Fostering student engagement in the online Architecture Studio

Work by James Armstrong (with tutor mark-up) ESALA 1st Year 2021

[note: ‘Studio’ refers to the physical space that students do their work in, together — peer-learning being an important part of how architectural design is learned and developed. ‘Studio’ also refers simply to the taught design element of their studies, and the groups that we teach in.]

Last semester, my teaching partner Jamie and I thought A LOT about how we would engage students in the online learning environment to carve out a distinct identity (read: vibe) for our studio. At the end of the semester we got loads of positive feedback from our students (verbally and in emails) about how engaged they had felt, and how much they enjoyed our Fridays together. Here’s a summary of some of the approaches we experimented with, and that hopefully contributed to the positive experience.

Being Jolly
After the first day of online teaching a lot of us realised how much harder it was to do than teaching in-person, and there was some rather downbeat chat about it. Jamie and I then decided that it was our responsibility to set the mood of the studio and we agreed to do our best to just bloody well be jolly about being there. As reminded by our course organiser, we avoided referring to online studio as being second best to in-person, physical studio, and made an active decision to not only tolerate it, but to make the most of it and positively enjoy it. Like that thing where you hold a pencil between your teeth and, apparently, before you know it, you’re actually feeling OK.

Seeing everyone on camera
From the start Jamie and I asked our students to use their cameras. We made it clear that it was largely for our benefit as tutors(!) but also there’s an element of keeping each other company. It seems like they understood that us being able to see them made teaching that little bit easier for us. If someone didn’t default to joining a tutorial with their camera on, rather than asking directly to switch it on, I would often just say “Hi! Is your camera working today?”. Of course, there were times when this nudge helped, but also times when we needed to be sensitive towards those who really didn’t want to appear on camera. That was OK too.

I know I come across better on video when exaggerating my facial expressions, voice modulation, and gestures, and got into the swing of doing this for teaching. Like a form of stage makeup. I guess when people aren’t there with you in person, more overt signals help them to latch onto what you’re trying to communicate.

Having banter
In much the same way that having an exaggerated persona is a performance, playing upon a rapport between ourselves (Jamie and I) as teaching partners became part of the tone of the studio. We are lucky enough to have previously taught together for a few weeks last academic year, and had been buoyed by one student having told us that we had ‘chemistry’! By the end of this semester we definitely had our quirks that we teased each other about openly — hopefully in an entertaining embarrassing mum and dad style dynamic, but apologies to students who just found it cringey. Like I say, a performance in an attempt to put the students at ease, and not feel like the studio was such a deadly serious place.

Sorting out tech
Before the need for online teaching my computer didn’t have a microphone or a camera. It also turns out that it didn’t really have adequate processing power for video conferencing either. I faffed around with too many peripherals for too long, but eventually (probably a bit too late) I worked out how to join a session on my computer for video and also join simultaneously on my phone for audio. Being given a second screen also helped immensely in having Teams on one and Miro on the other so that I didn’t have to tile windows on one screen or keep switching between the two. It probably also worked for me to be looking away from the students when I was drawing so that I could switch back to looking at them when I was talking to them directly or listening to them (like how your point of focus switches around a room for variation when giving a talk).

Getting students to ask each other questions
This is one I learned from another colleague on crit day. At reviews, once a student had finished presenting I would invite the next student along to open the discussion by asking a question. I’ve seen this sometimes as well where students feel compelled to open their comments with a vacuous compliment, but thankfully we didn’t get into this strange modern habit with our group. Without fail I was impressed every time with the level of peer inquiry that this method engendered.

The next engagement challenge for me in this digital environment where the students aren’t in the same space as each other, and, as first years are yet to even meet IRL, is to get them conversing amongst themselves and start the really valuable work of seeking out insights from each other. Please do send me ideas (however cheesy) if you have any.

Akiko Kobayashi
Jan 2021

Architect, cyclist, escaped Londoner. Tutor at ESALA (Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture). Co-founder of the Architecture Fringe