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Applying Design Thinking to Distance Learning: The Fundamentals

REL Pacific
Jeanette Simenson-Gurolnick & Kirsten Miller
February 26, 2021

Elementary student studying remotely

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators across the globe have had to navigate drastic changes in how instruction is delivered. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the pandemic and reflect on how teachers have adjusted their practice, we know that the abrupt shift to a distance learning model has been challenging. When faced with unfamiliar technological platforms (and little training for navigating them), teachers initially and understandably shifted their classroom instruction—which previously included a variety of approaches such as small-group learning, classroom discussion, and real-time feedback—to a primarily lecture-based model. New technological considerations have also impacted teachers' ability to individualize instruction, develop relationships, and engage and motivate students. Where a teacher might circulate throughout the classroom during small-group work, for example, listening to students' conversations and providing targeted feedback, it's much more difficult for teachers to be equally accessible to students during multiple online breakout rooms. In short, we're now asking teachers to learn new pedagogy in addition to, and because of, this new technology.

REL Pacific recently conducted a series of trainings on Designing Distance Learning for Pacific Island Education Systems to help support jurisdictions in their work to learn about evidence-based practices for designing distance education programs for their schools and institutions. In the first blog of this series, we'll discuss the fundamentals of design thinking frameworks, which we can use to identify our current challenges or problems of practice and develop processes to support the implementation of a distance learning plan. Design thinking is an iterative approach to problem-solving that focuses on fully understanding the real-world implications of a problem and considering and testing multiple solutions.1

From an organizational theory perspective, theories and frameworks allow us to make assumptions about our organizations and the people we work with, and are tools we can use to help define our individual roles and collective contributions to the work of educating students.2 Designing and implementing distance learning on a broad scale is a new challenge for many education systems, and the five stages of design thinking can provide a unique way to tackle this challenge from both a practical and relational perspective. The five stages of design thinking are:

  • Empathize. Design thinking is a human-centered process, and empathy is critical to developing an intial understanding of the problem to be solved and the experiences and motivations of all stakeholders3 4 —from state or district superintendents, to school administrators, to teachers, students, and parents. During this part of the process, we work to understand that students and families are doing the best they can under challenging circumstances, and recognize that these circumstances may be continuously evolving. We listen, learn, and meet families where they are, and individualize materials as much as possible based on these individual needs.
  • Define. During the Define phase, we collect the information we gathered during the Empathize phase to identify our core problem.5 During this phase, we identify our goals as educators, identify each family's goals for their child(ren), and identify the student's needs and interests. Note that this phase continues to be human-centered and empathetic—so, for example, rather than defining the problem as “student achievement has declined 10 percent in third grade math during the pandemic/as a result of distance learning, ”we might say “third grade students need additional supports to help them understand core math concepts in a virtual learning environment.”
  • Ideate. Once we understand the problem, it's time to start considering solutions. This is the brainstorming phase of the design thinking process, where we share resources and inspiration, and practice ”yes, and...“ thinking.6 7 What potential supports can we provide third grade students in a virtual learning environment to help them understand core math concepts?
  • Prototype. This stage of the process focuses on developing the solutions we identified in the Ideate phase.8 During this phase, we take stock of our resources and develop or access any that are lacking. If a new online learning platform, supplemental resource, or even a new math curriculum is required for our third graders, this is where we develop or acquire it.
  • Test. Here's where we test our solution, and while this is the final phase of design thinking, these stages are not always linear and can overlap.9 For example, when testing your solution, you might rethink the problem, or uncover an aspect of it that requires you to circle back to the Empathize or Define phases.
Taking a human-centered approach to what seems at its core to be a technology problem may sound counterintuitive. But in keeping stakeholder needs—educators, students, and families—at the forefront of designing distance learning, we create opportunities to innovate in an environment that has been anything but business as usual. Stay tuned for our next blog on designing distance learning, which will focus on selecting education-driven technologies.



1 Dam, R.F., and Siang, T.Y. (2020, July). 5 stages in the design thinking process. Interaction Design Foundation.

2 Bess, J. L., and Dee, J. R. (2008). Understanding College and University Organization: Dynamics of a System (Vol. II). Stylus Publishing, LLC.

3 Dam, R.F., and Siang, T.Y. (2020, July). 5 stages in the design thinking process. Interaction Design Foundation.

4 Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Sanford. (2020, April 30). Start with design. Stanford

5 Dam, R.F., and Siang, T.Y. (2020, July). 5 stages in the design thinking process. Interaction Design Foundation.

6 Ibid.

7 Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Sanford. (2020, April 30). Start with design. Stanford

8 Dam, R.F., and Siang, T.Y. (2020, July). 5 stages in the design thinking process. Interaction Design Foundation.

9 Ibid.