Prototyping High-Impact Online Activities

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Collaboratively ideate and prototype high-impact online activities. Think sky-high and then bring your ideas back to earth. Leave ready to test your ideas, with access to all of the ideas generated by the group. See us role-play personas! Vote with emoji! Win a prize! (Laptop or tablet required to participate.)


David Noffs has spent most of his life creating and working in unusual learning environments. From designing hi-tech mobile health education classrooms in rural and urban grade schools in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the United States, to virtual classrooms beginning at Columbia College Chicago in 2005 and most recently in Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies. As an Instructional Technologist and Designer at the Center for Innovation and teaching Excellence at Columbia, he oversaw the development of online interactive tools for teaching in the arts, as well as virtual learning communities across the campus. He currently teaches both online and face to face courses in the Interactive Arts and Media department at Columbia and the Northwestern School of Professional Studies. Noffs' doctoral dissertation from National Louis entitled, "Resonating Frequencies of Virtual Learning Communities: An Ethnographic Case Study of Online Faculty Development at Columbia College Chicago” demonstrates his lifelong interest in the research and application of innovative pedagogies and technologies. Dr. Noffs is a frequent presenter at conferences on adult learning and online learning. He continues to research, explore, and apply emerging technologies in diverse learning environments.
As a Senior Learning Designer in the School of Professional Studies, I collaborate with faculty as an advocate for curricular excellence, innovation in design and technology, universal design for learning, and superior student engagement and experience. I am a lifelong learner, and have had the unique experience of taking online courses as a student, developing online courses as an instructional designer, and teaching and tutoring online as an instructor. On any given day, you might find me drafting assignment descriptions, writing a blog post, conducting research on best practices in online learning, designing custom course graphics, facilitating faculty training, performing Quality Matters reviews, presenting at a conference, leading a webinar, building a course site in Canvas, or experimenting with new educational technology. 2018 - Master of Arts in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse - DePaul University 2017 - Online Teaching Certificate - Rutgers University 2017 - Graduate Certificate in Instructional Design - University of Wisconsin-Stout 2014 - Master of Fine Arts in Writing, focus in Book Arts - The School of the Art Institute of Chicago 2012 - Bachelor of Arts in English, concentration in Children's Literature - University of Florida

Extended Abstract


While learning designers have an array of activities available to offer to faculty developers, they are often presented like a smorgasbord, where offerings have been placed randomly on the table. Imagine appetizers, entrees, and desserts intermingled in chaotic disarray! At such a table, guests would not move sequentially or in order, but rather move in opposite directions, colliding with one another, and even miss out on their favorite foods. Grouping foods by types is one way to avoid this chaos and make a smorgasbord an enjoyable way to navigate the various offerings.

In much the same way, presenting online activities to faculty, particularly those new to online teaching, in a chaotic group can be arbitrary and lead to poorly selected, misplaced, and ineffectual engagement. Worse still, the wrong type of activity can be frustrating and confusing for students and detract from their learning.

At a recent faculty workshop, this team of learning designers set out to categorize online activities and, using design thinking, have faculty design new activities by combining and splicing similar activity types to create new hybrid iterations of assignments and activities. During the workshop, groups designed and assembled innovative activities in five predetermined groups or functions: Building a Learning Community, Work Artifacts, Grounded Learning, Achieving Consensus, and Navigating Contested Terrain. While some activities such as debate-style discussions (where students take opposing positions) straddled multiple functions, others were uniquely designed for a specific purpose within a course. 

However, the workshop ended before participants could vote on promising designs and ideas from each of the groups working on the various activity types. We want to continue the process where our participants left off. 


The problem at hand: How do we choose and create high impact online activities when there are so many to choose from? 

In this design thinking challenge, participants will collaborate to creatively ideate and prototype high impact online activities, experiencing each stage of the design thinking process: empathy, definition, ideation, and prototyping. We’ll ask them to first ignore, and then embrace, context; to think sky-high and then bring their ideas back to earth. They will diverge to work in small groups and converge to discuss as a large group.

Participants will leave the session ready to approach the final step in any design thinking activity--testing. They will have fresh ideas for online activities in their own coursework, as well as access to a shared Google Sheet that contains all of the ideas generated by the group. 

Learning Objectives

By the end of this design thinking session, participants will be able to:

  • Identify different types of assessment categories for use in curriculum design.

  • Creatively ideate innovative online activities.

  • Choose assessments to meet the needs of different learners.

  • Identify emerging trends in educational technology and their potential uses.

  • Identify and prototype superlative online activities.

In addition to these learning objectives, we anticipate that participant takeaways will include experiencing a fast-paced design thinking experience and seeing the value of including a variety of activity types in any course.

Design Thinking Challenge Sequence

Initial Setup

We will welcome participants to the session and direct them to sit at the table with the category  they are most drawn to. 

Six tables will be provided, each labeled with one component of our five-category framework for innovative online activities: 

  1. Building a Learning Community

  2. Navigating Contested Terrain

  3. Achieving Consensus

  4. Grounded Learning

  5. Work Artifacts


  1. Exploratory table.

We will have directions to get started up on the screen, including a short link to join a Google Sheet. (Laptop computers will be required to participate in the activity.) When participants open the Google Sheet, they will find that it is publicly accessible and there is a tab with the name of their table on it.

Short Presentation

We will kick off our design thinking challenge with a brief, 5-minute presentation using TimelineJS. We will share the context regarding the workshop’s creation and rationale for its importance, define our five-category framework, and then introduce the timeline of activities in the session. Participants will be given a brief opportunity to switch tables, if they prefer.

Divergent Activity: Brainstorming

Then, we will begin our 10-minute divergent activity. Unfettered by context such as cost, technology learning curve, and learner level, participants will brainstorm ideas for innovative online activities in their area of the framework in their table groups, generating as many ideas as possible. They will enter their ideas into the grid on their tab on the Google Sheet.

Convergent Activity: Persona Role Playing and Ranking

The timer beeps! In 5 short minutes, each of the three facilitators pulls out a different hat from behind the podium and presents themselves as a learner. 

Learner 1 is an adult student, returning to school after dropping out ten years ago. They are successful in their field and are returning to school to fulfill a personal promise and continue moving up the ranks. They are a little tech-phobic and like to plan their week out in detail. They like to know that their projects imitate “real-world” tasks and think about college ROI (return on investment). They can work in teams, but prefer to work individually. They will occasionally participate in campus groups and activities.

Learner 2 is a high-achieving student, entering their freshman year of college straight out of high school. While they are familiar with lots of mobile technologies, they are less comfortable with email correspondence and word processing. They can be disorganized and are prone to procrastination, but they understand “college culture,” including its language and expectations. They get bored easily. They are skeptical of group projects and has not done well working with teams in the past. They are frequently involved in campus groups and activities.

Learner 3 is a senior who has taken two additional years to graduate due to their personal and professional life. They learn new technologies quickly. They are juggling school with lots of family responsibilities and part-time work. They always want to know why what they’re learning is important. They work well in teams. Although they would like to, this student rarely participate in campus groups and activities.

In their groups, participants will spend 5 additional minutes categorizing and ranking the ideas in their Google Sheet according to the needs of each learner. 

Divergent Activity: Prototyping an Assignment Description

Once the most innovative (and well-matched!) activity is identified, the group will spend 10 minutes prototyping an activity description. A number of guiding questions are provided on each tab of the Google sheet: What prior knowledge or skills will the student need to complete the activity? How long will it take? What technology or other supplies will they need to use? How will you know if they have successfully completed the activity?

Convergent Activity: Emoji Voting

Then, participants will take a deep breath and reflect for 5 minutes as they vote on ideas in other tabs using an emoji framework.

(grad hat emoji) = Good job meeting the learner’s needs!

(robot emoji) = Innovative use of technology!

(checkmark emoji) = I will definitely use this!

(100 emoji) = My all-around favorite idea


Wrapping Up

In the final 5 minutes of the session, the presenters will share the most popular idea and award a prize to the winning team.

At the end of the session (and through the end of the conference and their return home), participants may return to the Google Sheet to access the ideas they worked on in their groups or review the ideas developed in other groups.