At home, but not alone – connecting through collaboration and creativity

How can you teach from your front room? And how can you facilitate connections for a class of students based all over the world?

Well, in the Change Makers team, we designed a new virtual classroom using the Basecamp platform (see blog post here) for which the students and teachers had access 24/7. And we designated additional live sessions with staff from 8am to 9am to accommodate everyone’s availability.  I think these were invaluable – and in this blog I’d like to briefly outline three more things that I think also enhanced the capacity of students to connect with each other this year.   

  1. for collaborative research 

We partner with Engineers Without Borders UK to deliver two of our second-year modules that are focused on a case study community.  The ‘case study’ is always something unfamiliar to our students, and one that could therefore be a little overwhelming for students to work on individually. So, following soft systems methodology, we ask students to work in teams to create ‘rich pictures’ to help understand the community. These pictures are detailed maps of the dynamics between stakeholders and issues. Usually, students share large A2 pieces of paper to map out the dynamics and issues. But this year, collaborating on a shared piece of A2 paper was not possible. Therefore, I turned to, and students used its interactive boards to organise and present their team’s research.    

This year the community was actually two neighbouring towns on the coast of Peru, called Lobitos and Piedritas. And here is an Initial Rich Picture that one team created on to represent the issues in those towns.

An Initial rich picture created by a team of students depicting interrelated issues in Lobitos and Piedritas 

The features on Miro boards were ideal for us this year.  Most obviously, the boards can be edited in real time by multiple users, or alternatively amended asynchronously. And there are various functions to facilitate live chat, or add notes or other forms of communication for more asynchronous use. In practice, the students used these functions in tandem with WhatsApp, Basecamp and Zoom very effectively. 

The Miro Boards facilitated the accumulation of collaborative research

Here are the steps I took.  At the start of the module, I used for team-building activities, where students created pictures about themselves to share with others. Having got to know each other a little, the students could then better move on to the team-based research. 

During the research assignment, not only did students collaborate with members of their team, but the virtual nature of these boards made peer review between different teams easier to facilitate too. Obviously, no physical exchange of work was necessary. And I encouraged students to use as many symbols, colour codes and dynamics as possible, to represent the community and the relevant issues and power structures. Moreover, through the use of the frame and sequencing functions, the pictures could be developed into a navigable board for the viewer to explore themself.  

As the boards were very effective for presenting ideas and in facilitating comments, the communication of ideas was strong despite us not being there in person. And as with most peer-review, as students saw and evaluated what worked well for others, they tended to improve their own work. 

Finally, the first assessment for these modules involved a presentation of the research. And with the boards, creating a clear presentation was quite an intuitive task – which was what I wanted for the first assessment!   As the assessor, I could also drill down on the board’s analytics to see which team members had done what on each board.  

Most importantly, I would say students and staff could engage well with the boards, and crucially they engaged well with each other, which was a key aim!   

  1. Working in teams to create innovative designs  

After completing this research on Miro, students on the ‘Global Village: Innovation Challenge’ would go on to sketch design proposals to work up in teams.  Indeed, the opportunity to work with others on a design project seemed to be more valued this year. One student commented:- 

“I’ve loved gaining experience with designing a project… and being creative with solutions, as well as working within a team and meeting people from different courses.” 

Global Village: Innovation Challenge Student

It seemed that working creatively with others on a ‘real-world’ project stimulated particularly positive responses. Another student praised:  

“Being able to develop creative solutions for real-world problems and  collaborating with people from different courses.”

Global Village: Innovation Challenge Student

I do think this year our students worked together to create some fantastic and innovative designs. We had students develop full proposals for: a Greenhouse-Restaurant, a Local Eco Market, and a Community Wireless Mesh Network – to provide intranet and Internet for Lobitos and Piedritas.   

And here is a team discussing their proposal for Energy Free Refrigeration

There was also a proposal for an Electronic Power Outlet Lamppost – a wind powered lamppost, where phones could be recharged.  Finally, one team produced an excellent example of frugal innovation in their idea for a Seaweed Farm, partially constructed by old surfboards.  

So creative work in teams was very fruitful this year and appeared to be a welcome tonic for students.  Since the end of the module, we have entered the teams’ designs into the Engineers Without Borders UK’s Grand Finals of the Engineering for People Design Challenge this coming July. We will now wait and see how they fare!  

  1. Creating and exhibiting artwork  

For the Visual Arts Challenge module, after conducting research through the above rich pictures, students went on to create their own pieces of artwork.  In their comments to me it was noticeable how they praised the therapeutic potential of this, again mentioning its creative value, and also the context of doing a degree during the pandemic: 

“It was a stress relief during a week packed with lectures to do something I enjoy as a hobby but applying that for a meaningful cause.” 

Global Village: Visual Arts Challenge Student

“It was nice to forget about science for a few hours a week and get lost in creativity” 

Global Village: Visual Arts Challenge Student

In fact, a number of different students asked me for additional work, to continue with outside of the module. 

It is said that art is inherently social because it is made for others to view or experience.  This year, students commented on how they enjoyed creating their own work for exhibition to others, but also on how they enjoyed viewing others’ work:

“Viewing others work is very refreshing” 

Global Village: Visual Arts Challenge Student

One student on this module stated that her favourite aspect of the module was: 

“Working remotely to share our ideas with people with different cultures and to explore unfamiliar parts of the world” 

Global Village: Visual Arts Challenge Student

I think the novelty of the opportunity to share things was heightened.  On this module, these students engaged with the idea of making an exhibit from the start, producing some excellent sketches that led into striking final pieces. Students were inspired to produce images on themes of social relations, freedom and community – all of which were highly relevant to the case study community, and I think to our own situation in lockdown too.  

So here I’d like to end by sharing some of the images they produced, which you might find therapeutic to view as well:- 

Bird’s Eye Fishing by Shivani Raja 
The Boy in the Red Shorts by Shivani Raja 

Here Fatima Habib focuses on the centrality of water to our everyday lives, and how even though water is declared by the United Nations as a human right, limited access to water can leave people trapped. (Incidentally, that is actually a real plastic bottle with a figure placed inside it.) 

‘Water is a human right’ by Fatima Habib 

Mi-Tra Tran managed to portray the dynamics between three key stakeholders, something that had been portrayed on one of the rich pictures on Miro. And she did this in the style of the murals that can be found on the walls of Lobitos and Piedritas. 

‘Paradise’ by Mi-Tra Tran 

Finally, Panlada Trirotanan wanted to emphasise the importance of partnership to development and so created this image of two hands, mutually assisting and embracing each other. I think it’s a striking image, not just for this case study, but more broadly, and could well apply to aspirations that we’ve all had this year. 

‘Empowerment’ by Panlada Trirotanan 

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