Designing digital workspaces for creativity and collaboration in online project-based courses

MIT Media Lab
May 11, 2020 · 13 min read

Written by Rosa Weinberg (member of the teaching team for Product and Experience Design at Harvard University), Yusuf Ahmad (graduate researcher in the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group), and David Alsdorf (faculty member at the Acera School).

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A student team’s design workspace, showing how they developed their project over time. Credit: Team 5, Challenge 3, Harvard

Overview

In response to Covid-19, we developed an environment to bring project-based work online in two very different courses: a middle school robotics course and a university product design studio. In the process, we’ve discovered new strategies to support collaboration, foster creativity, and make student thinking visible. This post includes learnings gleaned from both of these environments.

Introduction

Before Covid-19, our courses relied intensively on in-person interactions. In one course, middle school students design robots. In another, graduate and undergraduate students design apps and products. In both courses, students moved fluidly between collaborative and individual work. They would look at each other’s laptops, share sketches, discuss ideas on whiteboards, and reflect on physical and digital prototypes. We circulated in the classroom, observing and engaging with students as they pursued open-ended projects in response to prompts and guidelines. We could see what students worked on and how they worked, allowing us to coach students on content and process.

The prospect of bringing these interactions online was daunting. While video calls enabled us to continue coaching students and facilitating our classes, we needed a central space where students could collaborate, prototype, organize research, and develop ideas. While we could have repurposed conventional tools (word processing or presentation software) for organizing creative work, these tools tend to be too linear for open-ended projects. Design tools (e.g., Figma) supported many of our goals, but have steep barriers to entry. Consequently, we looked into alternative tools used to organize creative work. We decided to use Milanote as it offered an easy-to-use medium for quickly developing and organizing ideas visually.

As we transitioned our courses online, we asked students to use Milanote as their primary medium for organizing project work, developing ideas, and collaborating with peers. In conjunction with Zoom calls, we succeeded in recreating and in some ways significantly improving on the in-person class environment.

With the shift to remote learning, many students actually found it easier to creatively express themselves, organize project work across cycles of divergence and convergence, and collaborate with others. Similarly, we had greater visibility into the creative spirals — moving between making and thinking — that students engage in, facilitating better conversations and critique.

We effectively replaced a traditional learning management system (Canvas or Google Classroom) with Milanote; we added prompts and assignments, created workspaces for each student or team, and crafted examples, all while encouraging students to use the tool as they saw fit.

Functionally, Milanote operates through “boards.” Objects — text-notes, images, links with image previews, or file embeds — can easily be added anywhere on a virtual board. The objects can be structured into columns (that can be made to look and feel like a Kanban board) or can be organized using arrows or clustering methods. Moreover, a user can nest a board anywhere within another board, making it possible to organize ideas while managing a project’s complexity. There are frustrating aspects to Milanote: the arrows can be tricky to use, zooming out is not intuitive, and the open-ended flexibility of the boards can be overwhelming. Nevertheless, the organizational and expressive possibilities are balanced with enough constraints to allow for both novices and more advanced students to dive into design. In the sections that follow, we will unpack how faculty and students used these features to support collaboration and creativity.

Tour of the Harvard design course’s online workspace. Shows how Rosa organized the digital environment and how different student teams organized their work.

Product and Experience Design is a multidisciplinary course created by Beth Altringer for Harvard undergraduate and graduate students. Students study real-world examples of how organizations like Apple or IDEO design for desirability and then apply their insights in a series of one to two week design challenges. Students create both digital and physical projects.

We were midway through our third design sprint when we transitioned to virtual teaching. For this sprint, students were tasked with creating designs that elicited awe, admiration, or elevation. We created blank Milanote boards for the eight teams and left notes in them asking students to show their thinking and share their design research. We shared these boards, along with an example board, with the students prior to introducing it in our first Zoom-based class. We kept this first class short, as students were scrambling to move off campus before spring break. Over spring break, students began to populate their boards with images and links as they developed their projects. We reviewed their boards and gave feedback and asked questions using comments.

After spring break, we conducted our first full Zoom class. Most had moved home, some as far away as New Zealand. We spent the first 30 minutes together as we checked in with the students, introduced concepts, and set expectations. For the rest of our session, students worked in Zoom breakout rooms with their teams and used Milanote as a workspace for developing ideas and organizing their work. The teaching team circulated among the Zoom breakout rooms to check in with the groups.

Creating activity prompts for middle school students as part of a virtual “bento box.”

In the course involving middle school students, participants (ranging in age from 10–13) explored questions related to wayfinding (philosophical, pedagogical, personal). Prior to the interruption of on-campus work they designed spatial wayfinding aquatic robots using biomimicry principles and the BBC micro:bit. As they transitioned to remote learning, they used Milanote as a collaborative tool for organizing the class’s work and for sharing designs, documentation, and other explorations, including personal journals. These journals, including curated collections of maps, song lyrics, and reflections, were originally conceived in more linear formats such as Google Docs. In the more dynamic medium of Milanote, students were able to create non-linear, visual, and multi-dimensional representations of their ideas and feelings.

We prepared daily boards with sketches, riddles, scrapbooks, quotes, and other provocations, grouping them informally into what we called the day’s “bento box.” Each student unpacked the lunchbox in a different way. Milanote supported these individual paths, while the organizational structure of an unpacked lunchbox also provided access to otherwise hidden dimensions of a student’s thinking.

For example, students organized their journals, reflections, and project work in very different ways. Some created branching mind maps, while others used vertical columns in order to structure their thoughts. We discovered that a lot is possible when we opened up room for expression: students who had previously felt stifled in other media such as Google Docs seemed to be set free by the liberties afforded in Milanote.

“They built ideas like they would with LEGO bricks — organizing thoughts spatially in a variety of forms.”

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A middle school student reflects on the transition to COVID, responding to a prompt placed on the left side of her workspace. Credit: Ellarree
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A middle school student organized his workspace around his interests, projects, and courses. We also see how he shares his thinking for a robot design. Credit: Middle school student, Acera

Teaching Goal 1: Facilitating collaboration in a virtual environment

“When we’re talking over zoom, we need to organize our thoughts and having something to refer to is very important . . . in Milanote, you can go horizontally, vertically, and it’s just very easy for people to mock up their own stuff in a different area of the board and then just put it all together.” — Margaret S., undergraduate

We took advantage of Milanote’s emphasis on visual navigation to facilitate the process of engaging with someone else’s work or reengaging with one’s previous work; educators and students spend less time trying to find ideas that are scattered across different files or software and more time actually engaged in creative collaboration. We could see all of a team’s work in one location, including links to files in other locations. In addition, we became familiar with a workspace as one might a new neighborhood, and we could see where ideas and files were spatially organized. We were better able to follow student thinking, because we could see how ideas evolved across discussions with students. Just as we might circulate in a studio space or classroom, we visited students’ virtual workspaces informally to observe how they were working and to offer suggestions or ask questions.

Moreover, we could easily examine a Milanote board before meeting with the students, and take the time to think about their work with less pressure to immediately respond to it. In the past, we were limited by the representational media used by most teams: text-heavy planning documents that were hard for outsiders to navigate and student sketchbooks that were difficult to observe before meeting with them.

For example, one team proposed a video installation on the ceiling of a student center as a mechanism for bringing people together and enhancing social interaction. After looking at their board, we challenged the team to unpack their assumptions about how a ceiling installation might enhance social interaction: if people were looking up, what would spur them to look at those around them? In their Zoom call with us, the team explained its rationale in a way that exposed and clarified the central idea of their project. In this case, being able to look at the team’s thinking on Milanote allowed us to ask a question that we might otherwise not have asked — and to push the team productively.

Welcoming students to a workspace in the product design course with a friendly GIF.
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A student team’s creative workspace showing their development of a ceiling installation and incorporation of faculty feedback. Credit: Team 7, Challenge 3, Harvard

When students use digital tools there can be a gap between a rough working document and one which is meant to be understandable by others. For example, before using Milanote many students edited and formatted their work in a Google Doc before sharing it with us. Because of Milanote’s visual interface, beyond adding a few directional arrows, students have to do very little to ensure that others are able to understand their documents.

“For example, we have a bunch of arrows here so that the teaching team can go in and see, this is what we thought connects to this” — Kate M., undergraduate

This way of using Milanote offers educators a new window into unfiltered student thinking. When presenting in class, students often edit themselves. In contrast, educators are able to see a student’s whole Milanote board at once, i.e., there is no divide between presented work and in-progress work, making it easier for us to better understand a student’s interests, goals, and process — and in response offer more meaningful guidance. This is especially important for creative projects, because students sometimes omit their most outrageous ideas, which can be some of their best.

A middle school student showing how he designed a robot, including materials he didn’t use. He also shows how he situates this project with respect to his other work based on how he nested this board within his workspace.

Teaching Goal 2: Facilitating creativity in a virtual environment

We used Milanote to empower creative work for students who were new to design as well as for those who were more advanced. We took advantage of Milanote’s features to facilitate robust ways for organizing design research and encourage low-stakes ideation, parallel prototyping, and iteration.

Design research — interviews, literature review, benchmarking, and precedent research — is important for the creative process because it helps students see beyond their assumptions and dominant narratives. It can also serve as a starting point for ideation. We have found that diving deeply in design research stimulates more out-of-the-box, creative ideas. When students moved into Milanote, they could easily organize, share, and reflect on research by adding and organizing text, images, and links in two dimensional space. As one student explained, “it was cool having everything in one place. Satisfying being able to zoom out and see how the process unfolded” (Margaret S., undergraduate student).

Students described the new medium as making research more playful and fun, explaining that it feels “less like writing a report” and more “like showing an image on my phone and asking, what do you think of this?” (Nourhan S., graduate student).

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In this example, students consolidated design research, pasting links and including thumbnails to offer visual cues. They nested this board within their broader project to keep their work organized, offering faculty insight into how they arrived at certain design decisions. Credit: Team 1, Challenge 4, Harvard

Before we introduced Milanote, students primarily used Google Docs for developing ideas, even during in-person sessions. Most found Google Docs frustrating, as it was difficult to add images, develop multiple strands of thought (which would get lost in an “infinite scroll”), or to quickly generate and convey ideas. A number of students explained that they struggled to express their own ideas or understand the perspectives of others. As a result, some even felt that they couldn’t contribute meaningfully to design-based work: “I just don’t have anything to contribute because I’m just not there yet.”

“When I’m writing things out I especially tend to be very self-critical and I edit myself a lot… [Milanote] makes me edit myself less.” — Kate M., undergraduate

Although some students were initially skeptical of using a new tool, most adopted Milanote as an idea development space that helped them be more generative, less self-critical, and more able to contribute quickly. More advanced designers similarly found that the ease of adding and organizing content minimizes a project’s organizational demands, so that a relatively natural version of collaborating in a shared visual space can happen. For both advanced and novice designers, Milanote felt like a space where it was okay to share unformed ideas.

“But here, I felt like I had more to contribute — I could come up with ideas that the person building the prototype could use even though I wasn’t working in the [design] software itself…Felt like I played a part.” — Danielle G., undergraduate

“I’ve never really liked Google Docs . . . trying to make it look nice kills my idea flow . . . Being in Milanote allows me not to worry about [formatting]. it’s so easy to make different cards and put different ideas there . . . It’s made ideation easier for me as I have less to worry about.” — Malila F., undergraduate student

In a design process it’s important for students to be quick on their feet, and focus in a rough, low-fidelity fashion instead of diving deeply into one idea. This is supported by Milanote’s limited text and image formatting options. Both teachers and students initially found this lack of formatting options frustrating. However, we soon found that the limited formatting options forced us to focus our thinking on idea development without the temptation to become distracted by what the board and its contents looks like. We’ve found that lowering the stakes and permitting work to feel draft-like throughout a design process encourages students to take more risks, be more receptive to feedback, and more open to iterating.

“We’re used to individuals writing papers instead of constantly workshopping and iterating in team based work.” — Kate M., undergraduate

Many of our students come from educational contexts with little room for drafting ideas iteratively or collaboratively. This iterative draft-making is integral to any creative process; between prototypes, students are able to test their ideas, and seek and synthesize feedback. Milanote’s infinite XY plane made it easier for students to keep track of, and for us to view their iterative trains of thought. This opportunity for spatial organization also supports parallel prototyping. Parallel prototyping, the process of concurrently exploring multiple ideas, helps to lower the pressure on any individual idea such that students feel comfortable sharing both in and out of the box ideas.

As projects develop and deepen, Milanote offers a place to manage complexity through the creation of boards within boards, while students are able to continue to play with possibilities. Where Docs or even tools like Mural can get overwhelming, students are able to quickly nest a new board within their workspace, and organize information along a virtual third dimension.

Final Reflections

The learning environment we set up for our students over the past two months succeeded because we didn’t try to mirror in the virtual environment exactly what we did in person. For example, we could have looked for digital tools that replicate the function of whiteboards and post-it notes (think Mural or Padlet). Instead, we explored how we could take advantage of the powers of digital media to better support our underlying goals — to create an environment for collaboration and creative work. This marked departure from how online learning environments are typically set up required both faculty and students to be open to trying yet another online tool and adapting to new ways of teaching and learning. This was a design exercise for all of us, and we are thankful that our students were open to trying out what we proposed and adapting when things didn’t go smoothly. And although we were able to manage the transition online, we can’t wait to get back to an in-person environment.

Our transition in early March was abrupt, and we now have the luxury of planning time to flesh out how courses can be brought online in the coming summer and (possibly) fall. We’re also considering how we might bring the important insights we’ve gained back to the physical classroom.

If you want to talk or collaborate, please get in touch: yusufa@mit.edu.

Many thanks to Beth Altringer, Laurie Delaney, Bakhtiar Mikhak, Mitchel Resnick, Amy Weinberg, Sarah Beckmann, and the students in our courses for the roles they played in bringing this work to life during a difficult time.

Rosa Weinberg is a designer and artist with a background in architecture. Her recent artistic work focuses on body extensions for dance, including developing novel attachment devices to the body. She is a senior coach and director of studio development at NuVu Studio, a full-time innovation school for middle and high school students. This spring she is taking a sabbatical from NuVu and is on the teaching team for Product and Experience Design for Desirability at Harvard University.

Yusuf Ahmad is a researcher in the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group.

David Alsdorf is an artist and faculty member at the Acera School. He also consults and works as a private tutor, and is currently facilitating creative computing workshops for parents and children online.

This post was originally published on the Media Lab website.

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