Virus to Virtual: Shifting a Design Thinking Course Online 

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Human-centered. Project-based. Highly active. When developing her spring 2020 course “Emerging Global Challenges,” Professor of Geology and Peace and Conflict Studies Karen Harpp hoped to build students’ skills and confidence in constructing creative solutions to address challenges on campus, in the local community, and beyond. These were her guiding principles.

Alongside four student-teachers — Jacob Pilawa ’20, Jacqueline Stern ’20, Katie Weber ’20, and Risako Yang ’21 — Harpp launched the class with 26 students at the end of January. Little did they know that one of their emerging challenges would be COVID-19. Through a number of instructional mechanisms, however, Harpp and her students were able to adapt to online learning while maintaining the interactive nature of the course experience. 

“When we learned we were moving to online education, we asked ourselves, ‘What can we do that we couldn’t do in person?’” Harpp recalled. “‘How can we leverage the technology we have? How can we push ourselves to grow?’ These became our mantras.” 

At the beginning of the semester, students had focused on solving design challenges related to the physical aspects of accessibility, such as ensuring Americans with Disabilities (ADA) compliance on campus. After the shift online, they could no longer gather physical observations. So, many of them pivoted their projects to topics such as access to student services, resources for universal designs for learning, strategies to make the campus proactive regarding accessibility, resources for online tech education, and an online buddy system.

To foster a smooth transition, Harpp and her co-instructors reimagined the five stages of design thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. For instance, the course’s in-person emphasis on focus groups and real conversations during the empathize stage switched to interviews over Zoom and surveys supplemented with external research. 

“The ideation phase in particular is a wildly chaotic, exciting event,” Harpp said. “We encourage creativity, curiosity, and high levels of energy. Figuring out how to translate all of that into a virtual space was a challenge.”

Harpp and her students maintained a dynamic environment with online brainstorming resources such as Mural, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. 

During the prototype stage, students built physical, low-resolution prototypes depicting their solutions from readily available materials in their homes. Group members shared their models with each other, merging them into a digital prototype that served as the basis for the next phases of their project development. These digital prototypes ranged from websites to slideshows to infographics. Through repeated testing, the prototypes progressed, gradually becoming more refined and detailed.

The students’ physical separation while online, combined with the necessity to create strong bonds within their groups, demanded an increase in community-building activities, Stern explained. “A hallmark of the class is community building,” she said. “Design thinking can’t flourish without establishing a real connection with your team.”

One of these activities — coined “Tea Time” by the class — facilitated conversations that allowed students to show genuine interest in each others’ lives, as well as provide feedback for their groups. 

Harpp and her co-instructors began each class with a roadmap, or an overview of their in-class goals and tasks for the rest of the week. Roadmaps reminded students of how their activities correlated to the stages in the design process, and they helped students understand the purpose of each activity. Feedback from each class period informed and improved subsequent sessions.

“We wanted to check in with everyone and provide them with a sense of direction,” Yang said. “We didn’t want to dictate how they dealt with the design thinking process, but we also wanted to make sure they were moving forward. The roadmaps allowed for a wonderful balance between the two.” 

The efforts of the student groups culminated in virtual presentations — which presented a unique opportunity, Harpp explained. “We realized that, for the first time, we could invite literally everyone,” she said. “Parents, stakeholders, interviewees, other teachers, other students, administrators, you name it.” 

Harpp describes the origins of “Emerging Global Challenges” as a grass roots collaboration with students. In 2017, Harpp created and taught a version of the course with Peter Tschirhart, former assistant dean for the Undergraduate Scholars Program. After Tschirhart left Colgate, Harpp began partnering with former design thinking (D.Lab) students, as well as students with other relevant experiences, to assist in improving and instructing the class. Harpp, Pilawa, Stern, Weber, and Yang have been working together for more than two years. 

“I took the class on a whim and then realized how much I love creating solutions and testing them out,” Weber said. “In a lot of classes, you often learn things theoretically without seeing real-life applications. But design thinking is all about doing — about discovery.” 

The use of student-teachers resulted in a more diverse and effective pedagogy, according to Harpp. “The student perspective is instrumental to the class,” she noted. “We are 100% a team. Everyone is open about which direction they think the class should go.”

The co-instructors agreed that their experiences in design thinking shaped their time at Colgate. “My creative confidence has grown so much,” Yang said. “This group has given me an outlet to express myself, and to voice my ideas. Whenever I’m with them, I feel energized. Whenever I have something to say, I feel validated.”