Online Learning Strategies for Design Courses During Social Distancing

Jacobs Institute
6 min readMar 30, 2020

With COVID-19 radically transforming teaching practices, colleges and universities across the country have made the leap to online instruction, often with little notice and time to prepare.

At UC Berkeley, our instructors had just 24 hours notice to figure out the best practices for transitioning to online learning. This has been particularly challenging for our design courses, where classes rely on student teamwork, in-person critique, open-ended projects, and the ability to prototype using materials and resources available in labs and makerspaces. Approaching these challenges has required a collective adjustment of expectations: how do you take a thriving, public community, and create an equally thriving digital space?

We asked three instructors [Emily Au, DES INV 15: DESIGN METHODOLOGY; Sara Beckman, ART 100/TDPS 100/UGBA 190C COLLABORATIVE INNOVATION; and Bjoern Hartmann, COMPSCI 160/260 USER INTERFACE DESIGN & DEVELOPMENT] how they have been working with their students and curriculum to accommodate the sudden changes and the impact that social distancing has had on project collaboration and the classroom experience. We’ve outlined some of the most pressing concerns from our students and faculty, and how we’re addressing them at the Jacobs Institute, and across the broader campus community.

Providing Student Agency

The first and most unanimous takeaway in helping to adapt to the structural changes of online learning is to focus on involving the students in the redesign of their course. It’s been crucial to keep in mind that this is not just an academically stressful time. Many of our students have expressed concerns about finances, their personal health, the health of their families, and feelings of loneliness and isolation. From an academic standpoint, they are concerned with finding focus, access to places to study, limited opportunities for collaboration and assistance, and how to finish projects that require campus access. In addition to this, a large percentage of our students have moved back to their homes, making it more of a challenge to connect and tune in, due to time zone differences and varying home workspaces.

We have found that providing as much agency to our students at this time is helping to create effective work environments. Professor Bjoern Hartmann started by asking his students:

  1. Where they expected to be located for the rest of the semester.
  2. What aspect of the class they are most concerned about, and any outside factors to consider that would impact their ability to participate in the class.
  3. What their long term concerns were beyond the class.

After seeing his students’ response, he “decided to jettison the ‘business as usual, just use Zoom for lectures’ approach [he] had initially adopted for week one of online instruction.” The students were then given the opportunity to discuss what they thought the fairest and equitable path moving forward would be, using provided hypotheticals — keeping the class as-is, modifying assignments, eliminating assignments, or redistributing points to other parts of the course. Using Zoom’s breakout room features, they discussed, in earnest, amongst themselves the pros and cons of proceeding with different options and what felt realistic, summarizing their discussion in a paragraph and submitting it to Hartmann later. This tactic gave us an insight into where our students were at in this process, and they were thankful for the opportunity to weigh in on what’s best for them right now.

Professor Emily Au took a similar approach, particularly when it came to the task of deciding how to tackle the issue of the lab and makerspace inaccessibility. Where prototyping is usually a requirement, Au has shifted the focus of the class to storyboarding and prototype planning. Students were encouraged to be creative in their approach, but she’s left it up to the students to decide how they want to prototype, giving the students the opportunity to decide what works best for them and their groups at the moment.

Adjusting Learning Expectations

With the abrupt shifting from in-person to digital learning, many instructors realize they will have to eliminate some course content. “This implies being even clearer than ever about learning outcomes we want to achieve, what we can capture in short videos, and how we want to structure assignments,” notes Professor Sara Beckman. Professor Au also commented that while “the content coverage will be reduced at a slower pace, we still want to achieve some critical learning objectives of the course.” After reviewing the reflections from her second remote class, Au found that about half of her students do not want to sacrifice too much of the original course content, but understand that it might happen to some extent.

Perhaps the largest challenge for the Jacobs Institute has been how to support student team collaboration, given that face-to-face interactions are not currently possible. One of Au’s students noted, “collaboration is essential to the design process, it is especially valued when we cannot meet each other face-to-face.” Providing students with suggestions for collaboration can help mitigate the challenges and keep positive outlooks up. Au suggests picking critical collaborative exercises and providing clear instructions, using Google Docs as the platform for student teams to share with each other and the teaching team. Responding to questions that come up in the chat is crucial to ensuring students don’t fall behind or have questions that go unanswered. Beckman also suggests reducing team sizes to 3–4 for easier schedule coordination, and encouraging students to focus on COVID-19 related projects as motivation.

For Professor Hartmann, though he’s reduced the aspects of teamwork with the most interdependence, he’s opted to keep team projects in his curriculum, giving students the opportunity to experience remote collaboration. It’s important to note that this experience should be looked at as a learning moment for our students’ future work in design, where most international design companies work in geographically distributed teams. Shifting to videoconferencing and using internal communication platforms, like Slack, to coordinate work and collaborate can only better prepare our students for their eventual future in design spaces.

And while grading has shifted from letter grades to pass/no pass, we are encouraging students to use this as an opportunity to produce work they’re excited about, without the stress of a letter grade. We’ll highlight this opportunity at our semesterly Design Showcase, now digital, where student participation and project presentations are often a large percentage of their grade. The focus this semester is for students to reconnect with one another — to highlight the work created in changed circumstances, and the ingenuity that inevitably results from constraint.

Considering Mental Health and Creating Community

Just as we’ve provided students with opportunities to tell us what they need, and ways they can approach collaboration, providing them with tools for maintaining mental health and connection to each other during this time is of the utmost importance. Professor Beckman has adapted simple and fun techniques, from inviting students to set their Zoom backgrounds to represent how they’re feeling, to meditation and shake-out exercises. She also suggests breaking up lecture times through the liberal use of the chat function in Zoom breakout rooms.

She is also focusing on providing new opportunities for students to stay engaged with each other, such as peer reviews on Canvas, which allow students to give explicit feedback to their peers; and incorporating other interactive mechanisms on Canvas, such as the discussion forum, a great place for them to interact about their daily lives as well as their design projects.

While there’s no simple solution to this complicated situation, by giving students agency, empowerment, and involvement, we hope to re-shape our students’ semester from one fraught with chaos to one that upholds the standards and community collaboration UC Berkeley is known for.



Jacobs Institute

UC Berkeley’s hub at the intersections of design and technology.