Co-designing learning that isn’t remote

How did lockdown impact your educational practice?

Recently colleagues and I reflected on this question about pandemic disruption for a special issue of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. When the coronavirus first hit Sydney in 2020, ed tech and learning design skills were needed in a hurry and there was less time for design workshops. The sudden ‘pivot’ to remote and online learning was ‘challenging’ in the extreme. Yet, beyond technical support and constraints, business school educators were genuinely grappling with student experience online and how to improve it.

I was (and am) in the extremely fortunate position of working in Business Co-design as a ‘pracademic,’ educating, designing, and researching, and drawing on creative practice (Netolicky, 2020). This multidisciplinary team has been finding innovative ways to support change in teaching and learning practices in this strange new pandemic world. For example, working with museum objects to spark creative thinking in a Master of Commerce Unit.

However, our team could no longer physically bring students, alumni, and industry professionals together to co-design and create curriculum change. We couldn’t offer participants a break away from their usual routines in a dedicated space to think about learning. There’d be no coffee and sweets.

Was it possible to recreate design workshops remotely?

Impossible. Pandemic pressures increased demand for online support, there was even less time to prepare, and like many others, my Wi-Fi was slow and glitchy.

But we still really wanted those workshops and those diverse perspectives in the ongoing design and redesign of Units. We had to think differently, and not attempt to recreate the in-person experience. We had to shift our focus from the remote to connect with others, emotionally and cognitively.

It took some reframing and design thinking, to concentrate more on social activity and less on space. For example, it meant designing in camera breaks and more time for tasks. Letting go of using props for games and icebreakers. We made more use of chat and prepared messages to make it as seamless as possible, among other things.

Snapshot of a group learning design workshop facilitated with business academics and students

The results?

There were awkward moments and technical failures, for sure. But we could understand and move past them. More importantly, most students felt ‘heard’ and appreciated talking with academics as peers about their education. These fleeting experiences signaled caring design intentions. Alumni students added an industry perspective and valued being included in the Business School community on a meaningful task. Most participants were keen to be kept in the loop and further contribute. 

It was (and is) hard to keep an open mind (and a sense of humour) about collaborating in Zoom rooms. Yet design thinking and reframing educational problems can yield surprising insights (Beligatamulla et al., 2019). Remote is a harsh word which frames this type of learning in a negative way. It helps to remember that communication in-person is not always best. For me, it boils down to thinking more about the human rather than the technical aspects of remote learning. Find out more in the article, Designing workshops to be sociable rather than remote.

About the author

Published by Carmen Vallis

Carmen is an educational designer, researcher, and writer based on Wangal land in Sydney, Australia. Lurks on twitter and LinkedIn @cjvallis.

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