Instructional Highlights: Wei Dong

A visual artist leans into design elements to build strong bonds with students

Before the pandemic, Wei Dong could best be described as a skeptic of remote learning. He had never used cameras to record or virtually communicate with students.

“I am extremely passionate about in-person teaching because of the connection between teacher and student,” says Dong, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in Design Studies at the UW School of Human Ecology. “I believe that energy and inspiration are communicated through a physical context.”

The pandemic left him little choice but to jump online, so he decided to analyze the pros and cons of virtual and in-person teaching and take the best from each. Being a designer and visual artist, he especially considered the look and feel of remote learning.

He wanted students to feel at home in his virtual classroom, the better to build strong bonds with them. So he turned his basement into a teaching studio that mimicked the physical environment of a classroom as much as possible.

He painted a wall Badger red, installed studio lighting, and added a giant “W” as a backdrop. For the feeling of a live lecture, he placed multiple cameras in his studio so that he could change angles and demonstrate techniques. He varied his vocal tone and employed a variety of delivery methods to achieve what he calls “a multisensory experience.”

“I think to successfully teach online, we have to think of the screen not as a flat window, but to show depth in the space,” Dong says. “I am constantly moving in the frame to mimic interactions, and I add different postures to give more dimension while teaching.”

He has come to appreciate aspects of virtual teaching, such as the way it gives every student the best seat in the house.

“When physically teaching, only a few students can see clearly what I am demonstrating,” he says. “But online, everyone sees the same view.”

And online, projects and demos can remain available and easily accessible to students throughout the course, Dong says. “In a physical room, we put up projects, critique them, and then take them down.”

Dong still has reservations about virtual learning, saying it sometimes feels like it doesn’t leave enough room for creativity and “wondering.” But he’s also found unexpected value in it for students.

“Overall, a combination of a digital and physical format probably would be optimal for a studio environment,” he says.

More from the Instructional Highlights Series

UW–Madison instructors have been investing great thought and effort into making their virtual classrooms engaging, inclusive and supportive. We asked a cross-section of them to reflect on their remote classes and to share, in particular, how they’ve worked to build a strong sense of community among students. In many cases, instructors say they’re learning new approaches and techniques that will enrich their in-person teaching once campus fully returns.

We’ll add to the Instructional Highlights series throughout the spring semester, so please check back regularly. If you’d like to pass along an approach that’s worked for you or have a suggestion for an instructor we might want to reach out to, please contact us at  instructionalcontinuity@provost.wisc.edu.