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How a UX Prof adapted his teaching to go online

Submitted on Monday, January 04, 2021

In a typical class held in the Faculty of Information’s technologically enhanced active learning (TEAL) studio, Room 224 of the Bissell Building is filled with students gathered around tables, touching shared screens and interacting closely together on projects and assignments. Assistant Professor (Teaching Stream) Olivier St-Cyr, who designed the space for User Experience Design (UXD) students, has been developing teaching pedagogies around it since the studio opened in 2019.

When the Faculty announced in the summer that its fall term would be online, St-Cyr said he saw two choices. He could switch to a conventional online format or he could go in the completely opposite direction and try to recreate the Studio 224 experience online. The latter meant that St-Cyr would come to campus and teach from the empty classroom.

“I wanted to show students the experience they would get if they were in the studio. I wanted to give them as similar an experience as possible,” says St-Cyr. “I felt really bad that the students weren’t in the studio.”

But because the room had not been designed for remote learning, that meant adjustments had to be made. St-Cyr contacted the classroom’s equipment supplier, Kramer Electronics Canada, to brainstorm about what could be done. Together, they figured out a system where he hooked up laptops to each of the room’s multiple TV screens. With this setup, St-Cyr could go from tv to tv as if he was going group to group of students in the physical classroom.

But he was still missing a good camera that could zoom in, zoom out and follow him around the room. In his search for the right camera, St-Cyr started out researching what schools were using and ended up on YouTube watching church services where the priest or minister is moving in the church and has to be followed, not to mention ready for close-ups.

In the end, St-Cyr settled on the remote-controlled PTZ optic camera. “I got lucky because there were only two left in the GTA. The demand was crazy. They were back ordered 6 months,” says St-Cyr, who bought his camera and a tripod from The AVShop in Markham.

After playing with it for a couple of days, he moved into Room 224 and created a teaching station to record his lectures. He planned to use the so-called “flipped” technique of having students watch pre-recorded lectures and then use the class time to put design thinking to the test.

He had students get a markers and sticky notes and some even got whiteboards, which were optional. “I used the camera and would show them what they would do if they were in the studio,” says St-Cyr.

Olivier St-Cyr tweet

Unfortunately, four weeks into the term COVID cases started rising in Toronto so St-Cyr brought the camera and tripod home and began improvising from his basement. Under the circumstances, he says, the class is still going well with attendance strong.

“The biggest problem is that I miss seeing the students and meeting them. I love the human contact in the job,” says St-Cyr who also worries that students are overwhelmed and have Zoom fatigue. To keep them engaged, he uses breakout rooms, screen sharing and quizzes to ensure they are taking in the content.

Current work conditions have also made it possible for St-Cyr, who normally invites 50 to 60 people from industry to his classes each semester, to host guests, who couldn’t make it to campus under normal conditions. “Because we’re all remote now, I’m able to tap into a pool of industry experts that is much wider,” he says. In the future, he thinks he will offer both remote and in-person visit options for his guests.

He’s also considering allowing more remote participation in the UXD capstone course, where this Winter-2021 some student projects involve organizations in Vancouver, for example. “Normally I encourage students to go in person. But this year my call for proposals got sent to all sorts of community organizations across the country”, said St-Cyr. “If having a certain part of it remote helps people participate in our programs, then why not?”

Nor will the expensive camera be mothballed once the pandemic is over. St-Cyr plans to mount it on the ceiling of room 224 and make it a permanent piece of technology. As for pedagogy, he’s also hanging on to the recorded teaching models and contemplating integrating them into future courses. The flipped model gave him more time in class to provide examples and work with students.

“I did enjoy this type of practice,” says St-Cyr, “and it’s transferable to in-person and easily scalable.”