Reflection, Ian Burr: “Well, We Did Promise You a Virtual Experience” (Remote Teaching Reflection Series)

This reflection post is part of a series by staff members of the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) who have taught remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ian Burr is a Visual Design Specialist at ECDS.

by Ian Burr

This spring semester, our “Intro to 3D Visualization” class (co-taught with Arya Basu and Joseph Fritsch) already began with its own unique set of new challenges long before the coronavirus epidemic came to the United States. We had previously taught the class in our own digital visualization lab to a class of just six students. This meant each student had access to a powerful PC which we, the instructors, had administrative control over and could allow the students to use outside of class to work on their final projects. It also meant plenty of one-on-one time to help students learn the softwares 3D Studio Max and Unity; I liked to joke that between myself, Arya, and Joseph, our “pilot” semester in 2019 had an extraordinary student-faculty ratio of 2:1. The semester culminated in a final project for each student, which would be an interactive experience they created from scratch based on personal and academic interests, some problem that they wanted to solve.

Following the successes of that first class, we decided in 2020 to take on a more traditional class size. Scaling up our student roster to 18 students (later overloaded to 20) meant losing many of the in-house advantages of a small, controlled environment. We moved our class to a computer lab in the Math and Science Center, who—for their part—were wonderfully accommodating to our needs. Despite my initial concerns, we were successful in making sure each student got the individual support that is so crucial to learning both the complex concepts and commands of 3D modeling softwares. 3D, often an unintuitive and uncompromising medium, is bound to “break” as a beginner trying new things; the benefit of having an instructor on scene to explain why it breaks cannot be overstated. I adapted some lectures to be whole-class modeling efforts, we extended our office hours, and beyond a couple issues with PCs freezing during quizzes we did not have any pressing technical issues. Things were going smoothly right up until spring break.

Then, spring break never ended; at least, not in the usual sense. We and our students found ourselves without access to our classroom. “Well, we did promise you a virtual experience,” I remarked to students when we kicked off our first Zoom class after the break. Our normal approach to the class—following a lecture-based format with on-screen demonstrations coupled with consistent in-class exercises to apply each new technique—became much more difficult. Unless they had two monitors, students would have to constantly switch between the Zoom window and the 3D software window.

Compounding this issue was the problem of students’ unequal access to hardware at home. 3D Studio Max is a Windows-only program, so students with Macs had to VPN into their classroom computers to do all their modeling work. Students with older or less powerful laptops had issues with the high computing demands of 3D modeling and game engine softwares. Students with weaker internet connections had trouble following along with the remote lectures. We even had an instance where a student was unable to buy a computer mouse, which meant they had to do all their work using a trackpad. How could we hold each student to the same standards as usual in evaluating their final projects? We found that we could not. Individual circumstances had to be taken into account and worked around.

We changed our strategy to be more reliant on practicing the software outside of class, rather than during lectures, to minimize multitasking. We recorded all our lectures so that they were available asynchronously for international students. We became more lenient with deadlines, focusing on getting students to a point of completion for assignments over ensuring they met specific scheduling demands. At the same time, we emphasized more than ever the importance of working on the final project throughout the semester, to avoid students having to deal with last-minute technical issues on top of all the other stresses of finals season. Scheduled “office hours” became a thing of the past, as we were more or less on call for Zoom meetings with students throughout the day. We reserved the last couple weeks of lectures for open workshop sessions to help students with their final projects. None of these were perfect solutions, but together they helped. Almost all of our students ended up finishing the course and submitting a project. Most of them were quite impressive. However, none were totally unhindered by some aspect of remote learning and working.

It seems ironic that the more software-oriented a class is, the more difficult it is to translate to an online-only version. This Spring was particularly difficult for educators because we had courses that were designed entirely for in-person meetings, and we had to rapidly switch course midway through with little warning. We are very proud of what our students were able to achieve this semester. If we were to teach the class remotely again, we would need to plan it with these technical challenges in mind to ensure an equitable learning experience for all the students.

This post is the second in a three-part series on teaching the 3D Visualization and Interactive Media Design course; to read the first reflection post by Arya Basu, please visit this previous blog post; or, to read the third post in the series, please check out this blog post by Joe Fritsch.