How might we make online learning more bearable and even lovable for students and faculty accustomed to the dynamic of in-person instruction? This was a question I was asked to address in the MURAL Imagine Series on July 16.

The entire higher education industry has been grappling with this question since the COVID-19 pandemic upended colleges and universities everywhere. I’ve also been affected personally by the disruption. I am an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. I teach a course titled Mindful Product Management, drawing upon lessons I’ve learned from my day job as Chief Experience Officer of a global innovation studio, Moonshot by Pactera Edge. This spring, the learning experience at Northwestern changed dramatically as my students and I quickly adapted to an online format because of the impact of the pandemic. This post shares how we learned together to make the experience meaningful.

Our Story

Mindful Product Management helps students learn how to establish mindfulness as the foundation for the modern product team. During the class the students and I discuss how, for example, being mindful of each other can make us more empathetic, which results in teams creating more human-centered products. (You can learn more about the course in my blog post, “Reflections on Mindful Product Management.”)

The course is usually taught in a high-touch, in-person studio environment. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to happen. But this spring, we needed to shift our experience to an online format that is by now familiar to just about anyone who has endured long periods of time sheltering in place. Instead of meeting face to face, we had to learn how to do everything on a platform like Zoom.

As we made this decision to go virtual, I wanted to challenge myself to ask not just how can we get through this semester, but what’s the most lovable experience I can provide – to turn this obstacle as a possible way forward. To apply a term that product teams use often, how could we make Virtual Learning 1.0 at Northwestern a minimum lovable product? After all, we had very little time to adapt. Classes still needed to be conducted and completed during the spring semester even with a global pandemic raging.

The Three Elements

How might we make learning not just bearable but actually lovable? For me, the three keys were:

  • Effective time design. Applying a mental model to design time was critical to understand what happens before class, how to create energy and inspire curiosity during class, and keeping the momentum after class.
  • Creating a safe space through emotional intelligence. Creating habits to articulate how we feel and also to acknowledge how classmates feel throughout a class.
  • Committing to the unknown by being flexible with weekly retrospectives. Trust and transparency are key for ensuring the virtual learning experience continues to hit the mark, Therefore, we used the weekly retro to hold myself accountable to meet the needs of the class.

Let’s take a closer look at the foundation of the lovable experience: time design.

Time Design

To make the transition from an offline to virtual setting, I had to think of myself as a teacher, facilitator, and time designer. And by time designer, I mean asking questions such as how to structure a session to inspire curiosity and enthusiasm in a limited virtual setting.

But why time design?

Because effective collaboration is all about designing time. When people work with each other remotely, setting up meetings, achieving purposeful outcomes, providing clear direction for what happens after the meeting, and making meetings fun requires more discipline and even more mindful attention to the participants. Chances are that everyone in your online meeting is distracted by something in their living space, and this is true for online education, too.

Effective time design is crucial for anyone managing a virtual meeting, whether you are an instructor or team leader. And time designers have a full complement of tools at their disposal, ranging from Zoom to Mural. I call this tool chain the time designer’s virtual tool chain. 

For example, during my class, we used these tools:

  • Zoom to make the class feel more human through breakout rooms, gallery view, and live chat.
  • MURAL for virtual collaboration and co-creation to practice key aspects of the week’s learning objectives
  • Canvas as the learning platform that covers tasks such as setting expectations on the syllabus, sharing course materials, and conducting discussion threads among students in between classes.

Those three tools comprised our time design tool chain at Northwestern. But tools in and of themselves were not enough. Time design is about applying a mental model that applies those tools in a mindful way.

As Priya Parker said, “The gathering begins from the moment of discovery, not the moment the guest walks in the door.” This is a powerful quote that speaks to time design. In a virtual setting, you have to get people excited about what’s about to happen in the course instead of waiting until they arrive. Students brought different levels of energy to class. It was my job to generate excitement before each class.

To do so, I applied a framework known as the five Es, which was created by Daniel Stillman to manage conversations. The 5 Es is a well-known model that product designers also use to design products:

  • Entice.
  • Enter.
  • Engage.
  • Exit.
  • Extend.

I decided to apply these 5 Es into designing time for my class, specifically to facilitate 10 three-hour sessions that made up our quarter. Here is an example MURAL board that shows how I designed a typical course using the 5 E’s.

Entice

Enticing is about helping participants enter each session with the right frame of mind. I would use Canvas to manage all communications before the student entered the learning experience to help set and manage expectations. Through Canvas, I would set the stage by communicating what to expect for a given session, what kind of materials would be required, and anything particularly unusual such as the presence of guest lectures. Once a student arrived in class via MURAL, the first thing they would see is a clearly defined agenda that mirrored the expectations set via Canvas. This ensured there were no surprises on a week to week basis.

Enter

Arriving in class was not just about setting expectations on the agenda, but also about entering class in the right headspace. To build a habit on emotional intelligence, we conducted a mindfulness activity at the beginning of each class, which helped us identify and embrace our feelings. For example, we would use the breakout rooms feature in Zoom to create space for students to connect on a one-on-one basis. Within each room, students used the Junto Institute Emotions Wheel to identify, share, and discuss their feelings on that particular day. Someone, for instance, might be feeling a mixture of pride and joy over a deliverable they’d created for class but also anxiety, say, over social distancing or the inability to see their parents. This exercise helped create a safe space for the casual connection that students missed from being on campus – the face-to-face connections that we craved and were not getting.

We also conducted a number of other mindfulness activities such as:

  • Group meditation, which got us into the right collective headspace to learn.
  • Moments to celebrating diversity and inclusion. We separated the students into different groups in which we celebrated aspects that we have in common and the things that make us different.

These actions helped elevate the class beyond the mechanics of instruction and learning.

Engage

Here we focused on the work we needed to do in a session to achieve the desired learning objectives. A session might have a 30-minute lecture followed by our using MURAL to practice the ideas from the lecture. For instance, we practiced the creation of a team contract, which entailed student teams co-creating the behaviors and attributes that would guide their class projects. The team contract activity created a means for helping student teams hold each other accountable, which provide the trust and transparency for each group to succeed.

Exit

We committed to flexibility by holding daily and weekly retrospectives to hold each other accountable. At the end of each class, I asked the students to use a virtual Post-It to identify:

  • Rose: a highlight from the session.
  • Thorn: a challenge.
  • Bud: a new idea that a student wants to understand.

This experience was essential to help us understand what was working and what needed to be improved. Retros are important in the physical world, but I learned in a virtual setting that they are critical. In a virtual setting it’s harder for the teacher or facilitator to be in tune with of the body language and emotional aspects of the group. By creating a habit around weekly retros, we established a means to continuously improve the class.

Extend

This last step in the 5E’s is all about getting students excited about what’s happening next. Extend is all about visibility: identifying where we are in each course, what happened previously, and what to expect in the next course. In a virtual setting, people need to be reminded of context – where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. Context kept people centered and less likely to get distracted and overwhelmed by what was happening in the world around them.

A Final Story

At the second-to-last class we had this spring, social unrest exploded around the world. COVID-19 no longer dominated the news. Social justice did. I realized that we needed to set aside our classroom agenda for that session. We decided to turn the course into a safe space to discuss how we were feeling about what was happening in the world. I thought we would have a 15-minute conversation, but instead we had a two-hour discussion about what was on our minds. We followed the frank conversation with a 15-minute meditation session from Emily Fletcher, which gave us a chance to harness and share our positive energy. This was an important moment for practicing mindfulness in a meaningful way. After we meditated, I expected students would want to end that day’s session in order to reflect. But they wanted to stick around and pick up with the day’s session by collaborating with their project groups. They wanted to learn. They were even more motivated. To me, this experience provides a powerful lesson: when you elevate emotional intelligence and practice mindfulness, you create a safe space for collaboration – virtually or in person.

Mike Edmonds

Mike Edmonds

Managing Director, VP Product

Bitnami