Lessons learned from a year of virtual class collaboration

Written by 
Emma Schnee
April 16, 2021

Do you remember walking into your first college lecture hall? The vast rows of empty seats. The quietness of the room as the professor stood at the front of the room and began class? The intense fear of being called on and not knowing the answer? 

Fast forward to today and the landscape of education is in a state of flux. While in-person classroom learning largely ceased to exist during the first year of the pandemic, what COVID-19 really did was accelerate a trend that was already beginning to unfold: virtual and hybrid learning. 

Undoubtedly teachers and students are eager to return to in-person instruction, but the move toward hybrid learning is a paradigm shift in terms of what is – and isn’t – absolutely necessary in order for engagement and learning to unfold. 

While desks, whiteboards and chairs in the same room might not be absolutely necessary, the most important elements to learning — engagement and collaboration — remain paramount. “The key to collaboration and engagement is trust between the teachers and the students and the students with each other,” says Mariana Somma, Lecturer of Innovation and Design at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. “This means the experience and the curation of that experience is the end goal.” 

As teachers scrambled last year to navigate their new roles as experience curators (and virtual facilitators), they quickly realized that beyond the obvious roadblocks to online learning (Zoom fatigue, distractions, lack of in-person communication queues), there were also some silver linings to be found. 

“I ended up treating the whole virtual classroom like a design constraint, rather than just throwing my hands up and saying ‘this doesn’t work,’” says Fred Leichter, the Founding Director of the Rick and Susan Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity at the Claremont Colleges and a Clinical Professor of Engineering at Harvey Mudd College. “Prior to the pandemic we had a strong bias toward physical tools, and we transitioned to using MURAL last Spring. I quickly learned that having this tactile, tangible thing for everyone to look at together really created that engagement and collaboration we had in the classroom.” 

Let the lack of shared space be an incentive to try new things

Much like in a boardroom meeting, if you want virtual and hybrid learning to work, you need to prepare your group (in this case students). By taking the time to show them how to be visually collaborative and how to interact with one another without all being in the same room, you can set them up for success. 

Previously, Leichter set up his room to encourage students to move around. Instead of having things arranged like a theater — that is, with everyone facing the same direction — he would set up pods of desks together so people weren’t just engaging with the lecturer but also with each other in more intimate conversations. 

In order to help recreate this feeling remotely, he leaned on virtual classroom warm-ups as well as regular breakout sessions on Zoom. 

For one warm-up Leichter placed 16 2x2’s in a mural and put various topics (like if they preferred coffee or tea, or if they preferred the beach or the mountains) on each one. The students spent some time going into each quadrant and voting on their individual preferences. “It was really fun to see all these interesting patterns emerge, and because it was in a mural we created this snapshot of our class and who they were that was just really cool.”

Leichter's students were able to learn about each other in much the same way it used to be conducted inside the same classroom.

Leichter’s classroom warmups allowed students with otherwise different mindsets to flex their muscles to share something about themselves or around the topic of discussion for the day. He also upped things a notch by sending out notebooks, LEGOs, pens, and pipe cleaners before the class began. Then, each week they would share a little something about what they’d created. To simplify this even further, the sketching itself could easily be done for the first five or 10 minutes of class — all within a mural.

🚀 Pro tip: Split your students up into two-person breakout rooms and have them take a few minutes to sketch one another using this warm-up template.  

Over at UC Berkeley, Somma used the transition into visual collaboration as a way to be vulnerable together as a class while they learned a new process. “Collaboration and engagement are two things that just don’t exist without one another,” she says. “So we really focused on being honest around how uncomfortable we were feeling. I looked to create engagement in collaborative settings by putting together breakout rooms for my students to regularly meet and learn how to work together. Because everyone has different work modes.”  

Both Leichter and Somma recognize the importance of connection to strengthen collaboration. "You can accelerate teamwork by having a shared experience or making something together. Find little ways to accelerate that so you have a shared experience or something you can laugh about later on, " Somma said. Her way of ensuring her students have that shared experience is to have her first official class assignment be a group meet up in-person (safely) or over Zoom for dinners and discussions as a way of creating some connections and encouraging diverse discussion.

Somma then curated class collaboration further by setting up a team charter for the class so they could learn best how to work together. Being able to do that within a mural allowed everyone to participate and feel more empowered to be honest about their goals for her class. It also served as a way to be open about how they best preferred to learn and be involved in group discussions. Doing this exercise at the start of the class helped everyone get to know each other in a very honest way. “If you don’t understand people’s motivations and incentives and what their particular situation is, then collaboration is a lot harder because you have less trust and empathy for one another.” 

Somma was able to use the class mural to set up a team charter and provide a single source of truth for upcoming events, focus areas and assignments.

Allow the learning and engagement to continue asynchronously

One of the benefits of conducting class discussions and work within a visual collaboration platform is the ability to see the semester’s work and findings unfold over time and lead to the culmination of something that the students and teacher can actually see. 

“A big part of the design thinking process is to trust the process and do the work,” says Somma. “When my students saw all of their work from the class unfold across a canvas, they had their Aha moment. They could see how x led to y — and the many iterations and strategies they had to test and discuss in order to arrive at z.” 

While work like this can be done on a physical whiteboard, by shifting the work to a digital canvas in MURAL, the students were free to tinker around with ideas and continue to collaborate easily outside of class. “A lot of projects can be very divide and conquer — you do your part and then I’ll do mine — but using the MURAL platform allows for collaboration both together in class and asynchronously outside of class. I had many students ask me to email them the link to the mural even after the semester ended so they could use it in job interviews to help speak to their innovation process. They were proud of their work.” 

Leichter found that working in a mural made students less distracted. Instead of staring at their square of video on the screen, they would be engaged in the canvas and interested in sharing their thoughts freely on sticky notes without having to raise their hand and speak in front of a room of other students. “Too many classes are like a time trial where students are rushing to get the same answer before they have to leave,” he says. “By working in a mural, the students can work more efficiently and collaboratively while also continuing their work on their own time.” 

Leichter was interested to find how using a video platform like Zoom complemented the use of MURAL."You still see each other but you are now using the audio, the computer, and the visual of the thing you are doing together and that is a more engaging sensation than just having a conversation." 

The future of education is visual

While Leichter and Somma will welcome students back into the classroom with open arms, the addition of visual collaboration in MURAL has given them insights into how to keep students more engaged with the topics they teach. “As a teacher I’ve learned that you have to be intentional and purposeful in the design of your classroom experience,” says Somma. “If you curate your lessons and lectures in this way you can anticipate some of the fluidity of classroom work that is repeatable. Whether we teach in person or virtual, these visual tools allow us to extend the classroom and collaboration beyond the two hours we meet. And the benefit of seeing your process on one board gives students a tangible artifact to use as they share their innovation process.”

About the authors

About the authors

Emma Schnee

Emma Schnee

Integrated Marketing Manager
Emma is a a marketing manager at MURAL where she champions the stories of educators, students, and nonprofits to highlight the creative and impactful ways they incorporate visual collaboration into their work. She is passionate about the intersection of social impact, business, and design.

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