Distance Learning Becomes the Design Challenge

Fred Leichter
Jul 21, 2020 · 6 min read

A tale told by Fred Leichter

Abstract image of Zoom call

Once upon a time (in February of 2020), in a world that didn’t know enough about Covid-19, I was happily teaching a class in Human-Centered Design at the Hive for 26 students from The Claremont Colleges. Students in the class were enrolled from all five of the colleges (Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, Pomona, and Scripps.) These fantastic students were studying under at least ten different majors. They worked together face-to-face in interdisciplinary groups. They interviewed, observed, experimented, danced, and clapped in spaces designed to free their thinking and help them explore.

Human-centered design in action at the Hive

And every day, they took on personal human projects such as “redesigning the inter-generational communication experience,” and they tackled big, ambiguous, out-in-the-world problems such as “redesign the organ donor experience” or “redesign the disaster preparation or recovery experience.” This class had just completed their first group challenge to “redesign the art museum experience for an under-served community.”

But, one day, on March 12 to be precise, the very day that teams presented their design ideas for the museum challenge, students and teachers were sent home for the rest of the semester. Home was in Shanghai, Bangkok, Singapore, Istanbul, and all over the US. We were to teach and learn in a tool we hardly knew called Zoom.

Picture of the class
Picture of the class
The museum challenge and last day before heading home

And because of that, I decided to re-imagine the third and final design challenge for the class. I puzzled: How might we create a design prompt that could be tackled remotely and engage students? How might we put teams together that could work well and continue a community from across the globe? And how might we find tools that would emulate the physical tools we use to foster creativity? On March 12, we had all just been given a huge and immediate design challenge. So why not have our students design for what we were all suddenly facing! The project prompt pretty much wrote itself:


Redesign the distance learning experience for a specific type of student, educator, family, or under-served group. This will be a team project with groups of four or five students. You will be remote from each other, but you will still collaborate on a single set of design deliverables.


In March of 2020, all of us have suddenly been thrown into a world where we must learn and teach at a distance. Families are coping with children at home, jobs in jeopardy, and in many cases, sick family and friends. It does not seem as if the education world will be back to “normal” for a while. And even then, we will likely have a new normal. Despite this enormous challenge, we will learn many new things about teaching and learning during this crisis. Problems will arise, but some things may work really well that we will want to continue. This is a unique time. Seize the opportunity to do something important and meaningful!

And because of that, I reached out to my colleagues in a group I helped create called The Future of Design in Higher Education (fdhe).

And because of that, I learned how to bring Mural into the class for visual remote collaboration, and all of the sticky notes we craved.

And because of that, we collaborated with friends from fdhe to create a list of Zoom-friendly warmups and stokes.

And because of that, we formed teams based on geographic location, so that time zones would be less of an issue. Though team “Turkasia” still had to get up in the middle of the night for class and span a wide set of time zones themselves.

And because of that, we learned a new cadence of interacting and tried to laugh when things didn’t quite work.

Until finally, we adjusted to this new reality, and even though we all really, really missed each other, the new tools started to work, and students were completely invested in the challenge. They felt agency to do something to help others in similar situations, and that brought them together in new ways.

Mural Stickies
Mural Stickies
Working Mother of three elementary school children POV
Working Mother of three elementary school children POV
From student Mural boards

Teams found specific and interesting users with powerful unmet needs, for instance:

- A shy, insecure, pimply, introverted 7th grader going through an awkward phase, who is lonely after being disconnected from their only friend

- An aging, overwhelmed, vision-impaired teacher, who has been teaching at an underfunded public middle school for 35 years and feels left behind with technology

- A single parent and front-line health worker with three kids suddenly attending school from home

- A housing-insecure foster youth, who has difficulty focusing in class

- A ceramics student attending a poorly funded public college and looking for artistic feedback

Caterpillar points of view

The students created insightful points of view, ideated, prototyped. And they found it surprisingly easy to connect with people to test their ideas — all remotely.

Their final presentations featured many off-screen designs and inspirations. The focus was on ways to relieve screen fatigue and increase community. We experienced:

- A Zoom plug-in to automatically get students to stretch or do a randomly selected activity

- A “blind disco” app to allow students and teachers to turn off their screen, stand up, and simply dance

- A pen pal connection for the shy 7th grader, to write and exchange a handwritten letter with a gift to be delivered by furloughed bus drivers

- An online ceramics art review facilitated by famous artists

- A game to renew a classroom rivalry between friends

- A superhero home learning costume package

Participation Meter prototype sketch
Participation Meter prototype sketch
Images of participants stretching on Zoom
Images of participants stretching on Zoom
Spin the dial and get up and stretch

And ever since then,

- We know just how much time zones matter

- We realize that Mural rocks, and we should incorporate it in the design process right after teams learn to use physical sticky notes

- We know that breakout rooms work whether in a physical or virtual space

- We discover that breaks are the new air, and stokes are the new wind, and we will always have students help design them

- We will no longer wonder if you can get a group to make a shape, say a heart, when everyone sees the Zoom rectangles in a different order

  • And … we’ll employ the Story Spine tool whenever we have a design story to tell!
I [heart] class

This remarkable class of students will live on to design happily ever after … not the end.

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