Undergraduate education is essential in establishing good intellectual practices. For over a decade I’ve been glad for the opportunity to teach students just entering academia and design practice. The institutions where I have taught pride themselves on small class sizes, on-going instructor development, and a focus on teaching excellence. Some of my students came to University straight out of high school, while for others our program is the opportunity for a fresh start. I’ve had to consider the specific needs of mature students, and how best to harness the excitement inherent to first year undergraduates.
Since the information design program at MRU is fairly evenly split between instruction in theory, design practice, and writing, students tend to enter the program with more strengths and interest in one of the three areas, and less so in the others. Some have been well prepared for the study of visual form, while others tend towards the written. All must achieve a certain level of theoretical understanding, and design and writing competency to qualify as information designers.
I am conscious that the areas where I do my teaching and research are undergoing rapid change, and that at any given time it is not unlikely that there will be students in the class who are more up to date than I am on the latest technologies and ideas, although not necessarily on the larger contexts of those developments. What I often have to offer are war stories, a deeper understanding of philosophy, a stronger sense of history, and a broader idea of the analogical cases that can help to inform the present conversation. I also have the capacity to serve as a facilitator for learning and to lend a level of excitement and pertinence to their study.
It is this stance of facilitator that I adopt most frequently. I believe a large part of my job is to scaffold the learning process, creating a congenial environment where people are willing to bring their best thinking to the table, as we all focus our attention on the particular subject at hand. Sometimes this involves discussing selected papers or design case studies, typically from book chapters or peer-reviewed sources that the students will have been asked to read before class. My approach here is to have ready a short list of what I consider to be the key points covered by the material, but to fall back on it only if the discussion fails to engage all of those salient points. More often than not, I find that the conversation ranges widely enough to cover not only what I considered essential, but also one or two other very good topics that I had not addressed in my own preparation.
It is true that not all students will read all articles, but I find that I can encourage them by giving them a grade for their participation in discussions, and also by asking them each to hand in two discussion questions at the beginning of the class. In some classes, I have also kept extensive notes of the conversation, labeling each comment with the name of the student. Just the act of recording in this manner seems to encourage students to speak up and contribute—it is evident that I am paying attention to what they say. At the end of the term, I can also use my notes as a crosscheck against the student grades, sometimes adjusting slightly based on either how frequently someone actually engaged the reading in discussion, and sometimes adjusting based on the quality of their contributions.
Over the past eight years, I have tended to teach courses that are heavily project based. When appropriate, I engage not-for-profit agencies in my classroom, being careful that the client’s objectives do not overshadow the learning outcomes established for the class. It is a delicate balance, but one that provides a remarkable learning opportunity for the students. In 2012 we worked on visualization projects with researchers from the University of Alberta, in 2013 with HIV Edmonton, and in 2014 with the MRU Daycare.
Finally, there are lecture components, where I am providing some digested information that the students can attempt to remember and use. I find these to be the least satisfying and productive of my classes. I was taught primarily through lectures for both of my undergraduate degrees and one of my masters degrees, and I found that I internalized far less of the material than I did in my other masters degree and PhD, where I had the opportunity for more seminars and project-based classes. That said, the transfer of information is still a key component of education at every level, and it needs to be handled with care and efficiency. To balance lecture-style instruction, I allocate time to meet with students one-on-one or in small groups to discuss their projects. In classroom critiques are an important component of my teaching practice. My classes benefit from three hour face-to-face allocation, thus permitting extensive engagement with students’ project work. Since iteration is, I believe, critical to good design practice, I aim to pace projects in such a way as to enable multiple touch points, opportunities for questioning, and redirection, if necessary.