Teaching the Internet in the time of COVID-19

by Rosa McElheny and Simone Cutri

Rosa and Simone are two graphic designers currently based in New York City. They met at Yale School of Art, where they received MFAs in May 2019. In addition to working professionally, they both taught interactive design this semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic—Simone at Hunter College and Parsons School of Design and Rosa at Yale. Here, they talk to each other about their experience of transitioning from an in-class setting to online, and in particular, teaching Interaction Design via the Internet. 

From Arthur Radebaugh’s 1950s Sunday comic Closer Than We Think

Simone Cutri: How many weeks did you do in-person this semester? When did you transition online?

Rosa McElheny: At Yale we went online during Spring Break, right in the middle of the semester. It was the moment when I transitioned from a more structured, technical part of class to a more self-directed project. And it was right as I was hitting my stride as a first-time teacher. It wasn’t easy for anybody. Most of my students had to move. Those whose families are abroad struggled with whether and how to travel home. We all had to emotionally adjust.

How did your students respond to the transition? You were teaching two different classes, right?

SC: Yes, I was teaching Core Interaction at Parsons and Web Production I at Hunter College. Two different environments and systems. Parsons (as a private institution) decided to transition to online class the week before Spring Break, and give the teachers two weeks of preparation. A lot of students came from different regions in the U.S. and from around the world, so everyone left New York immediately. Hunter (as a public institution) couldn’t take this decision. They had to wait for the New York State guidelines, which meant their transition was really difficult and full of delay. Students are New York based, but not a lot of them have access to computers or the Internet. Teaching this type of class became really complicated. Students without an Internet connection joined the class on their phone, but of course without the opportunity to share their project with the class. I had one student drop out because he didn’t have an Internet connection at home. I needed to really change the way I was communicating with them. 

How difficult was it for you to get the same attention from the students online?

RM: It was really hard! My students worked hard and came to class, but the atmosphere definitely changed. While we had some good jokes in the Zoom chat, I missed listening to music together. And in-class work time or general help sessions kind of evaporated—it’s harder to eavesdrop or absorb things passively on Zoom. 

I initially designed my class to emphasize the physical aspect of websites or life online— that we use websites to navigate physical spaces, or to make us aware of physical, embodied reality. I think that shifted a bit after coronavirus. We were no longer sharing in the same physical space, whether the classroom or campus. Personally, the quarantine has made me feel much more connected to my computers (laptop and smartphone) for communication, distraction, news. On the other hand I’ve also been going on lots of walks in Prospect Park, spending time outdoors watching spring arrive. For me, those two modes of experience have intensified but also become more distinct. 

In class, it was nice to see that many students proposed projects that documented their lived experience. One person made a website that was a window into her neighborhood in Brooklyn. Another made a website that archived photos and video she took each day during the coronavirus in New Haven. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Did teaching remotely make you aware of how much you relied on any aspect of in-person class?

SC: It was hard. In class, you are able to see immediately what is going on with the students and their attention. When you are teaching online, students don’t start the video and sometimes it is hard to have the same enthusiasm you will have in a class setting. However, I never changed my goal for the class and the expectations. The students appreciated that. I think if you pay for an education, you should get it. I scheduled one-on-one meetings to make sure to keep everyone on track, and I found that helped keep everyone on the same page and push their work. Sometimes these meetings also become a moment for the students to share their personal experiences.

Bringing your class online, did you have any new tools or help for the student? Did you need to accommodate a university system?

Computer lab learning.

RM: Real time collaboration on various platforms was important all semester. At one point we did a collective Google Slides presentation about Internet art. We did a couple of reading discussions silently using Google Docs or Riseup Pad. We also used Glitch for demos and debugging together, and we used Google Forms to submit anonymous feedback, which I thought worked well. Next year I’d like to do a couple of collaborative coding exercises.

Whether it’s online or in person next semester, I think I’ll formalize the asynchronous part of class a bit more, whether that’s holding office hours, checking in via email, or asking students to give each other feedback during the week.

What about you? Did you use any new tools for helping with students?

SC: Luckily we were already using shared technology in our class since day one. For the readings we were using Are.na. I would post their readings there, and ask everyone to submit one question and one image. Each week, one student will try to answer their classmate's questions in class. I am planning now to use print.are.na to create a book collecting these questions and readings. Additionally, of course, I created a class website to share information and material easily, but I have to say, students didn’t really use it every week. Lastly, we used Google Drive, where I collected week by week all my slide and tutorial exercises. 

Did you need to change any of your pre-fixed goals? Like changing projects, adapting? 

RM: I made the final project very open-ended. My class was a mix of graduate students, sophomores, juniors, seniors, so everybody had different goals and levels of interest to begin with. The pandemic multiplied those differences, and made it clear that I should individualize my class. 

I offered that if anybody wanted to propose a project for the last half of the semester, I’d be open to helping them. If they didn’t have an idea, they could respond to my prompt, which was to make a website that could be a window into or out of a physical space. One student made an online exhibition of his friend’s photographs (Lifescapes in Time). Two other students worked together to start an online publishing project (We need to talk). One person made a portfolio site that used Are.na as a CMS (thanks to Eric Li’s ingenious workshop) (Form & Figure).

Eventually, even those students who had felt a bit paralyzed by the transition began to get inspired again.

If you had to teach this class again, what would you change? What opportunities for teaching in this moment would you take advantage of?

SC: Definitely the length of the class. I think students have limited time for full attention. Maybe I can pre-record the tutorial exercises (the coding aspect) and share it with them to allow them to digest on their own time. I would like to spend the time in class more usefully, like with discussions, guests, and conceptual framework.

How did you feel teaching a class that talks about the Internet during a global pandemic?

Internet usage in New York during COVID-19.

RM: It felt important! The ability to publish your work cheaply, distribute it, and get it into the hands of other people—qualities I think are inherent to the medium of graphic design—is so valuable right now, and I think that feeling will persist.

I will say that I taught my class from an artistic perspective. Creative endeavors have been important to me in this moment—as a distraction, or a way in which to process what’s going on, or an activity that is empowering—but they can also quickly seem beside the point, like they take too much energy, or don’t affect direct change.

One thing this pandemic did make me wonder, is how do you think teaching should respond to what’s going on in the world? 

I can see an argument that school, especially art school, should be productively insulated from current events, but it feels like a hard argument to make at this moment. Looking back at work I saw at the end of the semester, it’s impossible not to understand it as in some way a response to what’s going on now, even if the subject matter is personal, or abstract. I think that’s always the case, no matter the circumstances. 

What do you think about that? And if/how did the coronavirus change your opinion or your teaching with regard to this?

SC: Extremely! At Parsons, students were able to go back home, and not worry too much about being able to bring home money for rent. I was able to have guest lecturers from different backgrounds and interests. The students were still motivated, but less engaged with the class. At Hunter, I had students struggling to keep working, thinking about their personal lives, and getting an education. I needed to have a different approach; I needed to show that this type of class can help them to get a job and work remotely, and at the same time, that this class is an experiment. I’m a strong believer that education should be experimentation and not just a passing of knowledge. 

This pandemic definitely challenged my teaching practice and beliefs. In an historical moment where we finally realize that we can work for anyone everywhere, I needed to keep my students focused. At Hunter we analyzed what the current job market is requesting from the creative industry and communication. Having skills on ‘design for the web’ became one of the top priorities for a lot of small/independent companies. That’s why I am thinking of shaping my class differently in the future. I really would like to focus on CMS and databases and teaching coding skills around those topics.

Rosa McElheny is a graphic designer at Linked by Air and a lecturer at Yale University.

Simone Cutri is a graphic designer at Rockwell Group and part-time faculty at Parsons School of Design and Hunter College