Fresh Perspectives Interview with Prof. Ceasar McDowell & Prof. Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou

Building Community in the Classroom

Ceasar McDowell, Professor of the Practice of Community Development, Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou, Visiting Scholar, Program in Media Arts and Sciences

Class: Constructive Communication Systems: Facilitated Dialogue, Technology, and Design, MAS.S69
Semesters: Spring 2021
MIT Department: Media Arts and Sciences

Key Takeaways

  • Virtual spaces can complement in-person classes by providing students with alternative methods of engagement. 
  • Both students and instructors take time to learn new tools, so instructors should start small and scaffold the process of adopting and using new tools. 
  • The creation of a successful virtual classroom space requires visual literacy. The layout and formatting will shape how students interact with the space and which content they deem important or compelling. 

Interview Transcript

00:00 What class did you teach and how did you structure it to work remotely? 

DIMITRA DIMITRAKOPOULOU: Well, the course is called Constructive Communication Systems, Facilitated Dialogue Technology and Design. And what we really try to accomplish in this course is to focus on the art and science of designing and facilitating constructive communication spaces that can actually help communities to navigate diversity and experiment with the interplay between human and system dynamics.

We built a lot of visual spaces with artifacts for the students. So a lot of our teaching was based on seeing things differently from a design perspective and bringing them into the space with different visual prompts and different activities that they could engage in.

So we wanted to see what kind of materials and media we could use to engage all their senses and also support their learning activities.

CEASAR MCDOWELL: We have to do reflections about– a lot of classes have been doing reflections in the past where they have students write some things and maybe put it on the Canvas discussion board or something like this. But this idea that you can add a visual dimension to people doing that and then having the class be able to track that and look at that over time really requires you to use a different technology at the same time.

DIMITRA DIMITRAKOPOULOU: So there was always like a loop forming in our classes worth trying. We were starting with deconstructing the activity and the ask and then at the end we were putting everything together, trying to close the learning loop. And we were always finishing with an asynchronous reflection session in which students were usually asked to challenge themselves to think about something that they used to think and something that they think now after all the learning that happened.

02:07 What advice would you give to an instructor hoping to create virtual learning spaces?

CEASAR MCDOWELL: It’s about designing an environment because you’re in a really different space and paying attention to the aesthetic elements of the way the colors work, the way the graphics work and everything in order to have that space work for you, right? So part of what that suggests to me, going forward, is not all of us– I consider even myself– have that skill set.

So when you’re moving into this kind of space, if you really want to accentuate and really use these more visual spaces or virtual spaces, people are going to need design support to do that, right? Really, we’re using these things like we are, so you really need– that’s what they’re set up for. And the more you have of that– kind of some design skills, someone who understands those aspects of things– the more effective it’s going to be.

DIMITRA DIMITRAKOPOULOU: Well, it was important for us when students entered such a space not just to have to focus on the task but also on the experience. As Ceasar mentioned, the colors that we use, different icons, the way the different steps of the activity were laid out.

So all of these components, they added to the experience of an activity. It wasn’t just a prompt. It wasn’t just an ask for people– for students– to do. But we kind of focused on creating that as an experience for students to immerse in.

CEASAR MCDOWELL: I think the tools are pretty simple. I think it is the visual literacy, really understanding what is needed to kind of use a visual tool for teaching.

DIMITRA DIMITRAKOPOULOU: So make it fun. Make it creative. Make it easy going, and make it enjoyable. This is what we try to accomplish, not make this another thing that they had to learn, but actually looking forward to being engaged in these processes.

CEASAR MCDOWELL: We will converse with you on art and the more you can do. But even if a simple level is just really understanding that you’re communicating visually what that means and what it can allow you to offset with what you’re doing.

If you’re in the classroom with someone talking, and you have this awesome visual space, the relationship between those two and what it can allow you to– what things you can move into that virtually that you were doing in the face-to-face that you don’t have to do because this other space can hold that piece for you.

04:36 What takeaways do you expect to bring back to in-person learning?

CEASAR MCDOWELL: Bound the level of experimentation you’re doing in the class with some of these new tools because it can get confusing for the students. If we use art, I think we have to do that same thing as we move to this environment because it’s still some experimentation. There’s many bounds of spaces in which experimentation.

So maybe your experimentation really happens in the reflection activities or maybe it happens in your lecture activities. And you try to form that and just let it stick for long enough to use, but not change a lot. I think that’s something that, at least for me, was kind of a lesson going forward.

And I think it’s going to be a really interesting learning for strategy is how to use some of the robust tools that are virtual. So if you lose your voice and stuff like that when you are actually in a face-to-face, how can they support what you’re going to be doing later? How can they support the history of the class?

DIMITRA DIMITRAKOPOULOU: What I think is quite empowering in this virtual environment is that you can create virtual spaces for all the students to join. Sometimes when you’re in the classroom, the student that may feel more confident in the language or in just speaking up their thoughts may just take more time and space in the classroom.

But complementing the discussion during the class with these virtual spaces, I think it creates a more equitable classroom because they give to– it provides to all the students the space to interact, the space to reflect, and to also to build on each other’s ideas.

CEASAR MCDOWELL: I think we learned a lot about what we can do better in a highly kind of virtual environment. We’ve already known a lot of what we can do with this physical environment. And so now, it’s going to be some blending where we’re going, I think really recognizing this– the strengths both of those offer.