moving design and innovation courses online: emphasize empathy and objectives

innovation courses online

This past spring, as colleges and universities rushed to move their design and innovation courses online, there was emphasis on finding tools that would enable faculty to teach the way they had always taught. In a recent webinar, Teaching Design and Innovation Online, VentureWell Faculty Grants recipients, Raja Schaar from Drexel University and Nathaniel Stern from University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, shared the need to go beyond tools. They recommend structuring classes to focus on objectives and how best to academically and emotionally support students during these unprecedented times.

rethink, redesign, and reframe based on objectives

Schaar redesigned her class based on specific skills she deemed critical, and she had to help her students reframe how they were thinking about their classes. Her students mourned the loss of tangibles like “making” and she counseled them and encouraged them to reflect on the skills they were learning in the online environment, such as resilience, persistence, and creativity.

Stern stripped his class objectives down even further, noting that at the heart of it, college is about helping students to navigate complex systems and make decisions. Students can still do this online. In fact the transition to an online learning environment, and the tools and processes that are a part of it, provided students with a whole new set of systems to navigate.

balance the use of different teaching modalities

Along with redesigning coursework based on key objectives, there’s also a need to revise what class time means. For Schaar and Stern, lengthy lectures are abandoned in favor of a mix of modalities:

  •   Short pre-recorded lectures
  •   Links to assignments
  •   Flexible office hours for one-on-one support
  •   Synchronous check-ins
  •   Breakout groups for teamwork and group activities

consider students’ social-emotional needs

Schaar’s synchronous check-in time is as much about social-emotional support as it is about helping students complete their projects. She provides students with time to seek support on their class work, as well as ample time to share how they are feeling.

Stern employs “stokes”—icebreakers or warm ups—and tends to have two stokes at the start of every class: one Energy Stoke and one Empathy Stoke.

Energy Strokes focus on creating energy and getting people out of their seats in activities like Silly Yoga Poses, Rock-Paper-Scissors games, and Silent Dance Parties.

Empathy Stokes give students an opportunity to feel seen and heard, and to care for one another. Depending on class size, these may happen in breakouts or with the whole class. Empathy Strokes include “Share Some Good News,” “Up, Down, Forward (Tell me something up, tell me something down, tell me something you’re looking forward to); Finish that sentence (e.g. The best part of my week is…).

A whole host of online-friendly stokes are here.

understand and accommodate inequities

By tapping into the social-emotional needs of their classes, Schaar and Stern have been able to get a window into the specific challenges students are encountering and are better able to empathize and accommodate these issues. To accommodate disparities in students’ access to the internet and reliable electricity, Schaar is flexible about when and how students engage with her and the class, and submit work. 

Since the online platform has necessitated students’ use of technology for their design work, this has unearthed the fact that some students are not quite as technologically literate as others and need help using different design tools. Schaar does a tech survey to find out what hardware her students are using and intends to build in questions about familiarity with different design tools.

Accommodations aren’t just about technology. They span everything from socio-economic, to home life, to mental health, to social justice. Schaar notes that some of her students are able to work and thrive in any environment, while others may need support. Sometimes that support is in the form of a few dollars to spend on something, or permission to do something, and more recently, it’s time and space to acknowledge and process the social injustices they are experiencing. For Schaar, it’s about taking the time to empathize and trying to balance that with academic expectations.

reflect on the benefits of the transition to online

As they transitioned to teaching online, professors Raja Schaar and Nathaniel Stern have learned new skills and strategies for supporting their students. Stern reflects that his experience teaching design online helped bring into focus how much of his teaching relies on complex decision making. He found that what students wanted and needed most from him was help with, and understanding of, their own challenges. 

Schaar believes her efforts to redesign coursework and accommodate the personal, social, and technological needs of her students has improved the educational experience for her students and will help make her a better  teacher when she returns to in-person instruction.

View the Teaching Design and Innovation Online webinar and download the Tools and Approaches to Support Collaboration, Team Work, Design and Prototyping here.

The original version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn


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