Designing an online ‘design thinking’ class

It’s a lot harder than it sounds!

I just finished attending a short (4 week) online class that was about designing an online class — so very wonderfully meta! Yay.

First, a little backstory

I recently signed on to help Lesley University define the syllabus for a single course — Design Thinking (DT)—as part of their new Design for User Experience bachelor’s degree program, but for online consumption only. There will be no in-person, face-to-face component at all; it is entirely conducted via online tools (in this case, Blackboard). Hmm! What does it mean to teach a topic (design thinking) that is so inherently about real-time communication, interaction, and collaboration but done asynchronously via online/remote methods? Is it even possible to do this effectively?

Well, that’s exactly why I signed up for this challenge! Having been through various DT bootcamps and workshops myself (Stanford, LUMA, Kaiser, etc.), and taught DT via corporate workshops, I certainly have a solid grasp of the content and methods… but I’m rather unsure about the translation into a purely online context. And I had previously taught other design classes (fundamentals of interaction design, masterclasses on data viz and user research, etc.) so I have that experience under my belt, but this is a whole other frontier. Let’s see what happens!

So, as part of the deal, I was required to participate in a 4 week seminar on instructional design. This provided structural tools and theoretical frameworks to help me assemble a well articulated syllabus with specified learning activities and outcomes. And more importantly, it offered a chance to feel what it’s like to take a class purely online for an extended time — that’s right, gain some empathy! Particularly as a busy professional with hectic schedules, compelled to work on group projects with other classmates who are in different time zones, etc. An altogether fascinating, umm, ordeal ;-)

My main takeaways

  • You must give very clear, detailed & specific instructions for class activities and their deadlines. Remember, you’re not there IRL (In Real Life) to offer supportive color commentary, as in a real class.
  • A big help for arriving at a structured approach to defining your activities and outcomes is studying Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a masterful matrix of knowledge type vs cognitive processes, from progressively “lower order” to “higher order” (in terms of complexity and advancement). I picked 4–5 accordingly that mapped to my DT workshop goals.
It’s a huge diagram!
  • Activities that typically happen IRL must be atomically broken down to very specific elements — much like a user / system dialogue cadence. Who does what and when within what timeframe?
Instructor / Student breakdown of tasks for just ONE online learning activity
  • It’s helpful to storyboard out the learning activities and outcomes to visualize how the cadence will be, and get clarity on what those are. It feels very prescriptive and leaves little room for improvisation (which is a standard IRL classes, necessarily so!). But very helpful to plan it out.
Draft storyboard for online design thinking course
  • You must buffer a lot of time for activities, out of fairness & reasonable expectations that students are taking 1–2 other online classes as part of this degree program, and working part-time, too. It definitely feels like stretching things out much more than you might be comfortable!
  • Thus, a 2 hour in-person / live activity may take as much as 1 week in asynchronous online contexts. Why? To account for students reading the assignment, coordinating with classmates, initial start to do the activity, then instructor involvement to provide feedback, maybe some iteration, and so on. Whew. Remember, you need to be fair & reasonable with time, online access, etc.
  • An ongoing challenge for any online course design is to balance the various modes of presence: teaching presence (offering guidance and feedback), social presence (classmates collaborating and dialoguing), and cognitive presence (the students’ intellectual engagement). If you think about it, this is what happens IRL class but much more fluidly! You don’t realize this is all happening in a real, face-to-face class session.
  • The choice of digital online tools matters! It’s crucial that tools do not interfere or inhibit the learning “flow”. Think about a DT workshop with constantly flowing dialogue, whiteboards and markers, stickies and pens. Everything on wheels. It’s all deliberately set up that way to keep the flow going, not let anything be a blocker to the momentum of thought & action. If online tools are obtuse, slow, clunky, with too many clicks to get to the content — that just makes learning less enjoyable and more frustrating. Boo. Indeed, the learning process gets hampered and becomes counterproductive (and yes, I’m looking at you Blackboard! Ugh.)

Now that the class is over, I’m currently in the midst of building the final syllabus for the course (including all content materials), which is intended to be an 8-week online class, split among 5 key modules. In the end, I have certainly developed a great appreciation for the effort that goes into designing an online course. Whew! It is much harder, no question.

As I go deeper into designing out my class I’ll be sure to focus on the following: timelines, workload balance, modulating teacher / social presence, student autonomy with teacher involvement, and of course various digital tools beyond Blackboard, like Slack, Medium, Google Docs, etc. Stay tuned…


Special thanks to Lesley University College of Art and Design — Design Department and Lisa Spitz. Also, the online course instructors: Tae-Jin Kim; John McCormick.

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