By Elly Mead and Deborah Ajia
The Glass-House was recently invited by the Sheffield School of Architecture (SSoA) to deliver their students, project mentors and community collaborators a virtual workshop focusing on digital tools for creative engagement as part of this year’s iteration of their Live Projects Programme. Live Projects, established at SSoA in 1999, is an annual 6-week module where students from the architecture Masters course work in groups with a range of clients (often referred to as community collaborators), including local community groups, charities, mental health organisations and regional authorities, on real, live projects which include design and building opportunities, masterplanning, building feasibility studies, developing online resources and toolkits and creating sustainability strategies. The groups are supported by the guidance of tutors from the school, who step into the space as mentors for each project group.
The workshop, which took place during the afternoon of 29 April, was part of the larger scope of Live Works, SSoA’s Urban Room located in Sheffield city centre, which hosts public events and exhibitions, collaborations with local partners and research projects, connecting students from SSoA with local communities and initiatives within project parameters for mutual benefit.
This workshop also formed part of a Knowledge Exchange opportunity, which allowed us to step into the workshop space as an external partner to underpin and facilitate the knowledge exchange between our work and learning and the University, their students and other partners.
Throughout the course of this exploratory virtual workshop, we aimed to introduce the students and community clients to the ethics and values of engagement within design, as well as discussing the opportunities and constraints of digital engagement tools and methods.
Workshops as spaces of exploration and knowledge exchange
We kicked off by setting the tone for the workshop as an unpressurised learning space in which we could all be explorative and aim to work with other participants in a generous and patient way. Laying these clear foundations as early as possible within workshops helps to foster a positive environment, and promotes peer-to-peer learning across the groups as well as between us and the participants (and vice versa!).
Utilising the digital platform Mentimeter, an interactive presentation platform that allows you to live poll an audience with visual results, we dove straight into discussing the participants existing experience of and feelings around digital tools. We quickly uncovered the digital tools that were least popular with the group, including Microsoft Teams, Google Suite and Mentimeter, while unveiling that the most used included WhatsApp, Zoom and Miro. Immediately involving the participants with a digital engagement method allowed them to learn from direct experience, as well as giving our team an opportunity to understand the group’s current experience levels and concerns around digital tools.
This initial research task led into a rich discussion surrounding the accessibility of such digital tools and training methods, with all the attendees agreeing that we must think about the chosen methodologies and softwares in terms of how accessible they are for all participants. By considering how comfortable people are with certain tools, alternative methods for people to take part can be provided, opening up the accessibility of events.
By reflecting on our experience of digital engagement over the past year, we were able to identify some of the issues that arise when undertaking digital engagement, such as wifi issues, software incapabilities and digital literacy. By highlighting and understanding these issues, we were able to discuss with the participants how these can be planned for and managed by using a range of methodologies or utilising hybrid methods that combine physical and digital spaces.
Learning from our experiences
After our initial conversation, we delved into a number of real life examples from The Glass-House archive, which are collated in a short explore section at the bottom of this blog. Attaching our digital engagement learning points to real-life examples helps to contextualise them, allowing participants to relate to our experiences and understand the unique qualities of each project which influence our approach. It also allowed us to further highlight that participation is a collaborative experience, where everyone is learning together.
A digital engagement task to learn about digital engagement
Building upon our earlier theme of learning through doing, we used the central part of the workshop to ask the participants to work together through a set of tasks within a Miro board space, which had been designed and curated by us for this workshop.
The tasks, which began with an easy introduction to using Miro and progressed to mind mapping and communally finding a group answer to three provocations, were designed to not only build ability and confidence in digital spaces, but also to help the different team members understand each other’s viewpoints and to develop a shared value-base for their project going forward.
We again turned to Mentimeter to conclude this collaborative task, extracting information from the different stakeholders within each grouping (student, mentor and community collaborator) about their desires and fears for their project going forward, and asking one participant to act as a representative to convey the overall group’s opinion. Seeing these different layers of consideration and opinion was an eye-opening experience, and allowed a sense of vulnerability and openness into the project groups. Being able to understand how different stakeholders view the collaborative process is vital to the success of each of these project teams, and will hopefully allow the students to tailor their engagement strategy to their unique group.
Ending the session with an open group discussion brought more rich dialogue into the space, and we spoke of the benefits of keeping it simple, creating safe spaces for people to learn, try new skills and get things wrong! We also touched on the idea of social media being a powerful tool that, if utilised well, can extend the reach of a project through a plethora of platforms and open up conversations. However, targeting and disseminating information in regards to platform choice and age ranges can be extremely difficult, and threw up questions such as;
What social media do you use?
Is there a social media platform divide when it comes to certain age groups?
We found the majority of our participants used Facebook and Twitter, but younger people now tended to occupy social platforms such as Snapchat and Tik Tok. One participant, in her mid-twenties, spoke of how she still uses Facebook whilst her slightly younger sibling considers it outdated and instead exclusively uses Snapchat, only having a Facebook account to access University events. This discussion highlighted the varied ways in which we all engage with social media, and how generalisations based on age groups can often be incorrect and it is important to understand the specific context of each group before engagement starts to ensure outreach and collaboration is set up in the most accessible way for those people.
One participant summed up some of deep reflective thinking about digital tools that should be engaged before embarking on an engagement process with this message in the chat:
“Surprised by the need to reflect on how to use the tools in order to explain how to use them. Once we know how to use these tools, we use them mindlessly. In order to teach the tools, it requires thought and a different skill.”
By bringing the group along with us on our collaborative journey, exploring engagement tools, support and creating an explorative ethos, we developed not only the participants’ knowledge and understanding of digital engagement, but also trust and openness within the project groups.
We are all still learning and experimenting across the various digital spaces we occupy, and it is imperative that we remain mindful and gentle with one another while going through these new processes.
This workshop gave us an opportunity to pause and reflect on our digital journey so far, and pull key learnings to impart with the Live Projects groups from SSoA. We are so excited to see how the groups progress and continue to use the Miro workspaces, which we handed over to the groups post-workshop, and are thankful to SSoA and the Live Projects team for inviting us to deliver this session.
Explore our digital engagement examples:
Union Chapel Remote workshop (2021)
Broadwater Farm Remote Design Training (2020)
Gaming Workshop (2018)
If you are interested in learning more about the Live Works and Live Projects as part of The University of Sheffield’s offerings, you can read more here, or here.