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Dr. Lola Ben-Alon, PhD, M. Arch

Assistant Professor in Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University 

Dr. Ben-Alon teaches fundamental core courses required for the M.Arch program; these courses typically enroll about 80 to 90 students annually. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Ben-Alon had to rethink student engagement and interaction in large classes that were previously offered fully in-person. Dr. Ben-Alon met the moment by encouraging collaboration throughout the course, supporting active and engaged learning, and prioritizing connection with and between students. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Ben-Alon did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia. To dive deeper into Dr. Ben-Alon’s innovations, listen to her mini-series on natural and living building materials as part of the GSAPP Conversations podcast; from these conversations, she was able to bring the ideas shared with experts in the field into her virtual classroom. 

Encourage Collaboration Throughout the Course

When the pandemic started, there was a discussion across architecture schools in regards to the tools and platforms that could best support collaborative design in architectural pedagogy. Architecture students need a visual platform. They need a space where they can interact two- and three-dimensionally, where they can diagram, edit, post, and upload their visual brainstorming and design metaphors. As opposed to other fields, it’s not enough to have a forum such as Slack, it’s really about being able to see each other’s work, to have a whiteboard or a real canvas where you can actually work on and sketch, share your thought processes. That is really critical for designers and building professionals. 

Miro found its way through almost all architecture schools. It’s an interesting tool that has been expanding and it now feels like an integral part of architectural pedagogy. Having a collaborative and intuitive real-time whiteboard where everyone can see each other’s work in a virtual format, but also edit, sketch, comment, color code, note, add text, add a repository, and allows for visual and design thinking. Miro was super intuitive, and because it was used across all courses with the start of the pandemic, it was a collective shift of all instructors and all students. When you have a collective movement it’s inevitably easier.

Having the opportunity to visually depict students’ processes and document their work using a collaborative real-time asynchronous white board is critical to design thinkers. Beyond Miro, there are other emerging platforms, such as Figma, that are now part of all of my courses and research projects. Every project that I initiate has a collective whiteboard for participation and learning from each other’s work and processes. 

Support Active and Engaged Learning 

When teaching these large courses virtually, it can be hard to understand who’s behind the screen. I had to encourage participation through a myriad of ways, from engaging in small groups, whether it’s breaking into rooms, engaging in discussions where students introduce themselves, and most importantly, not being afraid of silence but going into and through the silence as a key technique to evoking more interaction. It was extremely important to remember people’s names and to ask them respectfully if they can turn on their cameras, if they feel comfortable doing so, so I can connect names to faces. I now see my former students around campus, and I recognize them from Zoom.

Active learning and flipped classroom approaches were things that I always incorporated in my teaching. There are always exercises in my classes, and students teach their peers through case studies and through their own experiences. During the pandemic, we needed to find substitutes for how to translate those practices online. My courses involve materiality and engaging students in hands-on work with materials, which is something that I was not able to incorporate in my Zoom teaching, unfortunately. There were students who found ways to order material samples to their homes. Other students were able to use materials that were available around their space. There were a couple of local students interested in Earth materials, so I guided them to a construction site nearby Columbia to gather soil samples from that site. These were ways of helping students get their hands dirty (See Figure A).

The pandemic also allowed us to bring more voices from a range of global regions. We Zoomed in wonderful guest speakers that would otherwise be very hard to bring in physically to the US. I was suddenly not limited to New York City. I can bring a guest speaker from anywhere in the world. I know it was available before the pandemic but there’s something about the pandemic that opened it up a bit more. I think it diversified our field and our pedagogical guest inquiries.

I would like to find more opportunities to bring in more materiality into my classrooms, alongisde guest speakers who can share from their experiences and practice. I continuously seek to introduce more hands-on modeling and hands-on creation into my large courses. This year, instead of creating video animations for the virtual classroom, students will be analyzing a case study and hopefully, developing a small-scale demonstration in groups.  

Prioritize Connection With and Between Students  

One of the things that was most important for me through online teaching was to create space for students to express their thoughts, interests, and concerns. In real life, we just bump into each other, in the elevator, café, or the stairway; we have time at the end or at the beginning of class to have an informal conversation. In-person classes can change very dynamically based on how things are happening. Zoom sessions changed this, and time between Zoom meetings became useful to rest from the screen fatigue. So I hosted Zoom open “coffee” hours, just like that: an open virtual space that allowed students to bring together their ideas and reactions. I would set up a Miro whiteboard and pose an inquiry such as, “How do you think building technology should catalyze equity?” We brainstormed on Miro around this question. (See Figures B and C). It was just an open hour. Something about this open structure allowed students to bring their voices and be critical, it was really powerful. 

I joined Columbia in the midst of the pandemic. When I first arrived at Columbia, there was no one on campus. Everyone was teaching from home, but I came to campus every day to teach from my office, so I could feel how it is to be situated on campus, to be situated in the school, in the buildings, near the classrooms. This allowed me to feel connected to the knowledge and lively source of this institution. I was hungry for in-person interaction and happy to return to in-person classes. I can’t say, “Zoom was wonderful.” I don’t want to be a romanticist who looks at digital utopias and says, “Oh, online teaching with Zoom is just amazing.” I am happy to be back in person. I am happy to not teach remotely anymore. I’m happy to see my students in person, to see their faces, to be able to interact with them; it’s more personal, relational. The warmth and energy are just different. The interactions and relationships are different. Also, I am noticing that the friendships and collaborations among students are different.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Create direct experiences. 

In the building professions, students learn by working with tactile offerings and materials, interacting with substances, constituencies, mix designs and assemblies. What if we expand this agenda to the rest of Columbia University? How can we bring matter into the classroom, whether it is financial, artistic, social, biological or engineered matter?. It’s also about going outside, to field trips to site visits, to engage in projects with, for, and by communities, or learn from communities as they engage within the university. We need to demystify the Western approach of Mind over Matter. We have to go outside our heads, outside our smartphones and computers, and outside our notebooks to be able to implement our work to catalyze change in the world.


Figure A: An example of a hands-on, in-work class session.

Figure A: Virtual Coffee Hour on environmental justice with M.Arch students with Prof. Ben-Alon; Miro board created by first-year students.

Figure B: Miro board created by second-year students. These students critically added their own categories and juxtapositions, interconnecting between the different challenges to show the inextricability inherent in this line of inquiry.