How might we use design thinking to humanize online education?

Concurrent Session 3

Brief Abstract

In this active, 45-minute session, attendees will be actively involved in a design thinking challenge centered on developing low-threshold ways to humanize online education. Participants work collaboratively to create and share meaningful solutions to this challenge through the identification of unmet needs of learners, brainstorming ideas, and prototyping solutions.

Extended Abstract

In this active, 45-minute session, attendees will be actively involved in a design thinking challenge centered on developing low-threshold ways to humanize online education. Two agreements seem to be clear across modern literature regarding distance education: it is growing at a rapid pace and this growth is bringing significant change. In the fall of 2020, around 8.6 million students enrolled exclusively in “distance education” courses at Title IV institutions, an increase of 5.1 million from the previous fall of 2019 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). However, with this sharp increase in distance education students, are educators considering the human design of online courses and programs?

This innovation studio session will tackle the specific challenge of humanizing online education through the lens of design thinking as a way for participants to re-imagine the way online education can be implemented with an eye to developing strategies they can implement immediately after the session.

This is relevant to the community because of:

  1. The rapid pace of unchecked growth in online education begs a human centered response (Johnston, 2021).
  2. A need to apply liberatory pedagogies to the distance education context (Freire, 1996; hooks, 2014).
  3. A concern that online education is designed intentionally to be human (Kilgore, 2016).
  4. A desire to encourage learner voice and agency to increase equity and inclusion in the online classroom (Pacansky-Brock et al., 2020)

Participants will work collaboratively to prototype a meaningful solution to this problem using design thinking. We will use an interactive, five-step process adapted from documented approaches to the use of design thinking in schools (Nash, 2019).

  1. Prompt: a five-minute facilitated, quick-start conversation to kick off the studio session by revealing the question, “How might we humanize online education,” and a discussion of the context behind the question.
  2. Need Finding: a ten-minute facilitated discussion with attendees reveal unmet needs of learners in online learning experiences, thereby scoping the “how might we…?” question into candidate brainstormable challenges. Entering questions could include, but are not limited to:
    1. Who among us here has taken an online course lately?
    2. What’s something the instructor of online courses should know but doesn’t?”
    3. What blind spots might prevail even among savvy course instructors and instructional designers?
    4. What should course instructors and instructional designers
      1. start doing?
      2. stop doing?
      3. turn up?
      4. turn down?
  3. Brainstorm: A two-minute setup and six-minute brainstorm session (eight-minutes total). Upon agreeing on a brainstormable challenge statement, attendees will assemble in small groups to brainstorm potential solutions to the challenge.
  4. Harvest the Brainstorm: A five-minute session wherein attendees remain in their brainstorm group to select a promising idea to prototype.  
  5. Prototype: In this fifteen-minute portion, teams rapidly prototype and present solutions. The large group offers feedback, identify practical next steps, and consider how they might apply in their own instructional context.

This session will assist participants to identify emerging trends in online learning and potential improvements by offering:

  • Greater understanding of how design thinking can be applied as a lens for course improvement.
  • Tools they can use to tackle the unstructured problems which arise in course development and delivery.
  • A variety of potential solutions and prototypes to the challenge of humanizing online education

Come join us as we design think our way towards humanizing online education.


Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed. 20th-Anniversary Edition. Continuum.

hooks, b. (2014). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.

Johnston, Jason, "Freedom for the (Distance Education) People! Ten Practical Ways to Bring Liberatory Pedagogy to Your Online Class" (2021). Pedagogicon Conference Proceedings. 3.


Kilgore, W. (2016). Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning. EdTech Books. 

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National Center for Education Statistics. U.S. Department of Education. (2021). Number and percentage distribution of students enrolled at Title IV institutions, by control of institution, student level, level of institution, distance education status of student, and distance education status of institution: United States, fall 2020.

Nash, J. B. (2019). Design thinking in schools: A leader’s guide to collaborating for improvement. Harvard Education Press.

Pacansky-Brock,  M., Smedshammer, M., & Vincent-Layton, K. (2020). Humanizing online teaching to equitize higher education. Current Issues in Education, 21(2).