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Virtual Learning Environments in Hong Kong: the digital design studio: when needs must

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Many of us have watched the social and political developments unfold on the streets of Hong Kong (HK) since last summer. Due to the ongoing protests and then the subsequent outbreak of the coronavirus, university campuses in HK have been closed to students and staff since November, 2019. When face-to-face interaction is forbidden, traditional methods of engagement need to be scrapped and replaced with innovative, creative and technologically driven modes of teaching. In this article, we examine the virtual learning environment (VLE) that has been adopted, at pace, at the Caritas Bianchi College of Careers.

In my first article for Kit Plus Magazine (Issue 142: March/ April, 2020: Industry-Education), I described how I have worked with ‘live’ projects and ‘real’ clients at the University of Portsmouth School of Architecture for the past 12 years. One of my other roles at the University is working as the Programme Coordinator for three top-up degree courses which are taught at the Caritas Bianchi College of Careers in Hong Kong. When I began working on this collaborative partnership almost three years ago, I did not imagine that the very strong working relationship that has developed between University of Portsmouth and Caritas colleagues would be challenged by such major social and political disruptions to the academic timetable. This article is written in the form of an interview between myself and my Caritas colleague Sami Hasan.

MA: Before the first campus closure in November 2019, what preparations had you made towards developing a virtual learning environment at Caritas?

SH: Colleagues at Caritas CIHE have been working on two VLE-related projects since 2009 called OASISS (Online Advising Support and Interactive Study System) and LOBSTERS (Learning in an Outcome-based System via Technology and Enhancement of Regulation Strategies) with the main objective being to encourage a flip-classroom approach and looking to create out-of-class learning opportunities. Coincidently from September 2019 I became part of the Caritas E-learning Working Group. At that time, the Group was working on developing integrated approaches for the Institution with regards to e-learning, at both the policy and application levels. We have a very dynamic Leadership Team and a very capable IT Team, who are installing new platforms and tools for the various Schools within Caritas CIHE.

MA: Which online applications and software have you adopted to help you teach your students in a virtual classroom?

SH: Caritas CIHE is currently using Moodle as the main learning platform developed under the OASISS and LOBSTERS projects that I mentioned above. The Caritas CIHE Computer Science School and Language and Humanities School also use an application for online advising and support under LOBSTERS.

Throughout 2018 Caritas CIHE gradually migrated to Office 365 from our intranet. Office 365 provided an integrated online platform to use Team and OneDrive for our work collaboration as well as SharePoint to communicate with our learners. WhatsApp class-groups are also being used for prompt communication with students.
We have started using Zoom for conducting distant learning lessons along with Moodle for sharing documents and for more formal communications. We have also started using Penapto in some scenarios to assist with the pre-recording of lectures for larger audiences, for instance in the School of Health Science. In addition to Zoom and Penapto, we have been using Mentimeter as quiz-tool for on-campus lessons.

During the current educational disruptions, we have used Zoom and Moodle in combination; this has proved to be very useful to support our distance teaching and distance learning requirements.

MA: How smoothly have Caritas students and staff transitioned from traditional face-to-face tutorials in to a virtual teaching environment?

SH: Students and staff at Caritas have found it challenging to substitute face-to-face teaching with these new forms of VLE, particularly for design learning where studio and making are the core components. Caritas colleagues have now experimented with VLE for over four months and we will require additional time to evaluate the effectiveness and success of this new design studio teaching methodology. We have adapted quickly so far, but we are keen to investigate the opportunities that VLE offers in more depth. Tools such as Zoom and Moodle have been very useful in interactive discussions between students and staff. Students are able to share their design work and sketch ideas on screen; both teacher and learner can control and draw over the screen which creates a visual dialogue. Other members can join in with the discussion too. As an added advantage, the whole conversation can be recorded so that students can review the session again at a later date.

We have noticed, through conversations with our cohorts, that understanding the design process through group discussion and feedback is not being fully grasped. This is something that comes naturally during face-to-face interactions, but is less successful in a digital environment. Discussions through physical models and materiality is another aspect that needs to be resolved; we will witness the success (or otherwise) of this during the next few weeks when the design project assignments are scheduled to be submitted. Having said this, we are sure that our students will be able to adapt quickly to this new way of using VLE. Two things are making this journey easier to navigate for us; our learners’ familiarity with digital space but also a very positive mindset in everything they do. This entire process is helping us to take glimpse at what VLE might be in the future, as a means of teaching design projects in a digital environment.

As Sami and I write this article, Caritas colleagues continue to engage with VLE in new and creative ways. Once we are through this period of academic disruption, we will look back at the virtual teaching models that have been put in place. Our aim is to carry out a full evaluation of the successes, or otherwise, of working in a virtual environment when compared to interacting through the traditional setting of a classroom. For now, Caritas colleagues will continue to bravely rebuff the social and political conditions that they face in their day-to-day teaching activities to provide the best possible learning environment for their students.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages2
VolumeMay/June 2020
Issue number143
JournalKitPlus
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2020

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