Dr. Juan Herreros, PhD, M. Arch
Professor of Professional Practice in Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University
Dr. Herreros teaches courses in Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, with class sizes around 12 students. Although his courses were typically taught full in-person, the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020 helped Dr. Herreros to see the limitations of the traditional system and the importance of thinking how to do things differently. Dr. Herreros met the moment by rethinking course activities to enhance student engagement and prioritizing partnerships throughout the course. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Herreros did in his course, what lessons and experiences he’s carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia.
Rethink Course Activities to Enhance Student Engagement
Leverage Digital Tools
When the pandemic started and we had to migrate from in-person to online teaching, the immediate response was to obsess over reproducing what we had before, but soon we discovered that online teaching has its own rules and should not try to emulate in-person education. If you just want to emulate the in-person experience, it will be imperfect, have a lot of limits, and will not allow us to get the true specific benefits of online teaching. The main goal was to understand these new rules and explore new opportunities. In this context, we have to be aware that technology is our friend but also perhaps a dangerous enemy, because of its power as an instrument of segregation. Instructors must develop a sensitivity to help students that cannot perform at their best because of the means at their disposal, or because their shyness does not allow them to be more participatory.
I designed a digital tool that was private to our learning community to stimulate the collective spirit of the group. It performed as a mix of an archive of bibliography and videos of interest for the students, a blog/repository of in progress projects to help teams work together in real time, and a kind of Miro board for presentations that performed as a card playing table for meeting and discussion.
The students updated the archive daily with their work. Materials they uploaded included in progress drawings of all kinds, diagrams, texts, and videos. The students were super generous in contributing to the growth of the shared digital space. Since it was all visible, we used it in class meetings and discussions and, of course, for final reviews with guest jurors.
This website may be rudimentary–I am not an expert in creating digital applications–but it demonstrates that ambitious things can be done. The response from the students was very positive and engaged. When I asked them to produce videos instead of conventional drawings as a more aligned document of communication with the digital culture, all the students accepted the challenge despite the difficulty of making fantastic productions that allowed them to discover unknown skills. At the final reviews and the End of the Year Show (EOYS), they were super proud of their achievements.
The idea for the digital tool emerged out of a need during the pandemic. Now I have the project of transforming this website into an archive of all my teaching activities and all my students’ work over the years that I have been teaching at Columbia in one place. I want it to be a super interactive tool where all my students, past, present, and future, would feel a sense of belonging, and make the continuity of their projects visible to others
The digital tool was quite complicated to create. Thankfully, I had the help of a fantastic team. The website was designed by a former Columbia student, Carsten Rodin, with the help of my TA, Jesse McCormick, and a collaborator in my office, Esteban Salcedo. I must give them credit because they interpreted my idea quite well and made it possible.
Invite virtual guest speakers
One of the most successful practices I started in the two years that we were teaching online, and that I continued doing since returning to in-person teaching, is to invite people from all around the world to attend the class to deliver short talks or comments on work in progress. These series of casual in-class engagements gave my students the feeling that the sessions, when all of us were immersed in the global lockdown, had a valuable uniqueness. The invited colleagues connected and explained to the students some foundational knowledge. For next semester, as part of my in-person program, I have invited virtual guests to engage with my students. This practice helps overcome the difficulty of having in-person guests, and can be an interesting ritual of hybrid education that for sure will be so extended in the coming future.
Encourage students to further develop their communication skills
Instruct students on the development of performance and non-verbal communication skills; being online brought attention to how valuable it is to provide this complementary training. The students received this education as a terrific valuable complementary skill, extremely useful for their future. As instructors, we may have to teach outside of our expertise to help our students learn about real life and how important it is to be able to present your ideas and to have good communication skills.
Prioritize Partnerships Throughout the Course
Partnerships with students
Some of my students were really good at using the digital tool and the video editing programs. I encouraged these students to help their peers in need of assistance. Putting the knowledge and skills of some students at the service of others helps to create a valuable culture of exchanges.
I have always stimulated the idea of creating collectivity in my teaching groups; it is a crucial part of my pedagogical practice. While teaching online, I systematically asked my students to do things on their own. To go out of their apartments with the restrictions of the pandemic for field explorations and bring this information to the sessions stimulated a feeling of belonging to the class beyond the screens of their computers. I tried to cultivate the feeling that although we were apart, the students were doing the same things individually and they had the opportunity to share with and learn from each other during Zoom class sessions. This was important to creating a collective spirit in the times of no physical contact.
Partnerships between students
Teamwork is something that we have to push our students to learn as it will serve them into their futures. Working in groups is really a super powerful instrument of developing not only knowledge but also communication skills, and especially the ability to listen, make decisions, and transform the conversation into a design instrument.
My courses have twelve students. I usually organize my class in four or six groups of three or two students each. Teams of three are the best size for my courses, especially if it is the student’s first experience working in a group. Contemporary teamwork goes beyond the idea of “working together.” I push students to be generous, to share and to discover the unknown through collaboration. A couple of times each semester I organize the one-on-one ritual consisting of students, or groups of students, sharing their work with others and receiving the comments of their fellows without the participation of the professor. I started doing this before the pandemic and discovered how valuable the experiment was for online teaching in the last two years.
We need to re-ritualize teamwork. I have written a few texts about producing architecture collectively, it is what I call “dialogue architecture,” where all the agents in the design process are invited to be part of the decision making. Conversation is the main instrument, and dialogue is more important than convincing. It is the sign of the times and seeing how difficult it is to start a professional practice on your own. It is crucial that our students know how to work with others. This could be part of a new pedagogy. Perhaps we should invent a new name for this assembly practice because when we talk about working in teams, it comes to our minds a super cliché idea that needs to be urgently renovated for the contemporary context.
Partnerships with TAs
The pandemic showed how valuable the role of the TAs can be as connectors between students and instructors. TAs can help and empower the students, immediately making them feel more capable and reducing pressure when faced with a complicated task.
Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia
Diversify modes of engagement.
Be aware that online teaching has its own potentialities and should not be obsessed about emulating in-person teaching. Do not summon everyone every time to allow those that participate less to feel comfortable. A diversification of situations and formats of meetings with your students is necessary to transform the online pedagogical environment into an exciting experience. Be a delicate observer about inequity between students in terms of quality of connectivity, time zone, communication skills. Since on-screen presence is so invasive, help your students to empower themselves in their presentations.
Encourage group meetings and in-person conversations.
One of the points to reinforce is that in online group meetings, it is easier to provoke the participation of the students, but it is important to be sensitive about the ones who do not take active part in the conversations.
On the other hand, because online sessions are so invasive, it is not the best environment for one-to-one conversations. I have found that even more introverted students always find the moment to have an informal in-person conversation with their instructors in a corridor or in a stairwell to formulate questions about their work, research references, next professional steps, or asking for help or support for scholarships. This informality is fantastic and difficult to have online. The online relationship is not as natural and creates a distance that makes student-professor encounters less informal, making it harder to have opportunities for students to connect with their instructor.
Encourage interdisciplinary and cross-institutional interactions.
Assuming that in-person teaching is a fundamental value in the construction of our community, we have discovered some strategies that could improve this practice thanks to online instruments. It is clear that we are going toward a hybrid model and there is a lot of work to do. Hybrid teaching could make it possible to create more transversal situations between students at different schools of Columbia. Architects could interact with Engineers, Sociologists, Scientists and so on. The creation of the big new collective beyond the walls of the buildings could be the beginning of a new era of disciplinary transversality (thinking, for example, in the fight against climate change). I imagine a future at Columbia where students interact with peers across schools. Collectively engaged as a whole, Columbia could do amazing things.
Partner with former students to open the door to the future.
Students are genuinely concerned about their future. In my pre-pandemic teaching practices, I organized several symposiums about young professional practice that, re-scheduled as a hybrid symposium, could be a great input.
Thanks to virtual communication tools, we can engage in partnerships with former students for research, but also for professional work. Many of our global students are now teaching in schools of architecture around the world and, thanks to online communications, we can accompany them in their beginnings. On the other hand, architecture global practice needs local partners and Columbia students are terrific thinkers and designers. I now have partners in different countries, and this is super valuable feedback on our teaching practices at Columbia and one of the hallmarks of the University: to have a network of students that we remain in dialogue with across different generations and different specialties. Partnership with students during their masters or after their graduation would allow instructors to tackle research projects thanks to virtual communication. Online resources are crucial to make this possible.
Professor Herreros would like to acknowledge the students that were involved in his Spring 2020 course that pivoted from in-person to online and experimented with new tools. The students include: Joud Al Shdaifat, Allison Fricke, Ian Yat Yeung Lee, Yixuan Cheng, Michael Mc Dowell, Frederico Gualberto Castello Branco, Guillermo Hevia, Alex Hudtwalcker Rey, Xiaoxuan Li, Farah Monib, Zihan Yu, and Mengzhe Zhang.