Kelly Murdoch-Kitt, assistant professor at the U-M Stamps School of Art & Design, is a user experience designer and educator focused on people, systems and interpersonal interactions. She discusses tactics for remote learning and working, many of which are taken from a book that she recently co-authored titled "Intercultural Collaboration by Design," which covers more than 30 visual thinking activities that help support online collaboration across borders.
What tips do you have for educators who have been instructed to move their classes to an online format?
Remote working and learning was already a growing trend before COVID-19. There's a mental pivot that you need to do when you are suddenly in a situation where you don't see people's faces on a regular basis. You need to give yourself an opportunity to rethink your workflow—what can be done alone and what needs to be done together? I recommend thinking about the following:
- Assess your toolbox: As a user experience designer who researches collaborative online intercultural learning, I built my syllabus to revolve around tools beyond my university's learning management system. Most are ill-equipped to support social engagement and peer-to-peer learning. Systems with features such as discussion boards, group support and student peer reviews still feel clunky and ancient, a far cry from the dynamic exchanges that take place within more contemporary virtual environments or in-person class meetings. Consider incorporating other tools like messaging platforms (Slack, Discord, Facebook Groups), video conferencing platforms (Skype, Zoom, Bluejeans, Hangouts, Duo, Facetime) or collaborative projects tools (Google docs, Trello, Dropbox, Basecamp). Many enterprise services offer free accounts for educators and students.
- Decode communication styles: Asynchronous and synchronous communication are good places to start. Email is probably the most familiar form of asynchronous communication—people send and respond to emails when it is convenient for them, without expectation of a simultaneous back-and-forth conversation. Most learning management systems operate on the principle of asynchrony—assignments and even discussion boards can have deadlines, but individuals can submit assignments or contribute to a discussion whenever they wish. This is convenient, but also lacks dynamism. Synchronous communication, on the other hand, occurs simultaneously, in real time. Videoconferencing and phone or face-to-face conversations are all examples of synchronous communication. Texting and instant messaging reside in an in-between place; sometimes it’s a synchronous back-and-forth conversation, sometimes there’s a delay between message and response. Because of their simultaneous nature, these forms of communication often boost motivation and engagement. You need a mix of both.
- Teach to the senses: Based on my research, it is important to try not to do everything in a pixel-based environment. Make time to write things down, sketch things out and use printouts if you're working from home—and if you're teaching, make this part of your assignments for your students. Learning through more than one channel is also important; make sure to consider and incorporate audio, video and tangible components, while considering accessibility. Activities away from the screen help remind us of our humanity.
- Promote social presence: Photos of teammates, phone calls, video conferencing; exchange pre-recorded videos; utilize emojis and voice notes.
How might these tactics help people prepare for the realities of quarantines and remote work?
The tools, techniques and mindsets that are conducive to keeping teams connected when working remotely—especially those that promote a high social presence—can help keep some classrooms and work teams active if they are no longer able to meet in person. They are also applicable to facilitating conversation and collaboration across borders, as global cooperation is essential to facing complex problems such as pandemics.
Can you talk more about your research on intercultural collaboration online?
Only about 2% of college and university students actually study abroad, and that inspired me to think about other ways for students to have meaningful experiences with people from other countries. I wondered how I might create this experience for them online. So for more than eight years, I have worked with Denielle Emans, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. Over the course of our partnership, we have brought together more than 230 students from different countries to work together on teams. We co-wrote a book about our research and experiences in a book titled "Intercultural Collaboration by Design," published in February 2020. In it, we cover more than 30 visual thinking activities that help support collaboration and being able to work with somebody who is not like you.
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