Distance and online design education – a (not so) quick introduction

This is a quick post after a few online discussions and question around how to start with distance (and online) design education – thanks to @ZhenpingLiow, @_p_antonio and others). It’s a quick summary of a few key concepts and ideas for any design teachers or tutors needing to think about online and distance education and act on it really quickly.

(It got a bit long but hopefully it’s still readable and we may add other posts and sort out a more complete version in the next few weeks. Feedback is welcome necessary!)

So, feel free to ask questions in the comments or get in touch to tell us what we’ve missed or anything you’d like more detail on.

Twitter: @designopenuni @plug103 #DistanceDesignEd

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At The Open University (UK), we’ve been teaching design at a distance for nearly 50 years (Holden, 2009) and 1) yes, it can be done; 2) no, really, even if the students aren’t there.

Replacing studio teaching is difficult. In fact, the idea of ‘replacement’ is itself a kind of deficit thinking – you are not going to replace your studio online in a 1-1 correspondence kind of way (Jones, 2013). But you can do something like it; something else; and even (sometimes) something better.

Try thinking a bit different and you’ll be fine.

In studio teaching praxis there are so many implicit, tacit, or ‘hidden curriculum’ elements that you rarely even consider or acknowledge them. At a distance you can’t rely on that and at the OU we have a lot of different tools, techniques, and experience to build an overall distance design and the studio experience.

But even for us, where making the learning explicit as possible is central to the pedagogy, there are still many assumptions we apply. So, call me out on any you spot and ask questions at the end!

Have a strategy or plan

Have some idea of what you’re going to do when you have to change.

Think it through quickly, read through some of the tips here, speak to colleagues and make a professional decision on what needs to change to what you were doing.

Have a look at some of the other basics you need to know – start with Martin Weller’s post here: http://blog.edtechie.net/higher-ed/the-covid-19-online-pivot/

Maybe split your thinking into content, activity, and mode – how are you going to deal with each. Then cross that with whether you think students can do it, you can support them doing it, and (critically) that you are able to recognise the learning that takes place (assessment!).

Start with what’s easy and make decisions around things you definitely can and definitely cannot do. These can become boundary conditions for making the harder decisions.

Think in general scenario and narrative terms to get the scale of strategy right. For example

  • If you’re running a large-scale project, will this still be possible? Are you at a stage where you could move into online spaces with student to complete? Maybe all you need to change is the final hand-in? Maybe you need to abandon the Big Project and move to stages or other outputs?
  • If you’re running small activity or skills-based series, these might be easier to approach in terms of programming (approaching each in sequence). But there will be some that you can do easily and others that are harder. Try prioritising accordingly and check your thinking with a peer to check your biases and beliefs.
  • If you need a solution for novice design students, how are you going to induct them to distance education as well as design education (Lotz et al., 2018)
  • If you’re doing content-based stuff, then you might have a good starter for translation to online but remember that assimilative learning should also be blended – never just dump books online and hope for the best.
  • If you have a very open and constructionist curriculum (emergent rather than planned), then you might need a series of ideas and backups to try things out. Involve students – let them know what you are doing and that you are all in this together.
  • Team teach as much as possible, even if it’s just to check your thinking, ideas and (especially) biases / beliefs. Having other voices in your thinking process will surface some of your assumptions and can be an effective decision-making process in itself.

Keeping things going.

There’s a lot to be said for just trying to do what you can to keep things going. You don’t have to give up on the massive degree show, but you might not get there because of what is a radical shift in learning mode. Or you might even end up with something completely different.

So think about how you can keep things going rather than making everything perfect or ‘translating’ your proximate practice to online.

  • Smaller activities work better than huge ones: 1) chunking online material suits the medium (until we evolve our higher cognitive functions); 2) if a smaller activity doesn’t work you can ditch it and move to another, 3) it’s a bit easier to set up conditions and guiding principles for smaller activities – treat them like
  • Use the many OER resources available to you as a designer: Try
  • A small design activity can be built up to a design method (Archer, 1979; Cross, 2007) and you can build on these to construct design processes. In fact, they can be useful in learning about the design process full stop – some subjects rarely get the chance to do this.

Iterate and be a designer.

When you create any teaching material you are designing it, whether you realise it or not. Like any other design, it’s possible to do this well … or not. Good design tends to come from a good design process. A good design process tends to come from years of experience practising design.

Fortunately, you’re probably a designer already – so make good use of that experience and translate it as much as possible.

  • Take a user- and client-centred approach to your design – consider the student experience but also the teacher’s and any other relevant stakeholders. Learning (especially design education) is more like a dialogue so remember there are multiple users – and plural too.
  • Prototype, iterate and let your students know– you’re
  • Let your students know that you’re making designing this as you go and show them that you do what you teach too – prototyping something to test it is absolutely fine in education and can be incorporated into the pedagogy itself
  • Even better, get your students into the learning design process too – a project designing, delivering and testing some curriculum is very like one of Ray and Charles’ India Report projects (Eames and Eames, 1958)
  • Use what’s available and use it any way you need to – it’s not about what something was designed to do, it’s about how it can be hacked to support your students’ learning… Pick one of your tools and challenge yourself (or your students) to misuse it in some way (try to create a film using MS Word using realtime screencapture…)
  • Again, don’t think you have to do this yourself – there are loads of OER materials available. DS106 now sustains itself through its own community. But think about giving back too.

Get the blender out

Even if you’ve been instructed to ‘go online’ you should set your own design problem, not someone else’s. The issue you most likely face is one of distance, proximity and presence, not mode or technology (those should be solution/opportunity spaces…).

Not everything has to be translated online certainly, just as you wouldn’t do everything via only lecture or handouts (you wouldn’t, would you?). Learning is always a mix of content and modes so make use of that to blend

  • If you have a high degree of active learning in your material, what actually needs to be online? The output? Diary of progress? Trials and iterations? Self-reporting or auto-ethnographic observation?
  • Even with proximate-sensitive learning, especially craft and skills-based, there are still aspects of this that can be developed at a distance. There are limits but remember that you might be in emergency mode – do what you can!
  • Take this opportunity to develop students’ own reflective practice and connoisseurship. Help them learn how to express their design practice, articulacy, criticality; make such expression and articulation the shift in focus.
  • Help students develop mechanism to avoid the Kruger-Dunning (Kruger and Dunning, 1999) effect and connect with appropriate peers to develop their learning.

Keep connected.

Your students have already been using a blended, online learning environment. It’ll be called Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or WeChat. It’s OK for students to keep using those channels and maybe it’s a chance for you to do it too.

  • Select a single emergency broadcast medium – one that you let students know you will use throughout even if you add to this later on: VLE page/location; use a single online location/URL; mailing list(!); online platform group list; a #hashtag; set up a (course) social media account; create an online page/blog; make a channel; whatever medium you need / want to use.
  • Communicate with everyone as soon as you can. Let them know what the single communication point will be. Use this as a central place or resource that you use regularly – really one that can federate to others (bear in mind that you might end up working across quite a few platforms – different student prefer different services
  • Remember that not everyone has or wants a digital presence. If possible, ask students in this position to consider using a passive channel to pick up core messages, assignments, etc.
  • Another approach to studio is to take a fully social approach and recognise that creativity and design can be considered a social construct (Lloyd, 2012). Letting a fully social studio operate is an option – have a look at DS106; (Schnabel and Ham, 2012); (Fotaris et al., 2015)

Reduce the distance

“If a tree falls in the forest and there are no teachers around, does it learn anything?”

Avoid any and all such philosophical dilemmas by making sure no one asks this question in the first place. ‘Being there’ is not just a physical activity – it’s also about your presence, availability, approachability, proximity, etc. and this applies at a distance just as it would in a physical setting.

Think about it – why are you reading this? Do you get the sense it was written by a human? What can you tell about that human from the writing?

Humans have a whole load of neocortex that’s great at processing that sort of social communication and interaction stuff – so make good use of it. People want to act socially in distance and online settings just as they would in physical settings (Lotz et al., 2015)

Again, it starts with the very basics – if you try to act and behave genuinely this will come across whether you are online or offline.

  • Your presence online is critical to reducing distance (Kear, 2010). Online presence is a particular thing in distance education (REF) and it’s communicated by what you do online and the actions and signs of the medium you are using. If you’re inactive in a particular medium, then that affects your presence. As does your profile, avatar and the type of activity you do online – all of these are signs of who and what you are. Including being a designer…
  • You are an example of how to conduct yourself online as a designer: what to do, how to behave, etc. Lead by example (e.g. if you are giving brief feedback on a posted image, make it a good example of effective and efficient text that give supportive critique
  • If you’re new to this too then be honest about that too – get your students to co-design how you will all stay connected and maintain presence. It does not have to be the latest and most complicate tech that you use at all.
  • Do a lot of ‘visible’ work online with students, whether these are regular meetings; activities; online material posting; daily advice; etc.
  • It’s absolutely fine for this to be ‘one way’ work – your students don’t have to reply to everything and are often still listening-in (that’s one of the most important correlators to student success (Jones et al., 2017)

Try an online studio

An online studio can be a significant catalyst in distance learning, just as a physical studio is in physical design education spaces. At the OU we use OpenStudio, software we have developed over a few decades to work as part our virtual learning environment (Lotz et al., 2019).

But this bespoke solution is not the only option (although you can give it a go free – details to follow).

  • Think about any online or distance studio as you would a physical studio. Translate the CONCEPTS from one to the other – do you have a large, open space? A series of smaller activity spaces? Is your studio primarily social? Is it artefact or activity based? Find your conceptual metaphor then look for your tech.
  • Use what students are already using – your class or studio might have already set up an online space (which may contain private messages…). Ask if it’s ok to do something like that
  • Use what industry is already using. If you’re in an design subject that uses an online portfolio as standard then use that (chances are you might already be, or plan to)
  • Remember, the studio is not just the tool or service – it’s the activity, social interactions, affordances, as well. Your whole learning material will dictate and influence what your studio is just as much as what happens inside it.
  • Have a good look at what other people have done. Try the proceedings from the last Learn X Design Conference (Free and Open) https://www.designresearchsociety.org/cpages/design-pedagogy-sig (some good case studies and examples of different studios. Look out for:
    • (Lanig, 2019) – pp 247-256
    • (Venkatesh and Ma, 2019) pp 237-245
    • (Hilton, 2019) pp 281-290
    • (Yolaç, 2019) pp 257-265
    • (Lotz, 2019) pp 267-280
    • And apologies to anyone I’ve missed – call me out and I’ll update!
  • Other useful cases:
    • (Fotaris et al., 2015)
    • (Schnabel and Ham, 2012)
    • (Pektaş, 2015)
    • (Fleischmann, 2018, 2019)
    • Again, any others, let me know.

Use asynchronous, summary and verbal detailed feedback.

Don’t be afraid of the loss of synchronicity – yes it may make it seem as if teaching is impossible without immediate feedback. But it is. The secret is in flipping it from teaching to learning. You are assessing learning, right?

If not, have a really hard look at the THING you assess. If it’s the final design product then you might be missing the point.

At the OU we use CompendiumDS to allow student communicate their design process, which is what we assess. You can download CompendiumDS and use if yourself FREE: https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/design/learning-teaching/compendiumds/

Getting to see students’ thinking is a form of online presence, reducing the distance between student and tutor (Jones, 2014)

So, instead of formative assessment in studio, have a series of interim, online submissions that you assess and give good (audio or screencast) feedback on. Do this asynchronously so that you are force to articulate something the student can work on (without you being there to explain it).

Not easy – but very, very effective at forcing you to articulate:

  1. What you expected
  2. What the student did
  3. How these things were different
  4. Why that matters and what the effects were
  5. What they should not do next time
  6. What they can do more of next time
  7. Some advice on personal hygiene and hand washing

This is a version of Sadler’s (Sadler, 1989) modified Ramaprasad (Ramaprasad, 1983) feedback loop – designed to encourage action and change in response to feedback, not only reflection. Do it and see how challenging it can be:

  • Create a summary sheet that sets out feedback points and provides action-based summary points. These should be quite explicit and clear in terms of one part of the feedback loop above
  • In the summary sheet, end with summary points and try to balance these as things to do more of; things to avoid; things to work on and improve (with direction back or onwards to how)
  • Create an audio file to accompany the feedback sheet. This provided the affective and pastoral side of the feedback and can mitigate any of the critical points made in the summary sheet;
  • Include the submitted work and, if possible, mark up key points

For the ideal loop, have a synchronous feedback close-out with the student. Time consuming but so is studio teaching. Using this method, you have a continuous record of feed-forward you (and students) can use to reflect on both tuition and learning.

Take this as an opportunity.

As a designer we spend most of our time just getting on with it or helping others do it. To have the chance to try and understand, articulate, and explain design at a distance is chance for you to reflect on what you value in the process of design.

Get the sketchbook out and use it to design your online learning

Even more resources

To follow. Let us know any questions and what might help…



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Cross, N. (2007) ‘Forty years of design research’, Design Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 1–4 [Online]. DOI: 10.1016/j.destud.2006.11.004.

Eames, C. and Eames, R. (1958) The India Report, Ahmedabad, National Institute of Design.

Fleischmann, K. (2018) ‘Online design education: Searching for a middle ground’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, p. 147402221875823 [Online]. DOI: 10.1177/1474022218758231.

Fleischmann, K. (2019) ‘From studio practice to online design education: Can we teach design online?’, Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology / La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, vol. 45, no. 1 [Online]. Available at http://www.learntechlib.org/p/208589/ (Accessed 6 January 2020).

Fotaris, P., Mavrommati, I., Leinfellner, R. and Mastoras, T. (2015) ‘Teaching design from a distance: a case study of virtual design studio teaching via a social network’, Proceedings of 7th International Conference on Education and New Learning Technologies EDULEARN15, Barcelona, p. 10.

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Jones, D., Lotz, N. and Holden, G. (2017) ‘Lurking and learning: Making learning visible in a Virtual Design Studio’, Proceedings of the LearnXdesign London 2017 Conference, London, pp. 176–183 [Online]. Available at http://oro.open.ac.uk/52977/.

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Pektaş, Ş. T. (2015) ‘The virtual design studio on the cloud: a blended and distributed approach for technology-mediated design education’, Architectural Science Review, vol. 58, no. 3, pp. 255–265 [Online]. DOI: 10.1080/00038628.2015.1034085.

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One response to “Distance and online design education – a (not so) quick introduction”

  1. Apoorv avatar

    Thanks for sharing the information about the distance and online design education As Distance learning is the future of the education world and I am searching for this Distance MBAKeep sharing this information and i am also sharing this with my friends once again thanks a lot.

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