Online Learning: Designing for Engagement and Collaboration

This article was written by Olivia Vagelos, a learning experience and community designer at IDEO U

Whether you’re an elementary school teacher, a college professor, a fitness coach, a business consultant, a workshop facilitator, or a park docent, you are likely making the quick shift into delivering your experience in a virtual world.

The educators we know are some of the most resourceful problem solvers around, and we’ve been inspired watching them navigate these new times creatively and optimistically. And we also know how challenging, exhausting, and intimidating it can feel.

In service of inspiration, we wanted to share some of the things we think about when designing human-centered online learning experiences. At IDEO U, teaching online has always been our reality—we’ve never coexisted in a physical space with our global community. We hope that some of the things we’ve learned along the way can help you teach whatever it is you need to teach in a virtual setting, and find creative joy in a new set of constraints.

Make the most of shared moments

Cherish the synchronous time (in-real-time) that you can spend virtually with your students, but resist the urge to be at the front of your virtual classroom, presenting your material. Delivering (and consuming) content is not the best way to spend an hour together (together being the operative word).

Consider moving as much of that consumption as you can to asynchronous (or do it whenever works for you) moments, so that your learners can engage with it while tag-teaming parenting, folding laundry, eating an afternoon snack, or sitting in the bathroom because mom is taking her work call from the only common space.

Think critically about the opportunity and purpose of gathering together. Can your synchronous moments be the place your students work through what is sticky or challenging? A space for them to collaborate, build on one another’s ideas, or create something collectively that they couldn’t create alone?

Teachers of every type have always been more than content deliverers, and classrooms more than content delivery containers. They are people and places of trust, support, accountability, and safety. Rather than content as queen, lead with relationships. How can your moments together be oriented around building and sustaining connections?

In our IDEO U courses, we have weekly Community Conversations. These are the one synchronous moment each week for learners to meet together in real time. On their own they watch videos, reflect, build prototypes, conduct research, look for inspiration, and complete assignments. But in these weekly video calls, they gather to learn from one another. They go deep in discussion. They share stories, synthesize collective insights, and grapple with bigger, meatier questions that leverage all of their unique perspectives.

Content consumption can happen anytime. How might you use your time together as a multiplier?

Make it real and make it relevant

In this new socially-distanced moment, our work lives and non-work lives have merged. Our homes have become our schools, our offices, our community centers, our restaurants, our playgrounds.

Whatever it is you are trying to teach, how do you connect it to your students’ new contexts? Move out of theory and into what they can engage with and influence around them.

Can your learners use cooking to dive into culture and food systems? Can they build mathematical models to understand how to most effectively distribute critical goods to vulnerable neighbors? Can their family dinner become the re-enactment of an important historical moment or philosophical debate?

A zoo recently approached us, wondering how they can bring their community classes online. Usually, those classes happen within their park. But now they have the opportunity to come to their audience’s natural habitat and design for their community’s home environment, rather than their own. Can the zoo help kids understand the food chain by looking in their refrigerator? Can they learn more about habitats by building pillow forts? As another example take Dance Church, a freeform dance class, where instructors have you run into your kitchen and dance with your pots and pans.

Helping your learners practice skills within their environment will make your learning experience more personal and more intimate—it can honor the unique situations and artifacts of your learners’ lives. Translating the big idea into something tangible in their current environment will also help it land, and you’ll have the benefit of ever-present reminders of those learnings (like every time they open said refrigerator).

At IDEO we live by the maxim of “learn-by-doing.” In this moment that rings truer than ever, only now it is “learn-by-living.” How might you build deeply personal connections between your learners and your content by helping them live it?

Move beyond the screen and engage the senses

We are used to navigating so much of the outside world by touch—grasping the handrail to guide us up the stairs of the metro station or feeling the fabric in a clothes shop. Previously people-filled events and environments offered rich soundscapes and our favorite restaurants provided us flavors beyond the limits of our home cooking repertoires. But now, for many of us, a huge percentage of our time is spent glued to the two dimensional screen.

We’re starved for sensory stimulation, so resist the urge to take all of your content and make it digital. Project-based and applied learning is one way to bring physicality to your teaching, focused on the content. But consider, too, how you might engage more of the senses by crafting the holistic experience for your learners. Can you create the sound environment of your sessions, using music or designing intentional audio moments? What about bringing in smell? Could you send your learners a scented marker to use or ask them to light a candle before they log in to your call?

In our courses we’ve used audio-guided meditations to help learners imagine the future, sent our Teaching Team physical artifacts to use and costumes to wear during a virtual strategy design session, and even asked our learners to submerge their hands in buckets of ice water as a metaphor to understand barriers for patients trying to communicate while experiencing pain.

Not only will using multiple senses keep your audience more engaged, but it will also create a stronger sense of shared experience between your class community across space and time.

Our eyeballs are slowly but surely calcifying in front our devices. How might you engage all of the senses in creating a participatory and active learning experience?

Design your transitions

We’ve lost the routines and markers that signal time passing. What even is a Wednesday anymore? Your audience no longer has the physical and environmental cues that your experience is starting—like walking into your classroom, hearing a bell ring, or signing in at the front desk. They will likely be coming from different places and headspaces—just getting back from their one stressful grocery outing of the week, coming off a joyful call with friends, or perhaps having not had face-to-face connection in days.

For those of us living our lives on seemingly endless Zoom calls, the only demarcation between sessions is the act of clicking “leave meeting” and “join meeting.” Our brains are craving down time—a moment to mentally switch gears, breathe, and process.

As someone facilitating, take the time to design the transitions into and out of your learning experience (whether these are your synchronous or asynchronous moments). If you don’t, it will simply blur into the rest of the day.

In designing beginning moments, we think about a few things:

1. How might you help your audience to build space between the present moment and whatever or wherever they were coming from? This could be as simple as a moment to take three big breaths together or having everyone minimize the other tabs on their browser.

2. How might you get them into the headspace you want them to be in? Do you need them energized (get up and do five jumping jacks together) or reflective (close your eyes and count backwards from ten)?

3. How can you decrease the barrier to speaking up for the first time? Clicking “unmute” can be intimidating, and the longer you go without doing it, the harder it gets. Design a low-risk moment of participation to get folks comfortable (like sharing their name and what they had for breakfast).

4. How can you give it some pizzazz? Hook your audience from the start. As IDEO’s creative director Paul Bennett says, “Lead with the beauty, follow with the math.”

The ending is equally important. Beware of running right up to the last minute then exiting on a hurried “Shoot, we’re out of time!” Hold enough space for your group to find closure together, whether that’s through a moment to pause, reflect, integrate their learnings, or celebrate the work done together. On our Community Conversations, we always end with a group Zoom selfie (a screengrab of the gallery-view) that gets posted to the course chat channels, with a theme inspired by something that came up in the conversation.

In designing both beginnings and endings, consider the power of rituals—elements you return to consistently. These patterns will help your audience begin to more easily shift gears. “Oh, I know where I am now. This is XYZ class!”

Time has become both more fluid and lost some of its meaning. How might you create strong signposts to transition your students into and out of your experience?

Go forward with empathy

In all of this, don’t neglect your sensing and empathy muscles. Continue to check in. What does your group need at this moment? Are they feeling extra exhausted or anxious today?

We believe that constraints lead to creativity, and we can’t wait to see the global teaching community invent the future together. And remember, this is all a prototype. Take a risk, try something new, ask for feedback, invite your students in as co-collaborators, and don’t be afraid to make changes. You’re doing the best you can, and your learners are lucky to have you.

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