The Impact of Online Teaching on Narrative Peacebuilding Pedagogy

By Kyra Whitehead

I have spent the past five years working for Wenzhou-Kean University (WKU), Wenzhou, China, after teaching previously at Kean University, NJ, USA. Located in China’s mountainous region of the Zhejiang Province, WKU is a Chinese-American-run institution established by Kean University in 2011. All students at WKU are required to complete English courses through the English Department in support of their major coursework and future employment opportunities after graduation. Through these intensive English requirements and challenging major course loads in a second language, WKU prepares students for global opportunities in furthered education and the workforce once they leave campus. 

Throughout my work at WKU, under the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) and the Michael Graves School of Design (MGC), I have taught a range of English and Design courses. To address the language challenges that especially Graphic Design students at WKU face, from 2018 on, I have acted as our school’s English for Academic Purposes (EAP) Specialist for Graphic Design.

For several years I have aligned my research on peacebuilding pedagogy with my classroom curriculum and the materials I have created as EAP specialist, using the design ESL classroom as a microcosm for peacebuilding. To cultivate this environment, I built design ESL lesson plans centered on storytelling through literature and the arts.

Storytelling has served as a natural medium to combine peacebuilding, ESL, and design throughout my work, as storytelling is a prominent tool in each of these fields. Indeed, design is considered storytelling.

As a result of my efforts in design ESL and accumulated research and experience in the subject matter, I requested and was approved to teach for the Design Department. I then joined the Design Department under the same role as EAP specialist in 2019. This transition meant that rather than working under the English department, I began teaching design classes geared toward enhancing students’ design-specific English skills under the Design Department. As much of my research has been on peacebuilding pedagogy specific to the ESL classroom and the arts, I combined that research with design pedagogy for my EAP work and design classroom curriculum. Simultaneously, my efforts to merge the fields further informed and enriched the work I have been doing as an EAP specialist.

In other words, since working in the Design Department, I have begun to use the design classroom, in place of the English classroom, as a laboratory for adapting and expanding my peacebuilding pedagogy research while merging that research with my EAP work and design class curriculum. Having accumulated experience in both departments, I have a first-hand understanding of how the ESL materials are applied to both English and design classrooms. However, COVID-19 altered this study further when my curriculum was tested on an online platform.

Peacebuilding in the ESL Classroom

Initially, as mentioned, when teaching and integrating peacebuilding pedagogy in the English department, I was explicitly focused on storytelling through literature and the arts. In this interdisciplinary literature and the arts-based classroom, I encouraged students to weave a world of connections for themselves, where culture and community develop deeper meaning and become defined by relationship through communication and comparisons. This notion is reinforced by The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ (ACTFL) National Standards for Foreign Language Learning, better known as the 5 Cs (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities).

My classes encouraged cultural and self-expression through a student-centered method while acknowledging common cultural misconceptions that occur in a Chinese classroom taught through western-style education. I sought to support relationship-building in my courses, recognizing the potential inhibitors of intercultural connection and communication between students as well, given the geographic and ethnic diversity within China. Through intercultural understanding and student autonomy, I intended that the classroom would prepare students for global leadership after leaving WKU. These intentions aligned seamlessly with the school’s mission to do the same.

Students engaged in various literature and the arts-based activities in my ESL classes to facilitate interaction. They wrote poetry, letters, songs, film scripts, creative fiction, and nonfiction. They acted, sang, danced, listened to folktales from around the world, shared stories, and learned about other cultures and lifestyles, as learning a second language also means learning about people’s concerns, attitudes, feelings, and challenges. The classroom became a space where students could share their stories, experiences, and future concerns through several creative mediums, partly to determine the diversity expected in navigating a global lifestyle.

Toward an Online Design Curriculum

Upon merging my EAP work with my design courses, I integrated activities to encourage practical, constructive, and peaceful communication through design. Design is communication, and innovation is a critical quality in any effective design, so utilizing the course to encourage broad-minded, autonomous learners was a feasible transition from my ESL courses. However, since my classes are inherently hands-on and interactive, COVID certainly posed challenges in adapting those materials to an online setting. By the same token, the pandemic also posed an opportunity to consider how designers can respond to the global crisis.

When news first broke about the severity of the virus, I was home in the United States for winter break, preparing my “Introduction to Design and Visual Culture” course to be taught in the spring of 2020. This course introduces design as a creative and cultural medium. It is essentially an examination of the designer’s role in shaping cultures and identities across the globe. Within this context and throughout the semester, we investigate advertising design, architecture, graphic design, industrial design, and interior design.

At that time, I was preparing to teach face to face. Nearing the end of our winter break, WKU decided to go online for the spring semester, leaving our instructors, like many others around the world, scrambling to begin navigating the online setting. We had approximately one week to complete a Blackboard training course and work with a course designer to adapt and upload our materials online. Thus, alongside completing the Blackboard training, I began adapting my materials to suit the online setting, yet recognized an opportunity to integrate an additional element into my courses; that is, the designer’s role in responding to a global crisis. Hence, the underlying question throughout our semester became, “What is the designer’s role in response to a global crisis, and how can that response help to facilitate peacebuilding?”

The first challenge was to adapt these materials created for a student-centered, interactive environment to an online setting. The second was to encourage students to consider the pandemic, this added element of our course in its relation to global design and visual culture. Several questions came to mind before, throughout, and at the end of the semester. At the outset of the term, I thought about the potential benefits of online instruction for an unconventional peacebuilding model specific to design and the English language. I also considered how best to utilize the online setting to enhance my curriculum. During the semester, I measured ways to improve our discussion forum to enhance student participation. On reflection, at the end of the semester, I considered how online instruction changed discussion and in-class activities.

I found that online teaching was advantageous to my curriculum and research in many ways. For one, it pushed me to test these materials in a new forum, which was, in itself, beneficial. And as a result, I realized that online education could extend these lessons globally. Students could potentially engage with the materials from anywhere, which would help to broaden the conversation and expand peaceful dialogue. In this case, the online setting offers the opportunity to extend my curriculum beyond the classroom and potentially share it in other online forums, where participants can take part from anywhere.

Since we were using Blackboard Collaborate, I utilized breakout groups to facilitate interaction between students. Additionally, China’s widely-used app, WeChat, proved to be a valuable tool for announcements and document sharing. To my surprise and delight, I found that, at times, breakout groups encouraged conversation. I often visited the various breakout rooms to ask questions and facilitate interaction, only to find students busy collaborating on the given activity. I also found that some students seemed more comfortable sharing their ideas behind a computer screen, though this perpetuated a slew of reasons students could not turn on their cameras. 

Adapting to the Online Classroom

Candidly, online interaction did not come without its challenges. Many of the more introverted students remained silent throughout group discussions leading me to elicit attention by cold-calling in the breakout rooms or making announcements in our WeChat group. Though, I often find that the best way to engage the more passive students is by allowing them to discuss in pairs then share their ideas in larger groups or with the class. Accordingly, I often utilize the Think, Pair, Share (TPS) method rather than cold calling.

I also integrated more videos and online resources than I had in previous semesters, which were well-received by students. The success of integrating these resources was partly demonstrated in students engaging in-class discussions of the subject matter. For instance, I would ask students to come up with their own discussion questions based on a video clip they watched on their own during the week. They would then respond to those questions as a group during class. This gave them ample time to consider the subject and their responses, evidently easing the pressure of interacting with the topic for the first time in class. However, the discussion forum proved to be the most significant addition to my courses. Each week, students were to communicate through an online discussion forum, where they would post an initial response to a weekly question and maintain a conversation on that subject throughout the week. I would respond to students, as well, to ensure that the discussion remained structured and on track.

I also altered discussion questions throughout the semester in response to global news updates surrounding the pandemic. These updates allowed students to consider how they, as designers, could respond to a worldwide crisis. For instance, one of our discussion questions was to assess the various reactions among Americans to COVID-19 in the United States. I then asked, “If you were a designer in the U.S., how could you respond to this divide that we are witnessing between Americans partly as a result of the pandemic?” Student responses varied; however, some noted that they would take an informative approach by relaying medical information about the virus. Others wanted to establish mutual understanding through interactive design, to offer the public a chance to share differing perspectives. Some, for instance, proposed apps that would allow for fruitful exchange while discouraging any unproductive or combative discourse.

Overall, I found our class discussions to be more abundant and rewarding in the physical classroom; however, giving students the opportunity to share their ideas in a written discussion forum added depth and thoughtfulness to our conversations. For this reason, this discussion platform is a tool that I continue to use in the physical classroom, though I assign postings less frequently. Apart from oral and written discussion, the online platform and the pandemic also altered some of our in-class activities, in certain ways, I would argue, for the better.

Adapting a Narrative Peacebuilding Activity

One of the activities that I created to align with this unconventional peacebuilding model was further altered for the online setting. However, I found this beneficial. Since adapted to suit my design classes, the activity is to first teach students the target design vocabulary for the lesson. Students then discuss the various countries they would like to visit, explaining why they want to go there. Students first discuss in pairs and then share their commentary with the class. They then individually create an advertisement about the country they hope to visit. The advertisement must include images, descriptive language, and the target vocabulary.

Following the first draft of their advertisement, students research the country of their choice and add five learned facts to their work. Subsequently, students create a sales pitch for why classmates should visit their chosen country while explaining personal interest or experience in the country as part of the storytelling component.

Finally, each student chooses one of the presented countries to visit and writes an imaginary journal entry about a day in that country from his or her perspective based on information learned from the presenter. The English language outcome of this activity is for students to demonstrate effective presentation skills. The design outcome is for students to exhibit a successful advertisement. The peacebuilding outcome is that students will display a newfound interest in or understanding of the country of their choice.

Mostly, for this activity, the physical classroom was mirrored by Blackboard. Students used the breakout rooms for discussion, I used the whiteboard function to teach the target vocabulary, and otherwise, students used their computers for research as they would in class. While I’ve noted that there are benefits and disadvantages to using Blackboard in presenting their advertisements, the platform made for a seamless transition between presentations, given that students could share their screens one after another. This assignment is just one example of how I could adapt my narrative peacebuilding pedagogy to the online environment.

Lessons Learned

Going forward, I am still processing what my students and I learned from the overall online experience. I am continuing to experiment with materials to combine that learning with my previous curriculum now that we have returned to the physical classroom. Weaving my peacebuilding pedagogy and EAP materials into “Introduction to Design and Visual Culture” created the perfect marriage from a research and teaching standpoint; however, online teaching has expanded the scope of this study.

Although incorporating the insights from my year of teaching online is a work in progress, I am convinced that the experience strengthened my research and made me a better teacher. 


Kyra Whitehead is an English/Design Lecturer at Wenzhou-Kean University, Wenzhou, China. She was previously a teacher’s assistant for a Global Religion course at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, and an English Lecturer at Kean University, Union, New Jersey. Dr. Whitehead successfully defended her dissertation titled Ambassadors for Peace: a Literature and the Arts-Based ESL Classroom Model, in completion of her D.Litt. Degree in February 2019.