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Online Teaching and Makerspaces: Incompatible, or the Logical Outcome?

In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the doors of most businesses and organizations in Canada. The Ville Cooperative was one of the organizations that suffered from the closure because no one could access the facilities. This, of course, included the Learning Lab. I had started as a postdoctoral fellow just that February and was about one month into developing programming for the Learning Lab, with the hopes of getting more people using the space and more classes being held there. The pandemic obviously put a severe kink in those plans.

The Ville’s team embodies the “pivot-and-adapt” mantra that has reluctantly become a survival strategy for most owners and operators during the last year. The team met through regular online video meetings, brainstorming ways we could support the community and each other during the lockdown, with an eye to helping the many people suddenly afflicted with uncertain finances. The afterschool staff started developing online content for the kids stuck at home (like this video on making healthy chocolate pudding) and the Marketing Manager and other team members started following government updates and disseminating the information through the Ville’s social media.

Meanwhile, the Learning Lab got started on figuring out how we could deliver education about hands-on skills without actually being in the same room with our participants.

The learning curve was steep. Who knew that teaching online is a special skill? Well, many people did, obviously, but many more learned, rather suddenly, that there is more to it than getting a Zoom account. But the real challenge was how to deliver course content that would fit the mandate of the Learning Lab. The Ville staff have lots of skills that they could teach, but we really wanted to find ways to keep connecting with the crafting, making, and urban farming community in meaningful ways as per the mission statement of the Ville. In looking for how to do this, we ultimately expanded the impact of the Ville by moving online.

How Can You Be a Makerspace Without People Making In the Space?

This brought up a fundamental question about makerspaces as community resources. Makerspaces are often conceptualized as places people can go to accomplish their vision when maintaining a workshop or studio space is not feasible. Additionally, the ideology of makerspaces often includes encouraging people not to have their own workshops as a way to increase interaction of community members, increase the flow of creativity and ideas, and cut down on conspicuous consumption of tools that ultimately won’t get used, but will instead gather dust on the shelf. So, is it against our mandate to offer distance learning?

An online class on aking beer box journals, using printed cardboard, re-used printer paper, and twine or ribbon for the binding.

I found myself looking at the skills I could pass along that would get people interested in the resources around them, like what might be lying around in their homes—recall that, in the early days, we were not allowed to leave our homes except for groceries—and that might lead to participants accessing their maker and farming communities to a greater extent in the future. This got me thinking about what causes people to become members of a community. It is difficult to access some skill-based communities if you do not yet have the skills. Because of this, I began teaching beginner drawing, painting, and archaeology—basic skills intended to give people the passion and understanding of the process to decide whether they might like to go further.

In my classes in the past, I have given people supply lists that added up to over $100 and specified precisely what materials I want the participants to work with. This time, I told students to gather together what they had and showed them how to use those materials to accomplish the projects we were doing. The difference in materials could be seen in how students approached their exercises, like the egg paintings shown above. There were a lot of crusty, dried-up paint tubes, but a surprising amount of fairly fresh, high-quality materials lying around people’s houses.

In the end, I realized that the courses we had taught online had reached further than in-person classes are able to do and had more lasting effects. Some students have continued to write to me since taking my class, letting me know about new things they are working on learning, and some keep on taking my classes (the highest compliment you can pay a teacher). Some of the participants were people who told me they were physically incapable of taking in-person classes because of the nature of their work or a physical limitation, so offering online classes for free or very little (as we did during the first phase of the pandemic) was incredibly important to them. Some admitted they would never have taken an in-person class because of their difficult schedules but were able to take my classes at their leisure after I sent out the recordings. Still other participants were children, one as young as 10 years old, who would not have had access to these lessons except through online courses. Realizing this touched me deeply because I would not have had the opportunity to meet many of these people in my in-person classes, either through the university or “leisure” learning. These experiences gave me a significant appreciation for online courses and their power to expand the boundaries of a community.

So in essence, the online classes very much furthered the aims of the Learning Lab. The participants (some of whom had never heard of the Ville before taking my classes) now looked forward to getting into the space when the pandemic is over, taking more classes and creating on their own. The community of makers and farmers grew, expanding into Nova Scotia, across Canada, and even across the US. Creativity was bolstered by the meeting of people from many different backgrounds who had a chance to talk to each other and show each other their work. And, the most important part: people got a chance to get inventive, finding ways to get the job done with what they had on hand, where before they might have just gone to the store and bought a tool or material they would use only once.

A colour wheel exercise.

Lessons Learned

Not all subject matter works equally well online. Hands-on skills can be challenging to teach when you are trying to demonstrate them using a webcam never designed for close-ups or capturing colour accurately. But some content can work even better than in person if it uses lots of images or video content. Here are the lessons we learned as a result of teaching online courses.

1. Keep PowerPoint to a minimum. PowerPoint seems like a good idea for online classes, because it can seamlessly be worked in and images can be of high quality compared with the video image, which may be very low. However, participants can start to lose the human connection and become disengaged. In the online forum, participants often divide their attention between the class they are watching and something else, and so presenting a PowerPoint presentation as opposed to an interactive human face can give them the impression they don’t need to pay very close attention.

Fiddleheads, shown as part of the Wildcrafting class offered online by the Ville in 2020.

One thing I found worked well was to mix up the formats, staying only briefly on one or another “mode.” For instance, I prepared a PowerPoint for most classes that was presented in 10 to 15 minutes and illustrated the basic principles of what we were learning that day. I would then switch back to demonstration mode to show how to apply the principles. Sometimes, I prepared a video (no longer than 10 minutes, preferably only 5) that I would play once people were working on their projects so they could look up every now and then but basically be engaged in the work. I spent a lot of time doing things on camera, but left a lot of time just to chat, check in, and so on. I found this format had a much better degree of engagement than a whole class of PowerPoint or of just talking.

One solution that I have found is choosing only a few images that really emphasize your points. Rather than putting them in a PowerPoint, I simply open them in an image viewer and share my screen. This way, you can spend time talking about all the details surrounding the image and how it relates to other things. But your own internal sense of boredom will kick in naturally, and when it does, you know it’s time to go back to talking-head mode.

2. Don’t go overboard with additional resources. One thing that many teachers and profs thought would be a great idea or even a necessity was making supplemental videos and reading materials (myself included). There are two problems with doing this. First is that many teachers (myself included) have reported feeling burnt out and working much more than usual trying to produce these additional resources. A good rule to follow for making a video, for instance, is that for every minute you take to film the video, you can count the edited version taking about four times longer to finish. You may be able to do this sometimes, and it may be enjoyable and rewarding. But, if you commit to doing it every week, you will likely get further and further behind as the class goes on.

cond problem is that this can overload your participants as well. Most people sign up for a class thinking of a traditional format, during which they will take in the information in the class, try the skill in the class, receive some homework, and work on the homework where possible throughout the week. If participants are expected also to watch additional videos, read extra material, or research extra stuff, they may feel guilty or resentful, even if those resources are optional. This contributes to disengagement. Instead, encourage participants to take the time between classes to work on the skill they are developing or just thinking about the subject matter.

Professor Matte Robinson, English Lit prof at St. Thomas University, recommended to his online students that they spend less time researching things on a computer than they normally would and more time thoroughly lost in reading, even if it is not for his course. He reports that his students now engage with him to a greater extent during his class, turning their cameras on more often and contributing to the discussion, and also contributing to their weekly blogs much more often. He also says that his students feel more comfortable approaching him with their concerns.

3. Give yourself time to get used to the online format. The tech problems, the weird sensation talking to a bunch of black squares, trying to be professional in your run-down basement…all of it is weird. And it’s okay that it’s weird. It is better to plunge in and make mistakes or have awkward moments than to wait until you think you have a handle on it. Just be forgiving of yourself if you feel that things don’t always go smoothly. You are not alone in this experience!

Possibly the worst background and lighting in the history of videoconferences. The students never once complained, though.

One way to cut down on weirdness and things going wrong is to make a set of rules, etiquette, and recommendations prior to the start of your class and send them out in an email. It is important to go over this protocol at the beginning of the first class so everyone is on the same page and you don’t feel awkward enforcing them. Here are some suggestions. First, let everyone know you would like them to mute themselves unless they have something to say. Next, let people know that their connections might not be good and, in this case, you may have to mute them. And most importantly, tell them that you are an expert in what the class is about, not an IT expert; as such, they will have to bear with you as you figure out this online learning thing. Give them the best ways to let you know if they are having a problem, like your email, and for the first couple of classes, check those accounts often before and during the class so no one gets left behind. But if someone is not able to connect or be heard despite being given all the information on how to do so, cut your losses and teach your class; you can’t be responsible for everyone’s success on computers. Just remember to be supportive and kind and to do your best to fix the problem in the future.

4. Don’t worry about production value. It isn’t a TV series for the BBC, so don’t worry about fancy editing or getting the framing just right. Also don’t worry if you screw up your lines. One mistake we all made in the beginning was trying to produce the kind of webinar you might see on Craftsy, but that’s not really what a live class is about. It’s about interacting with people, and people appreciate a person on the screen who is talking back to them. So, let yourself be a person! And don’t try to edit everything or you will be at it forever.

The one bit of editing I consistently do now that significantly adds value is to start the video at the place where I say, “Let’s get started!” and end it where I say, “Thanks so much everyone! Bye!” I also add an intro and outro just to be classy, but I only do that now that I have a template set up and can consistently drop the raw recording in, export the video, and go off to do something else while it takes five hours or whatever it is on my lo-fi computer. I tried to do significantly more than that for several of my courses and finally settled on this compromise which has kept me relatively on top of my classes over the past two months.

If you do fancy editing, the software you pay for are always going to be the best and have the fewest crashes, like Sony Vegas or Adobe Premiere. But, if this is just not in the budget, I have found Shotcut to be an excellent free video editing software.

A painting of a bottle by Connie Meyer Lane.

5. Leave space for discussions and questions. If you intend to have any interaction with your participants, you need to be prepared for the interactions to take two to three times more class time than they would in person. This means you have to think about how you want to structure your class. On the one hand, interaction is great for engagement and learning, but on the other hand, discussions can quickly become boring for other participants if they start to take up too much time.

I really like giving assignments, but assignments mean you need to have discussions. I found that discussions were taking up so much class time in one course I was teaching that I asked participants if we could move the discussion to a separate time. This didn’t work so well, because participants commit to one time slot when they start the class; typically, they have not budgeted for more time. As a result, I decided that, as much as I like giving homework, I needed to reduce this component. In its place, I asked participants to work on or research the things we had done in the class as part of their development, and I encouraged them to email me for feedback, but only if they wanted to. While this will feel pretty hands-off and structureless to many teachers, you have to compromise in some places if you are teaching online compared with in-person, and this might just be the place.

A homemade soil profile made of coffee grounds, swept-up dirt, flour from baking, and a few orange peels. Students were asked to collect these remains and then "excavate" them to study the stratigraphic profile, an important part of archaeology.

If you have anything to add to this list, or have a question or comment, please leave it for us in the comments!

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