The Bartlett


Transcript: Please Switch on your Cameras

Is online space real space? 


students, online, Alvaro, teaching, digital, Elizabeth, bartlett, technology, pandemic, realise, world, opportunity, interaction, classroom, space, experience, environment, people, colleagues, terms


Christoph Lindner, Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez, Theme music, Elizabeth Dow

Christoph Lindner  00:03

Hello, and welcome to Building Better, a podcast about life and research at The Bartlett and how we are trying to build better.

Christoph Lindner  00:15

My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I am also the Dean here at The Bartlett. In each episode, I'll be sitting down with other members of this community to explore a topic that captures a snapshot of what happens here, from innovative techniques to interdisciplinary ideas to groundbreaking results.

Christoph Lindner  00:43

To all of our returning listeners, thank you for joining us for season two, and to our new listeners a very warm welcome. If you enjoy this podcast, you may also want to listen to season one, which you can find wherever you're listening to this episode.

Christoph Lindner  01:04

For our first episode, in this new series, we will be exploring online space. Is it real space? Does it, should it, can it work in the same way and follow the same rules as physical space? These are big questions that we couldn't possibly answer in one episode. And so what we thought we would do is be a bit more specific and ask one really key question: what does or should an online classroom look like?

Christoph Lindner  01:40

And to answer this question, I've invited along two innovative educators from the Bartlett and our first guest today is Elizabeth Dow, an associate professor who leads the Architectural and Interdisciplinary Studies BSc program at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Elizabeth was awarded the UCL Provost Education Award in the Academic Support category earlier this year, for her work on supporting students through a new personal tutoring scheme. I'm also joined by Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez, a lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture, who also does research in digital manufacturing and augmented reality. Alvaro has worked on several architectural projects that use 3D printing, including the Digital Grotesque Project for the Pompidou Center in Paris, a seven-ton 3D printed sandstone structure.

Theme music  02:48

Christoph Lindner  02:54

So welcome. And to begin, I would love to ask you to share with us a little bit about your experience of teaching through the pandemic. Elizabeth, what was it like for you and your students?

Elizabeth Dow  03:00

I think probably everybody would agree it happened so quickly. So we had to adjust remarkably quickly. And those first few months went so went so fast, it's hard to sort of realise what we ought to think about. But I think the key thing for all of us at that point was the support that we got from colleagues, it was amazing how quickly we were all set up at home and able to support students, teaching wise, but also passed really, very quickly. I think the key thing for us is that we knew the students at that point, and that was really helpful. We'd met them from the outset, we knew everybody - what it was like to teach them face to face, we knew their personalities. So perhaps that adjustment was was quicker than it might have been otherwise. And also, I think the other thing was that there was an amazing honeymoon period that we all rushed home started teaching had no choice and the weather was amazing. So I think we were all just getting on with it. And those first few weeks.

Christoph Lindner  03:52

So, it was great to hear about things that did go well. But when the pandemic hit, and we made that sudden pivot to online teaching, did you right at the beginning think it was possible to pull off? And I ask that question because many of our programs in the Bartlett are studio based hands on programs that really require a lot of in person interaction being in rooms together for extended periods of time. And I think before the pandemic, many of us would have questioned whether we could do any kind of studio based teaching online.

Elizabeth Dow  04:21

Well, yes, I'd say most of us would have said if we've been given chance to think about it, we would have been very negative about it as a possibility. But again, we had no choice and that was possibly to our advantage. And I think architects and teaching architecture, we historically have been very inventive in terms of how we teach. I think we're probably a profession of problem solvers. So we sort of enjoy that and we jump quickly to coming up with solutions and without a doubt it wasn't the same experience for the students and no one in any shape or form would have thought that they you know that they were getting quite the experience that they had expected, that they had had up to that point, not least because so many that worked were having to leave the country, leave London, travel across the UK, travel across the world, getting home quickly. So there was a hiatus when everyone was getting themselves settled and getting themselves used to being online and interacting with each other. But, I'd say because we had no choice and because we had no opportunity to prepare, it went really well. But it also perhaps gave us the opportunity to see where things could be improved given time. And we realized where things weren't working ideally online. So I guess that's my experience.

Christoph Lindner  05:28

I love that idea of inventive problem solvers, that that's what we do. That's who we are. Alvaro, let's bring you in what was the pandemic like for you and your students?

Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez  05:37

I would agree that everything was so quickly that at the beginning, we couldn't really think about it. And also I would agree like the first set of students, because in my master's is like, every year, we have different students, it's just a one year program, so with the ones that we really knew from before pandemia was very easy to adapt, the only thing obviously, we have to change to a less hands on approach, because usually, our research is more like prototype based, which was very difficult to produce during the pandemic. But at the same time, it was good, because it pushed us to explore different concepts, or new ideas regarding our research field. So, obviously every crisis, there is two sides. That is the bad side of the crisis, but also the innovative thing that is posed by the crisis to adapt and to solve it. The second year was a bit more tricky, because to not to know the students, obviously, it's a difficult barrier for us, because to produce such a different research and data and architecture because obviously we're focused on augmented reality and virtual reality, and understand the realities, in general. It's way easier when you have a very close contact in the studio with the students and you can really follow them and guide them in a day to day basis, while with the remote teaching is not that easy to get the same engagement from the students, they don't feel as close as they used to feel before to the teaching. So that's a big change. But I think we over commit, I will say, in an acceptable way [laughs]. And I think now obviously, thankfully, we are thinking back to a more personal and close teaching again. So that sounds good, but with the new ideas, that is the the optimistic part.

Christoph Lindner  07:17

So part of what I'm hearing is that both of you embraced the opportunity to innovate, that was created by the pivot to online teaching. And I'd love to hear a bit more about what specifically, concretely is different about teaching online. So how does the online medium, the online delivery change maybe your pedagogy, the curriculum, the experience in the classroom? Can you give us some concrete examples?

Elizabeth Dow  07:47

I mean, as I was saying, right, we have this amazingly quick shift to online teaching. And a lot of that wouldn't have been possible without our colleagues in the Arena Department, Arena Organisation. Because they were able to jump straight in and teach those of us and I have to admit that I was one of them, who had almost zero online teaching experience. I'd run away from it at every opportunity and suddenly I had to get involved and that was great. So it forced me to think like that, but also to come to realise that my students probably already had some knowledge of that. And actually probably were initially were certainly more experienced in that world. And again, in the Bartlett School of Architecture, we have this fantastic team in the workshop in B-made, who were really amazingly innovative in terms of how normally what they'd have been able to do as support students who popped down to the workshop and have ideas, want to make things and that would all be face to face. But suddenly, they had to address that idea of making online, which has obviously an additional support to anything we're doing in terms of, you know, face to face or online design teaching. But they were remarkably inventive in terms of putting up little films, little workshops and opportunities for students to realise they could carry on making from home whilst the facilities weren't physically accessible to them. All that knowledge was. And that meant that we were talking to our colleagues in a way that perhaps we hadn't been when we're all in the building together, which was, which was a revelation for me.

Christoph Lindner  09:07

And Alvaro, what about some concrete examples from your experience of online teaching, and the ways in which it is different?

Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez  09:16

Yeah, definitely. It has changed the way we approach the whole unit. The fact that we couldn't access anymore PC prototyping made us clear that we should explore other areas of the knowledge that is related to the extended reality, no? So basically, this year, what from the starting of the pandemia, we started to research about what AI could do in our case. And for example, we started to explore platforms, online platforms as a way to introduce augmented reality for manufacturing through platforms as in a gig economy environment, or for example, this year, or this last year, what exactly we could do it to the extended reality or even the metaverse technologies. So, so popular these days with how with augmented reality, we could basically change the way we perceive the city. So therefore, we had new ways to explore what are the capabilities or the options that are augmented or extended reality gives or could give us in the future. So some very interesting trends from augmented manufacturing, which was basically the main focus of the agenda before the pandemia. Now, it is branching in several other directions that are also super interesting and super relevant, I think, for what is coming.

Theme music  10:32

Christoph Lindner  10:38

So you mentioned the future and what is coming, and I want to put you both a little bit in the hot seat, you and your colleagues, and really, the whole of higher education has very quickly learned how to deliver everything we do in an online way. But now that we're getting through what we hope is the worst of the pandemic, and we're able to welcome students back into our classrooms back into our studios, we have some big choices ahead. How much of our teaching do we want to do in person? Is there still a rationale for doing some of our teaching online? And I'm wondering what you think about this, if you imagine the ideal future of teaching over the coming years? What place if any, does online teaching have in that future? Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Dow  11:26

That's really a tricky one, isn't it? Because I mean, we've talked about how we were sort of essentially forced into that situation. In terms of online teaching, maybe it's not the teachings much, but certain approaches to how we support our students and what we asked them to do, perhaps would be the angle I'd come at it from. So I think one thing we noticed was obviously, for a long time, we're a school that really supports students printing their work and you know that that's incredibly expensive. Suddenly going online, realising that obviously, so many of our students work was initially, you know, on their computer, it was a digital piece of work and it could stay there. And I think that was really quite important to understand how that could be shared with other students how that could be seen, and also very sort of practically, students could save money. So that's an obvious advantage to how online or the advantages of online teaching can be realised. In terms of whether there's a place for it in the future. Yes, I'd say definitely where there's repetition. So so often, I think I've heard from colleagues where they've really enjoyed the potential where they might have set up a workshop, recorded it and suddenly seeing the opportunity for that to be repeated, to be used as a tool for years to come, months to come and across different cohorts of students. So I think that's seen as a huge advantage. I've struggled personally in recent weeks in terms of trying to teach students who some are in the room, and some who aren't. And for me, that's a huge challenge and maybe not for other colleagues. But I find that very dislocating for myself, but I'd say for the students who are and aren't in the room as well. So for me, the best sort of way for online teaching would be either one or the other to have everybody in the room or everyone online. Because for me the compromise doesn't quite work. So I don't I don't see that as the future.

Christoph Lindner  13:04

I think it's really interesting that keeping certain things digital going forward, could be a really attractive thing. And you didn't mention the sustainability impact of not printing mounds and mounds and reams and reams of paper. And there might be other ways in which the work that we do could be rendered more sustainable by embracing digital representation, digital making, digital sharing, and so on. And so Alvaro, what are your thoughts on this? I mean, you you work in fields quite closely connected to Elizabeth's is your experience very similar?

Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez  13:40

Yeah, I think in a way, yes. So I can see there will be some the digital for sure, we'll continue in some areas. With our lab, for example, I see like all augmented reality digital skills or things like that could remain digital and we could save time and money and resources to everyone in that sense, but in a way, the core part of the teaching like the studio teaching, will I think come back in person because it's more efficient. Obviously, there are situations where it could go digital, like Elizabeth was saying when something is more or less like a quick review or something that just, has the right speed and you need us to only check this going well. In these situations, looks like the digital could be an option. But for sure what is a very strange place is this hybrid moment when you have online students and physically students at the same time, and I don't think no one is really present. Like I have a feeling that it's very difficult, especially for your online students to follow when there is a physical class happening. Maybe it's a matter of improving the technology I'm not 100% sure on this but looks like it generates some strange scenarios because obviously the interaction is very different. Like, when you are doing an online interaction it is a completely different approach than when we are doing a physical interaction with someone teaching. I think that still it's not in the place that we could normally use it. I mean, as an exception it could work. But I don't see that as a decision for now, maybe if technology changes and we move to a point when this is super natural and accessible. But this point, I think, it's clear that we need to differentiate moments for online and for in person teaching.

Christoph Lindner  15:25

So I think it's really important that you are mentioning future technology and if technology changes, it could again change how we do and do not bring online teaching into our programs. And, I hope I don't sound really old fashioned and out of touch, but one of the things that's been really disappointing to me about the whole pivot to online are the limitations in technology. So you know, moving into an online learning environment was nothing like the film The Matrix where you immerse yourself in an alternate computer generated dream world, and you're wearing really cool futuristic steampunk clothing and there's lots of Kung Fu and video stuff going on. Nor do we have a situation where you have hybrid teaching, and people can beam avatars to sit around the table to represent them in the classroom space. In a way, I wonder if what's holding us back in the ability to have super productive, super immersive, super collaborative online learning experiences is the fact that our technology cannot yet do what we want it to do by bridging the gaps between the real and the digital. Do you have thoughts on that? Is that... can technology get us over this?

Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez  16:35

I think it can. Because I'm very close in relation with all the computer vision technologies that are being developed now and they are like super new or innovative, I think it will eventually happen. It's just now that what is accessible for the normal user is not as powerful. We are starting to see these sorts of technologies. Like for example, there are some forms that they already have: cameras that can recognise a space and with elements create, like digital environments through the camera. But they're just rudimentary, like, obviously, the technology needs to get cheaper and accessible in order to produce these sort of situations, because the main issue or the most complicated part of this digital environment, is to read what is happening into the real environment and translate it into the digital environment, that is there the difficult step. Because the rest of the analogy kind of exists, like VR goggles or AR goggles, they already exist, they are available for people to buy. And the technology is quite good in general, especially for the VR they are more advanced or more user ready, I would say. But it's just a process of translating what is happening, the reality to the digital world, what is still lagging behind, and I think will be solved because now many companies already heavily invest in that. So I think it's possible that in few years, I cannot guess how many, in a few years we could we could see a better integration of the reality into the virtual world for sure.

Christoph Lindner  18:05

This makes me think of the philosophical question behind the topic of this episode. So I began by saying we're going to explore whether online space is real. And I think bundled up in that question is this philosophical dilemma about what is real? Where is real? How is real? So we've been talking throughout this conversation about real, in person teaching, and then this digital simulated experience that happens online. But is it fair to make those kinds of differentiations? Elizabeth, do you have thoughts on this about the way in which we continue to prioritise the physical and the material as being somehow more real than the digital, the virtual and so on?

Elizabeth Dow  18:52

I think the issue is, it's when we tried to literally replicate the face to face online as where, in retrospect, it begins to go a bit wrong, because those two things I'd say aren't the same. They aren't the same sort of space. And we took time to discover the advantages and how we could make that digital space different, just very practical things. I mean, within school, we obviously have a thing called a design review where students pin up their work and at certain key points in the year we talk about that. And it's a lovely opportunity for everyone to come together, look at each other's work. Can be quite sort of stressful experience when you do it face to face, in terms of the logistics of pinning up work and all those sort of time factors and printing what you're saying yourself in terms of the financial issues associated with that and sustainability issues. But online suddenly it became, it has become I'm not saying we've actually as a university, we've begun to address the potential of that on a very practical level. So suddenly, with these design reviews, you get external critics in, you get someone who's in practice someone who teaches the other side of the world. And if you're lucky enough, they're in London so they can come along and see your students work. We suddenly realise that we could we could get anybody, not anybody, obviously, anyone who's prepared to come and they'd be in different time zones and supporting our students and talking with each other, and suddenly that environment became really exciting in a way that, you know, not that it couldn't face to face but the logistics of getting everyone in the same room at the same time just wasn't possible. And I feel trying to be more inventive with that and thinking about how the crit might operate less so in our in my teaching experience, but across AIS and other modules, a lot of people have been using the software Miro and seeing that as a way to replicate students all having their work on the wall at the same time of being able to sort of orientate that like you might face to face in the classroom when everyone has pinned stuff up on a wall and put models on the table. And again, trying to be more inventive, trying to not literally replicate that, but trying different ways to sort of reinvent that experience and make it better. So I could see the differences and the opportunities for face to face being not not purely replicated, but sort of somehow reinvented online.

Christoph Lindner  20:46

I think that word replicate is really important here. And I personally love the call that you're making to let go of the in person classroom approach, and to be open to reinventing what a classroom looks like and how it works in an online space. What I also hear that to me sounds very positive, is that driving these spaces, whether they're the physical space, or the online space are the values that run through our educational practice. So I think both Alvaro and Elizabeth, I've heard you at various points, advocate for the importance of collaboration, for interpersonal connection. So whether we're in person or online, we are always seeking to find ways to connect together, to be together. And so Alvaro, if you think about that side of education, that it's about putting people in a space together, regardless of how that space is constructed, or where it's located, where might things go in the future? Could you imagine really radical new ways of doing design studios that make use of the virtual, the digital in the future?

Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez  21:54

Yeah, I think it will eventually happen. Like, I can see like after this online situation all over the world, I can see many universities are very interested in this sort of teaching to what basically Elizabeth was saying to attract people from other sides of the world to teach for maybe for a specific term or something like that in a more efficient way than brought in the person into the actual university. But online, I can see many of my partners have been teaching across the world during this pandemic, because they were teaching online. And I think this will definitely push for some sort of digital environments that can allow for better online teaching in the future with this sort of approach like it will, I don't know exactly how we will be, like maybe it's closer to what we see in a science fiction films or something like that, that we can see like a virtual imitation environment, or maybe something more abstract as an improved version of what we have with Zoom or Miro or Teams like in some sort of interconnected sort of platform that can allow all those interactions in a more abstract way. I don't know, let's see, maybe it could be both on different times, eventually, I think that could be the case that it will exist this alternative, especially for maybe universities that are growing to attract talent in a more accessible way, for example, that could be very important for this environment.

Christoph Lindner  23:23

We are feeling a great urgency to come back together in physical space, because we've missed being with each other in rooms. And some of the rooms that we teach in at the Bartlett are fantastic and beautiful and custom designed for the form of teaching that occurs in there. But let's face it, like all universities, we also have other rooms, other spaces that are not really ideal, maybe not enough light, maybe not enough desks to fit everybody. Maybe the radiator makes, you know, weird noises in the corner, things like that. And I wonder if we imagine what a future online learning environment looks like, if it gives us an opportunity to actually transcend some of the really mundane, practical but real problems that we have in the real world. So if we could imagine a classroom of the future where there was always enough space, where there was a way for everybody's voice to be equally heard and amplified, where the "furniture", the infrastructure of the learning environment could be completely state of the art and comfortable for every user, regardless of where they're located or what their abilities are like and so on. I wonder if the online in some ways represents an opportunity to be more inclusive in the way that we teach.

Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez  24:37

I totally agree with that, I think it will be more inclusive, like, one of the things that technology has, especially in these sort of situations is it democratises access, for example, architecture degree or a bachelor that really requires a lot of resources from from the student, a lot capabilities from from the student like, physical capabilities, I mean, and now, that obviously leaves people out sometimes, while if you focus in technology like a pure digital environments, this is not going to be a problem. If someone has budget issues for making models for printing or, or some sort of disability that impedes them to create models or beautiful models all of these things can be overcome by technology and basically give more accessibility to any sort of student because now, you can see like all the Zoom calls, or whatever meetings that they are like, they all have captions for people that they struggle with the language or things like that. So they are getting more inclusive, definitely, and will help to really facilitate the access to a wider range of people to the architectural teaching and learning environment.

Elizabeth Dow  25:49

Before we get to that point, I feel we do need to address where we feel there's perhaps some inequities being brought about by online learning, we've all been in teaching situations where students haven't turned their camera on, don't feel comfortable, turning their camera on, maybe not engaging in the way that they might have, were they in the room, and just exhaustion as well. The online teaching can be exhausting for everyone and, and physically as well as mentally, and I feel we need to really think about about trying to address those things before we necessarily I mean, I don't doubt whatever Alvaro's saying - there are huge potentials for inclusivity, much more inclusivity in terms of online teaching. But at the moment I feel there's some glitches, insofar as I feel some students aren't quite, you know, aren't quite getting the experience we'd want them to, and how do we address that. I mean, that's the really key thing for me before we almost go on to that next stage.

Christoph Lindner  26:35

And there are very basic things that we all need in order to access online education, such as computers, and internet access. And as we learned during the pandemic, not everybody has stable or equal access to those things and that represents a very real barrier for some of our students

Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez  26:53

I totally agree and I think it's true, like, we need to adjust, still, we are not fully ready for for this, it will take time, and also the society will need to adjust to it as Elizabeth suggests. I know, my students get super shy because of cameras and interactions online, I think it's a matter of they will get used to it, like they will understand that is the same as an original interaction. And, and even now, like just as a side note, like, I know, in Asian countries, they are now using digital avatars that read the person and transform the full image into something different. And so they don't need to show you their real self into the interaction. So let's see what happens. But yeah, we need to adjust, I agree with that.

Elizabeth Dow  27:38

It's also really important that how we get on with each other because in a school of architecture, there's so much contact time between tutors, and also between students themselves, and how to, you know how we find a way to replicate that. The lockdown happened when most of our students already knew each other and they knew us. Whereas obviously, starting from scratch was a very different scenario where students had never met each other had never been in the building. So trying to talk about those things to talk about education, the context of the physical world that we taught in. And, you know, our colleagues, our team of colleagues across the across the program, getting people to understand who they were, but also physically where they placed within the building was a real challenge. And it is that extra curricular side that we can't ignore that's so important to students as well to get to know each other to be, you know, seeing each other face to face, you know, sharing experiences, visiting places, just socialising, and trying to find a means to do that, because not just about delivering a fantastic education, which I think hopefully, hopefully, that's something we have done, we are doing and have adapted to in the best way possible. It's trying to replicate those other really important sides of being in a university, those friends you meet, and will work with the rest of your lives. And those surprised contacts you make. So I feel part of the the online experience, if it can't be replicated, then we have to think about how we can offer that or how we can facilitate that or support students achieving that.

Christoph Lindner  28:59

Beautiful sentiments, Elizabeth and I find that a very compelling vision for what education can and should be. It's not just what happens in the classroom, it's the the whole experience of spending time with others, building friendships, having experiences in and out of university...

Theme music  29:19

Christoph Lindner  29:19

So thank you so much for answering all of these questions that I've been firing at you. But before I let you go, Alvaro and Elizabeth, there's one more question that I want to ask each of you looking to the future, what is the one thing that needs to change so that we can build better? What do you think, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Dow  29:38

I would say and this may be not quite the answer you would expect, but I'd say it's just understanding each other better, having empathy for each other and really putting ourselves in each other's shoes. And I think that sort of has happened in recent months, that across the year where we've all had to understand that we've all got very challenging jobs and very challenging, you know, challenging sort of experience being a student in this time and trying to find means for us to be more empathetic for each other and really think through other people's circumstances before we sort of try and assume a problem can be solved.

Christoph Lindner  30:10

And Alvaro if there's one thing that you think needs to change so that we can build better, what would that be?

Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez  30:16

Yeah, I will also, I'll be here with Elizabeth, like, we need to have a very open mind and, like, try to open even more or minds in the future and understand that with all those changes, we need to be able to adapt them and to embrace them because they are going to happen whether we want or not. And I we just need to understand how to use them in the in the right way, how we can include and expand the access for everybody to this world, because so far, in general we've been isolated in a way and now with technology, I think, in these environments, we can really expand it for a better user access and understanding I think.

Christoph Lindner  30:58

And on that note, let me thank both of our guests.

Christoph Lindner  31:03

You have been listening to Building Better the Bartlett podcast. This episode was presented by myself Christoph Lindner, produced by UCL with support from the Bartlett communications team, and edited by Cerys Bradley.

Christoph Lindner  31:19

It featured music from Blue Dot sessions.

Christoph Lindner  31:22

I was joined today by Elizabeth Dow and Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez. And if you would like to hear more of these podcasts, please subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/buildingbetter. And of course, you can follow us @thebartlettUCL.

Christoph Lindner  31:44

This podcast is brought to you by The Bartlett, UCL's Global Faculty of the Built Environment and UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through events, digital content, and activities that are open to everyone. We'll see you next month.

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