Introducing design thinking online

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Context & Scale

Design thinking is an approach that is increasingly used to help creatively problem-solve, collaborate in teams, and manage and communicate complexity (Razzouk & Shute, 2012). Design thinking skills are reflective, creative, and collaborative skills that are common for business innovation (Dunne and Martin, 2006). In education too, students need such skills to grapple with ambiguous, ill-defined local and global challenges, and for the future of work (Welsh & Dehler, 2013).

In this pattern, design thinking is introduced to first-year students. In workshops or tutorials, students join groups (either in virtual rooms or on-campus) and follow a design thinking process to collaboratively design and refine a simple artefact, using a digital whiteboard to externalise and document their ideas. The design challenge is simple so as to foster communication and experiential learning. Creating an artefact enables students to practice productive skills, and to visualise and articulate their thought processes (Koh, 2015).


Design thinking is best known for teaching and learning in design disciplines and tends to be practiced by small cohorts in physical studio spaces. This is not always feasible or desirable for many large courses and students in remote locations and/or with diverse needs.

While design thinking is increasingly practiced online, it is more challenging to introduce in a shorter timeframe without a design project.


Process, tasks and resources are simplified. Students design a common household object, rather than a more abstract service or product, to reduce cognitive load while practising design as a process. Academics and students are scaffolded with resources to guide and facilitate design thinking process. A common design thinking framework is modified and used (Stanford Simple, free tools are used to visualise and communicate their design thinking activities. The use of web conferencing and a digital whiteboard enables students to work together remotely, opening possibilities for diverse teams (Cross & Holden, 2020). This introduction activity can be conducted with more sophisticated third-party design-thinking software for large cohorts where practical.


  • Students are introduced to design thinking concepts before the workshop by completing self-paced online activities. There are many free web resources that can be used to prepare for collaboration. Here are a few famous examples: and IDEO.

  • Teachers prepare a welcoming workshop environment that accommodates group work and a digital whiteboard space for ideation. (In online workshops, digital annotation tools and screenshare may also suit.) Whether the workshop is in-person, online, or hybrid, the key is to make the spaces as friendly as possible for interaction. Choose a playlist, for example, for a relaxed ambiance while working.

  • In groups, students follow design thinking process steps to interview each other to generate ideas and insights and redesign a common object. In this pattern, a modified version of the Stanford Five Chairs Activity was used. Stanford has extensive resources for this activity. Students could choose their own object to design, as long as it is not too complex.

    Digital tools or whiteboards are used so students can keep their work beyond the workshop and collaborate synchronously and asynchronously. Students may also draw offline and upload images to the digital whiteboard or space rather than share physical resources in a workshop.

  • Students share their designs and discuss them with the wider group, reflecting on the process. The teacher encourages students to consider how their designs would be prototyped.

    Once students have a basic familiarity with the process, further workshops might explore more abstract and complex design challenges.

Examples of pattern in use

Bachelor of Commerce Core Unit

This pattern was tested and implemented in BUSS1000 The Future of Business in the International Business discipline in 2020.

We would like to acknowledge the Unit Coordinator Dr Anish Purkayastha and all the tutors involved. 


A self-paced interactive online module on design thinking concepts with real-life examples, self-check, reflection, and discussion activities was designed and developed in semester two, 2019.

In semester one, 2020, this activity was prototyped with students using a combination of Canvas, Zoom, and Jamboard. Further informal feedback and suggestions about improving the online self-paced module and workshop activity were requested for the formal intervention in semester two 2020.

Below is just one example of the many designs that show students beginning to develop design thinking mindset, skill, and process (Wright & Wrigley, 2019).

Student work showing design thinking and creativity
Example of student work in a design thinking workshop

Technology/resources used

  • Generic Google accounts and Jamboards were created. Links were provided to teachers per workshop. Digital whiteboards and designs were used on-campus and remotely. In one workshop students were instead asked to screenshare a PDF of the process, annotate it and save as an image, rather than use Jamboard.
  • In remote workshops, Zoom breakout groups were created.
  • A modified version of the Stanford Five Chairs Activity was used. A scaffolded process was provided to teachers and students.


In 2020 semester two, all teachers (n=5) and enrolled students (n=680), were invited to participate in a study to evaluate the engagement and effectiveness of the design thinking resources and activity.

Most students interviewed found collaborative activity and peer interaction engaging and were able to demonstrate novice design thinking skills, mindset, and process knowledge as per the design-led education innovation matrix (adapted from Wright & Wrigley, 2019). Students engaged in the process enjoyed developing or extending their design thinking skills. Some students returned to their designs after class.

Findings also indicated that rapid transitions in the activity combined with limitations of the software in large online classes made the design thinking process more difficult to follow and manage effectively. In following iterations, the design thinking activity was modified with fewer steps in the process and with increased group size.

The results are summarised in this blog post: Design thinking differently. A full description and findings of this research can be found in the Journal for University Teaching and Learning Practice: Introducing design thinking online to large business education courses for twenty-first century learning.

About the Authors

Carmen Vallis

Carmen is an educational designer, researcher, and writer based on Wangal land in Sydney, Australia. Lurks on twitter and LinkedIn @cjvallis.

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