March 26, 2020 Beyond Bandwidth: Helping a Design College Succeed Online

There was something different about this faculty meeting. The normal buzz of conversation was lower, more serious. People sat scattered throughout the auditorium, as if spilled from a cup. As usual, the dean opened the meeting, but his remarks were more passionate, personal and poignant. No one spoke a word during the associate dean’s 45-minute demonstration. Thoughtful and reasoned questions followed; professors provided tips to others; and the meeting ended with a palpable sense of both nervous energy and bold unity.

Something was different. Something was happening. And we were getting ready.

On March 11, UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman announced classes would move online to slow the spread of COVID-19. The virus has changed virtually every aspect of college life at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the College of Architecture and Design is choosing to see the changes as new opportunities in anticipation of an exciting future.

During the faculty meeting in early March, Associate Dean for Technology David Matthews, along with his IT team, Don Swanner and Jeff Wilkinson, did more than demonstrate digital tools faculty could use to teach online classes.

They eased tension and reduced stress.

They empowered.

They unified.

Teaching a lecture class is difficult to accomplish online, but teaching design studio is a whole other level of difficult. By its true nature, studio is a time of collaboration, creativity, face-to-face interaction and on-the-spot designing and feedback.

How to accomplish this purely human, nuanced and interactive teaching method when separated by fiber optics and bandwidth, screens and miles?

“We must take advantage of our existing relationships with our students forged in our vibrant studio setting as the first step,” said Matthews. “Continuing successful relationships between faculty and students and enabling student-to-student relationships are key in implementing online instruction in this situation.”

Matthews is leading a comprehensive approach to ensuring every faculty member in the college—studio faculty and lecture faculty—are prepared to succeed in teaching classes online. Beyond simply sending links to resources and discussing options, Matthews surveyed all faculty members to assess their technology needs, gaps and experience. Based on that key information, Matthews organized onsite and Zoom workshops to address specific technology issues and opened an all-day, week-long, walk-in tech support area staffed by him and his team.

To further ensure studio faculty are prepared to provide an engaging and dynamic virtual studio experience, the college is purchasing hardware and software so faculty can replicate that collaborative experience that is essential to studio curriculum. And because studio classes are four hours long three days a week, faculty are receiving ergonomic headsets to avoid fatigue and enhance the sound quality for students.

“This is super challenging, and I am very proud that our faculty, students and leadership have risen to the challenge. Our faculty will be spending 12 or more hours in our studio courses each week with students online. Making the technology transparent, comfortable and intuitive over the long instructional sessions is essential,” said Matthews.

Faculty are not the only ones being supported. To enable a smooth transition to telecommuting for staff, the college purchased or repurposed laptops loaded with necessary software for staff members to use remotely.  Staff members are taking on responsibilities that fill gaps and developing new ways of thinking and communicating to support faculty and students.

Significant attention is given to supporting students, too. The College of Architecture and Design is housed in the iconic Art + Architecture Building, which for students becomes a beloved part of their college experience. Students spend many hours every day together in the building. They become connected to it and each other. Knowing these aspects of college will be greatly missed, college leaders are collaborating with students to determine how students can remain connected to the A+A and with each other. For example, plans are under way for special commencement activities and a virtual end-of-the-year exhibit of graduating students’ work.

As part of the culture of the college, college leaders and students will engage the college’s peer mentor program, empowering older students to connect with younger students, and institute a campaign to encourage students to share and celebrate their time as Vols at home.

“We are poised to succeed in this situation because of team members like David Matthews and many others who have ensured our immersion into digital technology while maintaining our connection to the human dimension of our endeavor,” said Scott Poole, dean.

Concise daily communication to everyone in the college means faculty, staff and students are well informed, supported and ready to meet the challenge. The creative culture in the College of Architecture and Design demands nothing less.