisite for academic achievement lies in students’ engagement with learning experiences, i.e. Learning Engagement (Kahu, 2013; van Uden et al., 2014), and the intellectual and/or emotional forms this may take (Macey and Schneider, 2008). This remains true in online environments, where ‘cognitive presence’ has been linked to academic performance (Galikyan & Admiraal, 2019). The close relationship between learning engagement, retention and motivation has been identified, and motivation highlighted as an ‘essential element to engage learners and thereby enhance students’ learning experiences’ (Gedera et al, 2015). In design, the intersection between project development and intrinsic motivation is described as ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996), a linking of aim and process through these design and design learning experiences. As such, rich, personal and effective engagement with ‘learning’ as a broad activity has great overlap with an individual design student’s learning, the possibilities of a given design challenge, and the navigation of these through design practices.

Belonging refers to the attachment, reciprocity and mutual support that students feel towards various scales of community, including to their peers, teachers, institution, profession, etc. As a key contributor to a student’s overall wellbeing and ability to learn, a sense of belonging and social integration has been shown to be vital to a successful educational experience (see Baik et al., 2017; Baik et al., 2019). As the significance of connectedness is increasingly recognised, academic roles are expanding to accommodate newer expectations for pastoral care and its relationship to learning and the student experience (Laws & Fielder, 2012).

In professional disciplines, Belonging is one of the fundamental dimensions comprising occupational engagement and the development of occupational identities (Wilcock, 1999). This helps explain why the notion of ‘studio culture’ is considered inseparable from design pedagogy: ‘[S]tudio culture is meant to engender a sense of belonging among students— a feeling that they are not alone in their struggles— and between students and tutors’(Thompson, 2019: p. 22). Furthermore, ‘students use the studio as a vehicle for developing a sense of belonging to the architectural community’ (Koch et al., 2002). In the shift away from a shared physical learning environment, the move online has prompted staff to implement creative ways of fostering a sense of belonging whilst providing support across members of studio cohorts and the wider university community. It is important to remember that, ‘Studio is far more than a physical space, and it is the non- (or meta-) physical aspects of it that are worth focusing on when designing online and distance learning: the cultural, professional, personal, social, affective, etc.’ (Jones, 2020: p. 49).

We should note that Learning Engagement and Belonging, as foundational and central aims in the DIAgram, should be understood as relational concepts in the spirit of John Dewey and feminist philosophies (see Bleazby, 2013). In other words, engagement should not be conceived in service of a sense of belonging any more than we should strive to foster a sense of belonging merely to achieve learning engagement. The first, central layer of the DIAgram reflects these foundational concepts.

Delivery + Interaction + Assessment 

BEL+T DIAgram (parts) (2020); DOI 10.26188/12870047

Designing the second layer of the diagram identified a useful guide for decision-making during the 2020 COVID-19 move online. A triad of challenges for online teaching by ABP staff emerged during the move to this new environment: Delivery + Interaction + Assessment. Few academic staff of the Faculty had significant experience with teaching online. The natural tendency was for teachers to seek to replicate face-to-face practices via the virtual campus and to look for tools to do that most directly. We developed this triad model to challenge that tendency, opening initial discussions of tools and approaches to delivery, whilst integrating discussion of interaction and assessment activities. The model was initially presented in March 2020 through the BEL+T website to deliver tools for synchronous and asynchronous approaches to these activities. Subject consultations, and other global conversations, extended the approach to explore how these three factors interrelate to support and connect to the foundational aims above.

Presenting Delivery + Interaction + Assessment as an interrelated framework rather than independent parts helped to extend early lessons and developing practices, as we prepared for an anticipated (second) online semester. The intersecting representation through the DIAgram drew on early learning about changing expectations of time-planning across the week: from the relocation of a small number of ‘normal’ timetabled sessions in a Zoom environment, to more sophisticated consideration of activities and engagement that we described as a student-focused ‘workflow’ model, using the language of construction. In the DIAgram the elements are therefore overlapping, influencing and informing each other.

The term delivery refers to the learning ‘objects’ that teachers share with students. This element is represented as a ‘container’ of independent items. These might include video presentations, readings or references, studio project briefs and subject information or instructions. For many academics, Delivery of content to students was a primary early concern: How can I deliver my lectures? How can I post readings? (How) will students have access to physical sites or facilities for this subject? The DIAgram proved a useful tool to communicate that, although it may be an early concern and an easy focus for those newly ‘alone’ behind a computer screen, disseminating content to students is not an isolated or sufficient activity. Designing the links between these objects and their use online for student learning needed specific focus in the move online, and pairing delivered content and interactive activity was central to considering an overall assessment scheme. Delivery activity also aligned with the leadership or guidance role for teachers when the class was newly distributed; a brief message to students for an upcoming tutorial, whilst seemingly mundane, serves an essential role in this framework. This approach does stress, however, that delivery holds no inherent value as a teaching and learning activity. In an online space, this challenges some habits of a conventional, teacher-centred approach.

Interaction identifies the crucial opportunities for students to engage and connect with one another and/or their teachers. The DIAgram represents this as stylised figures in a circular connected group. In practice, academics explored Canvas discussion boards or Zoom meetings, and also cloud-based platforms for collaborative design projects or reviews.  We distinguish between Learning Engagement which can involve students interacting with learning objects and activities, and Interaction as a human-to-human exchange of ideas or co-production of artifacts. There are two primary reasons for focusing on student-to-teacher and student-to-student interaction—relating both to Learning Engagement and Belonging. Our disciplines, whether explicitly stated in learning outcomes or not, are heavily dependent on collaborative experiences for professional development. In other words, learning to become a built environment professional is not something that happens through independent scholarship but also involves enculturation into professional, industry-specific and student communities and their discourses, behaviours and structures (Gilbuena et al., 2015). It has been suggested that design studio offers both ‘the primary space where students explore their creative skills that are so prized by the profession’ and ‘the kiln where future…designers are molded’ (Salama & Wilkinson, 2007: p. 5). Interaction across the cohort in studio, therefore, becomes central to both the student experience and to professional development.

The third element of the DIA triad, assessment, also called for a review of ‘normal’ practices in the move to an online environment. Of course, this is an area in which institutional processes and requirements influence what, how and when students might undertake assessable activities and receive feedback for learning, thereby introducing further complexity as the shift online in Australia occurred mid-semester. The intersection of Assessment decisions across the realms of ‘policy, design and judgement’ (Bearman et al., 2016: p.7) called for clear communications and frequent updates, achieved via the BEL+T website, regarding institutional changes, tool availability and use, and disciplinary values and cultures. These complexities were nowhere more challenging than in design disciplines, in which the nature of studio learning and the centrality of the final ‘design crit’ performance was of great concern—not only to consider the quality of a design proposal but as a format for students to learn some of the elements of professional performance and collaborative creativity (Tucker & Beynon, 2012). Suggested platforms and processes, including synchronous and asynchronous elements, as well as the capacity to simultaneously review a submission and critically evaluate it against a student’s claims, were all important. Considering other ways that ‘low stakes’ assessment could be incorporated within a program aimed to minimise student stresses and technology demands. The multiple paths of the Assessment element in the DIAgram indicates the importance of aligned assessment actions in students’ learning experiences.

Organisation : enabling operator 

The final element of the DIAgram, Organised, refers to the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work required to coordinate and curate meaningful learning experiences for students. Effective organisation has been identified by both students and teachers as an essential foundation for valuable and meaningful learning experiences (Zehner et al., 2010), and the reduction of student attrition (Naylor et al., 2018). Again, the ultimate objective of a teacher’s organisational efforts is to enable Learning Engagement and sense of Belonging through the effective interrelation of Delivery + Interaction + Assessment activities. Our own review of student evaluations, prior to 2020, found high levels of satisfaction in subjects with strong organisational foundations, leading to a set of Tactics for Coordination that highlight the value of constructively aligned activities and assessments, clear and consistent lines of communication, and overt logistical preparations.

Organised subject delivery, particularly online, could be understood as approaching the task ‘as a designer’ as opposed to an improvisor or a dictator. Whilst those who teach design may defend some pedagogical obscurity on the basis that the nature of design learning demands ‘trust’ and ‘tolerates, even revels in, ambiguity’ (Ochsner, 2000), we suggest this conflates the design process itself with its pedagogical context. Teaching design at a distance demands organising principles that target the invisible and uncertain nature of design. Jones’ (2020: pp. 44-46) suggestion of ‘chunking’ activities in assessment deliverables, such as concept maps or reflective journals, offers a specific and applicable example. 

BEL+T DIAgram (2020); DOI 10.26188/12870047

Closing Thoughts 

What might this approach and DIAgram offer to others? Like any diagram, it aims to serve multiple functions—descriptive, analytical and propositional. First, it encapsulates what we have found to be an effective conceptualisation and approach to this wicked challenge. We have found it holistic enough to capture the range of technological and pedagogical concerns arising in the move to an online learning environment, while introducing these dimensions into a productive dialogue of shared foundational aims. Importantly however, as a guiding framework, it provides flexibility rather than prescription. It specifies no scale, no time and no age group. In this way, we trust it offers value to other institutional and geographic contexts, and we hope its adaptation through further testing and development might result in newer emergent approaches.

We welcome you to visit the BEL+T Guidance for Moving Online pages where we regularly update teacher-facing content informed by this work. We also invite your feedback on our framework and DIAgram in the comments section below. We are looking forward to your thoughts!

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Baik, C., Larcombe, W., Brooker, A., Wyn, J., Allen, L., Field, R., . . . James, R. (2017). Enhancing Student Mental Wellbeing: A Handbook for Academic Educators. The University of Melbourne: Australia.

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Salama, A. M., & Wilkinson, N. (2007). Legacies for the Future of Design Studio Pedagogy. In A. M. Salama & N. Wilkinson (Eds.), Design Studio Pedagogy: Horizons for the future. Gateshead: The Urban International Press.

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Tucker, R., & Beynon, D. (2012). Crit Panel. In Askland, H.H., Ostwald, M.J., & Williams, A. (Eds.) Assessing Creativity, Supporting Learning in Architecture and Design (pp 133 – 156). Sydney: Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT).

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