Tent Talks Featuring Jenae Cohn: Design for Learning

Tent Talks Featuring Jenae Cohn: Design for Learning
Jenae Cohn, Ph.D.
Executive Director for Teaching and Learning
UC Berkley
Dr. Jenae Cohn writes and speaks about online teaching and learning for international audiences. She currently works as the Executive Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Berkeley, and has held prior roles at California State University, Sacramento, Stanford University and University of California, Davis.

On Thursday, August 24th at 5:00pm Central, Jenae Cohn, Ph.D. joined us for a live Q&A session: “Design for Learning.”

Session Notes

Here are the main points from the Tent Talks session with Jenae Cohn titled, “Design for Learning:”

Design Philosophy

Jenae emphasizes that learning should center on the needs, motivations, and concerns of the learners, not just content delivery. Variety in learning methods, social interactions, and alignment of goals with activities form the core of her philosophy to foster a more effective learning experience.

Challenges in Online Learning Design

The design of online learning must break away from the traditional linear approach, focusing instead on achieving the end goal through consultation and creative insights. Jenae also highlights the multitasking required in online design and the limitations of available tools, offering practical solutions to overcome these obstacles.

Feedback and Assessment in Online Learning

Jenae argues for the importance of formative feedback through informal progress updates, quizzes, and reflective exercises. She also stresses the need for summative feedback that emphasizes skill demonstration over mere memorization, providing space for safe failure.

Concepts and Strategies in Design for Online Education

With a strong emphasis on creativity, Jenae expresses disappointment at the lack of imagination in online courses. She advocates better use of existing technology and social platforms like Discord to create engaging learning communities. While recognizing the potential of AI, she remains skeptical about its ability to replace human connection in learning.

Designing for Shrinking Attention Spans

Jenae encourages educators to critically analyze distraction and cultivate attention by demonstrating relevance to learners. Transparency in setting expectations, acknowledging neurodiversity, and striking a balance with natural distraction all play a part in her approach to keep learners engaged without competing directly with social media.

Key Insights

Jenae’s insights underline a shift away from pursuing new technology towards creatively using existing tools to enhance online learning. By connecting personally with learners and setting clear, relevant goals, she presents a vision for a more engaged, effective online learning environment.

Thoughtful Quotes

  • “I just think the future of these ideas has to really just tie back to who are the people on the other side of these experiences and how do you better help them connect to each other?” 
  • “Knowing that occasionally people will drift to Instagram in the middle of something, maybe that’s okay. People have doodled for all time… Our capacity to distract ourselves is balance. And that sometimes is part of the process too, is just being okay with a little bit of balance.” 

Session Transcript

[00:00:37] Chicago Camps: Jenae, could you tell folks a little bit about yourself and your background?

[00:00:42] Jenae Cohn, Ph.D.: My experience in online learning experience design, online structural design has spanned over a decade really and has been focused on supporting students and instructors and trainers and educators really of all kinds. And thinking really critically about their goals for creating learning experiences, designing those and more recently thinking about how to do that better in online spaces.

[00:01:03] My co author Michael and I met through a professional organization we were part of. several years ago and bonded over our shared interest in trying to bring language practices and experiences from the field of user experience into the field of course instructional design. I should say Michael and I are both academics by training.

[00:01:23] We’re both in higher education spaces. I work at university now. I’m at UC Berkeley at present. But between Michael and I, we have over 25 years of teaching experience and just thought it was really important for us to really put our heads together and create a collection that really tried to bridge what we saw as overlapping conversations across different fields and bring them together so that everyone who is designing trainings, courses, workshops, learning of any kind can really benefit from all the shared knowledge.

[00:01:54] We just had this feeling that the principles of practices of UX would make a lot of learning work a lot better than it is now. And it’s funny because we talked really before the peak of the COVID pandemic where a lot more folks were exposed to online learnings and trainings than they ever had been before.

[00:02:15] Because Michael and conceptualizing this book since, oh my gosh, 2018, 2017. That’s how long we were collaborating and thinking together for. It is timely to have this now because I do think that, and I will say that I think my best ideas come out of rage or frustration. And this is definitely one of these books, too, where it’s like, man, I’ve been to so many terrible Online trainings and workshops.

[00:02:37] There’s so many courses that are so bad, they’re so boring, they’re so dull, and so I think this is an opportunity now when we’re out of a crisis point to say, let’s do this better. Let’s make these online trainings, I always like to say it’s like this, like the too long didn’t read version of this book, make your online trainings suck less because they like mostly are really bad.

[00:03:00] I have full respect, it’s really tough work to create a good training. And I’ve created things that suck.

[00:03:05] Chicago Camps: Your new book, Design for Learning, delves into the user experience in online teaching and learning. Could you summarize the core message or philosophy of the book for folks and explain why it’s particularly vital in today’s educational landscape?

[00:03:20] Jenae Cohn, Ph.D.: The core concept of Design for Learning. is that when you are trying to teach someone how to do something new, or you want someone to really walk away from a workshop or event feeling like they have improved their capacity or understanding, you can’t just give them content. You really have to design that content in a way that’s aligned with their needs, their motivations, and their concerns.

[00:03:47] I think a lot of learning design work tends to focus too heavily on trying to communicate. X process or Y idea. People get really hooked up on I just need someone to learn this thing without really fully articulating why they want someone to learn that thing. And so if you do want someone to be able to actually develop a new skill to actually be able to go out into the world and apply a new way of thinking to their work or be able to even understand an abstract concept and allow that idea to shape and inform their worldview, you have to be intentional about how you build that and it has to be intentionally built around who the learners are themselves.

[00:04:30] We know not everyone learns in the same way and it’s impossible to reach everyone exactly where they are. But when you’re designing a learning experience, you can at least try and do some research into who your core learners are. You can think about what their needs are in particular, just as user experience or researchers will do user research to understand who they’re trying to support with the products.

[00:04:54] We need do the same exact thing. When we design a training or a workshop, we need to understand who is going to virtual rooms, whether you’re doing a live training or something that people access their own pace. And then how do you work your way backwards from there? And I think in this moment to answer that second part of the question about like, why do we need this now in education?

[00:05:15] I think it’s really easy for learning to feel isolating and scary and vulnerable. And one thing we could do to make learning feel less scary and isolating and vulnerable is to design experiences that recognize the humanity, of people’s feelings, recognize that learning is best done in community, and that learning is best done with a social lens in mind.

[00:05:38] I think the more that we can be attentive to people’s needs and try to design for what people actually need based on the research we’ve done, you’re just going to see more successful outcomes in your trainings, which is a win for everyone. It takes a long time to develop trainings no matter what. Take that time and invest it wisely and just think more critically about what it’s going to look like.

[00:06:01] That’s it in a nutshell. I’m coming from this as a place of an educator and it’s the kind of thing where when I first started to encounter and read about UX frameworks and philosophies, I was like, Oh my gosh, this is exactly what we need to be thinking about the embodied experience of accessing content from your computer in the same way that, again, a UX researcher is thinking about where people’s eyes are going to be drawn, what things they’re going to click on, what their patterns and behaviors are. It’s like the same exact thing. And if we’re not, again, attentive to that, it’s like you’re just designing learning in a vacuum and you’ll be frustrated by it because you’ll be like, well, why isn’t this thing working?

[00:06:35] You have to test it and iterate on it based on what people are doing.

[00:06:39] Chicago Camps: Can you share some key design principles from Design for Learning that educators, facilitators, and instructional designers can implement to enhance the user experience in online teaching? How do these principles translate into practical strategies?

[00:06:53] Jenae Cohn, Ph.D.: One principle is that variety is key. In order to learn even one concept successfully, it’s important to hear about it in different ways, and to apply it from different angles, and to think about it from different lenses and perspectives.

[00:07:08] When you’re designing a kind of online training or workshop or experience, relying on any one single modality to communicate content. It’s going to be a lot less effective than communicating the same idea in multiple modalities or giving users or learners an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of that content in multiple different ways.

[00:07:28] A lot of online training, for example, will be like a video catalog, and you’ll watch a video, and you’ll take a quiz, and you’ll watch a video, and take another quiz. That’s pretty boring, most people try to click through that and do it as quickly as possible, so not a great experience, right? It might do the trick, but it’s really boring.

[00:07:45] If you mix up some of that, not just have that sequence of video and multiple choice exchange, but why not try… A video, and then a written exercise. Why not have something that people read and then annotate and leave comments about? Or give options, right? Give someone an option just to listen rather than having to read.

[00:08:04] These are just some like quick examples of easy ways to just make it a little bit better and give people a little bit more optionality.

[00:08:11] The second principle I would say that’s critical is, I alluded to it earlier, but this concept that learning is social. It’s very unmotivating to learn in a vacuum.

[00:08:24] And when we’re doing those, I’ll just use the same example. Like when you’re clicking through a series of pre recorded videos and you’re just taking quizzes on your own, there’s the sense that you’re just trying to complete it for the sake of completing it. Your motivation or reason for doing it is just altogether lost.

[00:08:39] And most trainings, even when you’re learning something really technical or something that might not be informed by interactions with other people, inevitably it’s going to impact people, communities, your work in some way. So when I say learning is social, it can play out in practice in a couple of different ways.

[00:08:56] I think a good workshop or training experience always invites users to connect with other people who are gauging the experience with them. I recognize it’s hard to do, it doesn’t always scale well, and relationships are formed by deep, intense interactions over time. But even giving people a sense of seeing through surveys or polls, having the results of surveys and polls be transparent to everyone in the class, that people know, oh, other people answered that question the same way I did, or they answered it differently than I did kind of reinvigorates the sense that there are like people doing this with you. You’re not doing it alone. Of course, social experiences can be deeper and more meaningful. If you have live events, leaving things in the comments or having a chat is a great way to remind people that you are here together, that we’re not, you’re alone.

[00:09:42] It runs the gamut. We have a whole chapter about building community and social learning in the book itself that gives a bunch of different examples, but I think it’s a principle. It has to run at the core of what you’re doing.

[00:09:52] The final principle, I’ll say it, I know we have other rich questions here, is it’s really important to always align the goals of your training or workshop with the activities that you’re doing.

[00:10:02] If it’s not clear in your design how something you’re asking people to do helps them advance the goals that they have, you probably don’t need it, or it probably shouldn’t be in there. So you have to be ruthless in your prioritization of what content, or what exercise, or what experiences you’re including, because learning again, it’s hard.

[00:10:23] It takes a long time. It’s really easy to give up. So people don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing I guarantee they’re going to give up. So give them lots of opportunities to remember why they’re doing what they’re doing. And as a designer, that means you have to make a really very clear how each thing they’re doing is going to help them get to the goal or the reason they decided to do this job or a training or course in the first place.

[00:10:47] There’s a lot of ways to make it fun, but I feel like surprising people about why they’re there is not fun for most people. I have a very hard time learning things. I enjoy it, but it’s not easy. It’s not always pleasurable. So the more you can help people understand, hey, it’s not going to feel like great to have to learn a brand new thing right away and feel like a lot of people feel like they don’t like the feeling of feeling stupid.

[00:11:12] That’s part of learning is you have to be a beginner somewhere and that’s okay to have that insecure feeling that you don’t know it all. That’s part of the process. It has to just feel like there’s a really gentle and in my opinion, compassionate way into that. And that just involves being really transparent.

[00:11:28] Being clear, I think, is being really kind.

[00:11:30] Chicago Camps: In Design for Learning, what challenges in designing effective online learning experiences are explored and how do you propose to overcome these challenges? And can you provide real world examples that illustrate these solutions?

[00:11:44] Jenae Cohn, Ph.D.: The biggest challenge, and it’s the challenge that will keep cropping up again and again.

[00:11:49] And I think that when it comes to designing a training, most people assume it’s a one and done experience. It happens very linearly, right? You plan what you want to do, and then you build the thing, and then you do it, and then you’re done. But a really informed design process is not going to work that way.

[00:12:02] It often means starting from the end.

[00:12:05] Challenge number one is, I think, shifting your mindset about what it means to create a learning experience. That means really thinking backwards, right? Starting with what someone’s finished with this training or this course or this workshop what should they be able to do that they couldn’t do when they started? Articulating that is really hard for a lot of people. And so I think it’s a challenge just to be able to think that far ahead to what the end of the process should look like. And so I think one way to overcome that challenge is to talk to other people about your course, which sounds like a silly sort of solution, but it’s key.

[00:12:44] I think a lot of folks who are designing these courses are under time pressure, need to do it fast, whatever. But even talking to friends and family, if ideally you talk to users or learners who like the people who actually take your course, that’s the best thing you could do. But sure that just asking people, Hey, what would it look like for you if I made a course that did X, Y, and Z things to help you do this.

[00:13:05] That can just help you get a lot more clarity into what people are actually going to use or actually going to find useful. So something going to be vulnerable and naming what problems you’re trying to solve and where you want people to go starting from the end, rather than trying to sequence from the beginning, I think is one major challenge.

[00:13:22] The second major challenge, I think I’ll speak more directly to doing this work online. When you’re designing a training or workshop online, you have so many different roles that you’re playing all at once when you’re designing. You’re the architect of a space. When you’re teaching in person or doing a person workshop, people know where to sit in the room, right?

[00:13:39] There’s tables, there’s chairs. The roles are like very understood and very socialized. When you’re online, you’re like, okay, time for me to lost out my hammer nails. And I guess build a table because there isn’t one here. You have to think about what kind of space are you creating? What do you want people to ideally do?

[00:13:57] What kinds of interactions do you want them to have in that space? And then, okay what technologies do they need to procure or build or work with from there. And a lot of learning designers are working with tools like learning management systems or content management systems or bespoke e-learning offering tools or video editing and creation tools in some cases.

[00:14:19] And so maybe quite limited in terms of the space they can create based on the tools that they have access to. So I think a challenge is figuring out how to do what you want to do and build the spaces that you want to build. And think about these interactions and keep your goal in mind and have all of that fit together.

[00:14:37] And so I think to overcome that challenge of essentially having to socialize behaviors from scratch. I love the exercise, build a chart, create a table for yourself of what I want someone to do. What are all the possible different ways they could do it? And then where are all the different possible places this could happen?

[00:14:55] Or just inventory for yourself. What are my choices? And then again, you might have some things narrowed down for you, but other cases you might have a little bit more freedom to choose. There are so many more challenges we could talk about, but I’m going to just end with those two because I think those are two big ones to chew on.

[00:15:11] But if you are listening in the audience and you have a big challenge that you’ve been grappling with, I’d be eager to hear about it and we could problem solve together as a way to address that too. They’re big topics and it’s hard to come up with just like one real world example of those challenges because I think there’s such ubiquitous kind of like core initial challenges, too, to thinking about these things. And again, particularly online, I think the challenges get more acute in that sense because you’re having to multitask. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are some folks listening to this who may have the privilege of getting to divide up the work of running a course or training with multiple rules.

[00:15:47] Some people just design the infrastructure and the space for learning experience to happen, but then don’t facilitate it at all. Some people are just designing like e-learning content. And there’s someone who’s just only doing video or somebody who’s only doing graphics or someone who’s only authoring assignments.

[00:16:06] Some people are in environments where they get to kind of chip that away a little bit, so they’re not having to do so much at once. I think most companies, most institutions, certainly like universities, non-profits don’t invest in all those different players. So most folks who are doing this work really are having to do it all.

[00:16:23] Chicago Camps: Assessment and feedback are essential components of any learning experience. What insights does Design for Learning offer on creating meaningful and user friendly assessment and feedback mechanisms in an online environment?

[00:16:36] Jenae Cohn, Ph.D.: Thank you for asking. We’ve got a whole chapter that’s all about this. So I’ll just give you a teaser of what’s in that chapter.

[00:16:45] In that chapter we try to address feedback in multiple ways, acknowledge that there may be different kinds of feedback that learners are needing at different points in their journey. In educational research we’d call the summative and formative feedback. The formative feedback is that kind of like informal check in that gives people a sense of like their progress along the way.

[00:17:04] It gives them a sense of are you getting it? Are you on track or are you like off base and you just go back and review? And that kind of feedback is really pretty easy to automate in many ways. That could be, obviously probably everyone here has had exposure to taking a little quiz and being told the answers are right or wrong.

[00:17:21] But I think quizzes could be leveraged way better to give people more formative feedback. I think one simple way of doing that is when people get responses, don’t just tell them if they’re right or wrong, tell them why they’re right or wrong. Why might have you chosen that wrong answer and what specifically do you need to go back to review and make sure you get it right the next time?

[00:17:39] That can be done again with automated scripts and props. Most people who are designing a course will know and be able to anticipate why people got things wrong or right . And that’s like a great example of people just being able to do a check and know what to do differently. If you’re teaching a course or subject that doesn’t have clear right or wrong answers, you might also give people like a temperature check in terms of how they’re doing through various kinds of written reflective exercises or case studies are a great way to have people thinking about application before doing something higher stakes.

[00:18:08] There comes a point in some courses where you do need to give people more substantive, what we might call summative feedback. Really tell them, hey, you’ve passed this experience, you’re an expert in this space now, we can verify that you know what you’re talking about when you talk about this topic, or do work with it?

[00:18:24] And so if there’s certification or verification that needs to be done at Folk Skills, then you might think about Assessment differently. And I always encourage folks who are trying to design these higher stakes assessments to think a little bit more critically about, again, based on the outcomes, based on what you need people to do, by the time they finish this, how would they best demonstrate their capacity to do that?

[00:18:47] A lot of folks will just default, so I’ll just give them a test and test how they’ve memorized knowledge. That’s not going to work for most courses or most experiences. It’s very easy to design those kinds of assessments, but most of the time you want people to demonstrate their capacity to work with or apply this knowledge by producing work that’s an example in the field, right?

[00:19:09] So if you’re teaching a technical subject, for example, you probably want someone to be able to demonstrate how they would use the technical skills they develop to create a product or create a line of code, or be able to solve a problem from start to finish, or for less technical subject, it might mean creating an example document, writing something in the field, producing a piece of multimedia work that kind of represents their capacity to do that. It all ties back to that principle of alignment and it loops all the way into assessment. I think you need to be doing a little bit of both. Give people a sense of how they’re doing before they have to demonstrate their knowledge in a really high stakes way.

[00:19:47] It’s great to give people a safe space to do that too because failure is always part of the process. Destigmatizing that is really valuable.

[00:19:56] Chicago Camps: Looking to the future, how do you envision the concepts and strategies laid out in Design for Learning influencing the broader field of online education? Are there particular trends or technological advancements that you believe will align with or further the ideas presented in the book?

[00:20:12] Jenae Cohn, Ph.D.: Ideally, I’d love to see the concepts from Design for Learning make their way to online trainings and education, broadly speaking, by just giving learners more options. For how they can access information and to diversify, I think, what people think of when they think of an online learning experience, I think there’s just are still, I would say, a number of online courses and workshops that are just like, I would say that lack imagination in terms of what’s possible with the tools and infrastructures available to them, we’re still teaching courses, we have the internet of 2003.

[00:20:52] And they don’t fully recognize that the social capacity is available in 2023. They don’t always recognize how easy it is to bring in multimedia content in a more meaningful way, to stream, to get information from lots of different sources, and to make engagement a lot more meaningful and by that I actually get people in a course to have what I see, for example, Discord servers do an amazing job of actually creating informal learning communities and spaces.

[00:21:20] People on there are exchanging all kinds of ideas and tips and information. Gosh, what if we leveraged the way that places like Discord create and cultivate real time community and we brought those into educational experiences in more meaningful ways? How would that help people persist more when they’re taking online courses?

[00:21:39] Or yeah, instead of just like Watching a bunch of videos to get through a course, what if we created smaller snippets of video and had people commenting on them, annotating them, reflecting on them, before having to do anything else. I just hope we see more creativity in terms of the approaches available.

[00:21:56] I think it’s a starting place for influencing the field. So much of building a community of people is letting your hair down a little bit and having some fun, getting to know each other, sharing things that are funny or interesting that are related to the class. these are things that again, we don’t always see happen as nimbly as we could in a lot of online trainings, but like the technology’s there.

[00:22:16] So I think when it comes to keeping an eye out for like technologies that have potential to advance the space, I’m reluctant to actually answer that question directly because I feel like there’s so much technology already out there that we just don’t use very well for learning that I’d like to see used first.

[00:22:30] I think the buzzy answer, that question would be like, Oh yeah, AI is totally going to personalize education and we’re going to use it to create these like individualized streams of information that are really responsive to each user and their need.

[00:22:45] I’m not really convinced that’s going to happen. I think there’ll be a lot of interesting applications of AI in education, specifically around modeling for writing, especially with generative AI in particular.

[00:22:55] Modeling writing or modeling image creation, that’s typical that might give people access to how to create kind of generic versions of certain kinds of documents or certain kinds of graphics or images. And that can be interesting to unpack or use this kind of brainstorming as starting places.

[00:23:10] I think it’s just that I would use it as idea generation, not as the end product in of itself.

[00:23:16] For online learning, I just don’t think replace the heart of what’s really important about learning, which is doing it with other people and unpacking ideas with the humans . We don’t work with robots. We work with people. I just think the future of these ideas has to really just tie back to who are the people on the other side of these experiences and how do you better help them connect to each other?

[00:23:36] Chicago Camps: We’ve got a question from our live studio audience. Carolyn asks, “how do you design for shrinking attention spans and compete with social media?”

[00:23:44] Jenae Cohn, Ph.D.: Thank you, Carolyn, for that really excellent question. I have a few reactions to that. The first one, I always like to think about as I take a step back, about why might people’s attention spans be shorter?

[00:23:56] And what’s our definition of a short attention span? I think the easy answer is to blame. TikTok is making us just want to watch videos in 10 second snippets, and if it’s longer than that, then we’re bored and we’re done. Or to blame how easy it is to access information. And so I think what I’d want to think critically about is why might people be tempted to shift their attention elsewhere?

[00:24:18] What inspires people to be distracted? What are conditions that create distraction? Or on the flip side, what are conditions that can cultivate attention? I think if I am trying to create the best possible conditions for cultivating attention, I would want to start with motivation, right?

[00:24:36] So when someone comes into my course, How do I reach them right away? How do I show them hey, I see you. I’m listening to you. I want to be responsive to your needs. I find that when I’m distracted, I think a lot of people get distracted because they feel like it’s not relevant to them or they’re not there to pay attention, right?

[00:24:53] When you’re scrolling through social media, you’re there to be entertained, right? You’re not there to learn. And if I’m seeking out entertainment and nonstop stimulation, I’m going to have really different behaviors then if I’m approaching something from the perspective of, really, I want to be able to do, to apply something.

[00:25:10] Then it gets a matter of just being transparent right up front and saying, Hey, you’re here to do this. Here’s what to expect. And here’s why we’re doing it this way. And that can take a minute, to really explain those pieces. I think just being really transparent and trying to help people find, okay, when you watch this, you’re going to be able to do this.

[00:25:29] While recognizing that distraction also looks different for different people. One thing I think is worth saying here too is that neurodiverse individuals, or particularly individuals with forms of ADHD or other kinds of attention deficit disorders, are going to be multitasking a lot.

[00:25:43] And that’s sometimes okay. And there are some folks who just really actually do genuinely think better. when they have multiple streams of things happening at once. So just like being mindful that like sometimes people’s behaviors will look inattentive or look like they’re not paying attention, but it’s hard to judge that from the outside.

[00:26:02] I can’t multitask successfully, it’s not how my brain works, so I need to like make space for focused attention, but I didn’t have a neurotypical brain. And so I think that’s like worth acknowledging up front here as well. So roundabout answer to your question, Carolyn. But I guess like the hopeful is don’t despair.

[00:26:19] Because I do think that for the most part, trying to compete with social media is a losing battle. Because again, people are going to social media for very different reasons than people are going to their courses. And I think if you just make it clear, again, why you’re there, what you’re going to get out of it, how you engage with it, create some rules for conduct and behavior, just create your buy in up front and that can really help.

[00:26:42] Knowing that occasionally people will drift to Instagram in the middle of something, maybe that’s okay. People have doodled for all time. I didn’t always bring a laptop with me when I was in college or taking courses. I always found ways to be distracted. Our capacity to distract ourselves is balance. And that sometimes is part of the process too, is just being okay with a little bit of balance.


Event Details
Design for Learning
August 24, 2023
5:00 pm
August 24, 2023
6:00 pm
Tent Talks Featuring Jenae Cohn, Ph.D.: Design for Learning On Thursday, August 24th at 5:00pm Central, Jenae Cohn, Ph.D. joins us for a live Q&A session: “Design for Learning.” Jenae Cohn Dr. Jenae Cohn writes and speaks about online teaching...
May 2024