Design Thinking Projects in Online Learning Environments

I do a good bit of design thinking research related to learning design and and I’ve found design thinking to be a useful process for student work in online courses. 

More specifically, I find that design thinking provides a framework for personalized creativity and innovative thinking by students.

As a good example of what this can look like, let me share a learning environment model based on Lesson 2.1 in the PR Publications course taught by Adam Croom at the University of Oklahoma.

IDEO_process.pngWikimedia Commons photo shared by Paris-Est d.school at Ecole des Ponts under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

The lesson is designed to move students, via personalized research and experience, through the empathetic research and subsequent design process of creating a company business card. You can see that Adam does a terrific job of promoting student agency or ownership of the creative process. As a consequence, he’s able to take skill-based capabilities and make them highly relevant to each individual learner.

The Learning Environment Model (LEM) Design

Adam has been working to evolve this course over multiple semesters and has placed a strong emphasis on process and iterative modeling.

In order to illustrate his approach, let me begin with an analog, high-level learning environment model and then move into the the actual steps in Adam’s lesson.

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There are essentially three segments to Adam’s lesson. (I’ve created titles for these segments to facilitate my design explanation). In the first segment – “Introduction and Design Thinking Research Applied”, he allows students to choose the company or organization they’ll use as the basis for their work in the lesson. This serves two purposes: 1) it allows students to personalize assignments by working with a company that reflects their individual tastes and preferences; and 2) it provides context for the design thinking information presented in the lesson. This segment concludes with an application activity in which students complete a high-level analysis of their chosen company using the first part of an empathetic research process.

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In the second section, “Iterative Application and Feedback,” Adam provides a series of application activities that move students iteratively through a design thinking approach to designing a company business card. He builds in multiple feedback loops as part of this segment, which encourage reflection and revision on multiple levels.

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Finally, in the third segment, “Creative Application,” students are asked to convert their design thinking into actual evidence in the form of a draft design for company business cards. These designs are posted to student blogs and, as has been practiced throughout the lesson, receive feedback from peers.

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Besides being a great model for project-based learning using design thinking methods, Adam’s lesson is also noteworthy for other learning elements:

  • He models the effective use of different tools for design thinking brainstorming with blogs and Pinterest.
  • He does a great job of building in peer feedback at each process step through blog comments. This adds a good example of asynchronous collaboration for individual projects.
  • He models “working out loud,” the shared, iterative process of professional designers, by having students post their work in public spaces.

PRPubs shows that it’s possible to design and deliver engaging and learner-focused lessons using design thinking in an asynchronous, online environment. In fact, after working through lessons like this, some may become convinced that this is an ideal model for teaching design thinking approaches to creative design.

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