Using Design Sprints to redesign How People Learn

by: Ragini Lall | Online Learning Fellow timeline of HPL A recent trend in Higher Education has been the increase in the number of part-time students in Masters’ level programs (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). As part of the move to a fully online program for 2020-2021, the Harvard Graduate School of Education chose to conduct a second round of admissions for a 2-year fully online, part-time program, increasing access to a wider, more diverse pool of applicants. Many of these students are working professionals with several years of experience, but who also have significant constraints on their time. As the Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL) team began to plan updates to the School’s pilot foundational course, How People Learn (HPL), they knew they had to take on the challenge of meeting the needs of this changing demographic.

In 2020 the How People Learn course was in its third iteration of a pilot. In each version the TLL team has worked tirelessly to create an active learning environment through experimentation and analysis. Along the way they have learned a lot about what is working well and what aspects of the experience could be improved.


The Challenge


One challenge that the team faced in designing an 8-week online summer course is balancing the goals of community and social learning with the need for flexibility to support the whole person of students who work full-time or need time off before the school year begins in earnest. The TLL always strives to enact the School’s values of active, engaging, community-building and humanizing learning, which are both more important and more challenging when designing for online experiences.


The TLL has a long history of using collaborative processes to discover new ways to approach problems. But to solve the difficult challenge of designing learning for a diverse audience we knew we had to use a process that promotes creative thinking through rapid development cycles. Hence, the TLL Online Learning Fellows employed a design sprint process to explore multiple potential solutions.


Design Sprints (popularised by Google Ventures- Jake Knapp) can provide a helpful framework to help teams get unstuck and present creative solutions to complex challenges. The two priorities of a design sprint are:

  • A commitment to a particular period of work for a week if not more, with the goal of sustaining momentum by reducing distractions and bringing a diverse group together.
  • And an effort to bring users into the design process early to provide feedback on the team’s ideas when they are still willing to discard them. The team must be willing to move on from prototypes and deal with failure for the long-term success of the product.


Pre-COVID 19 the thought of a design sprint brought in glimpses of coffee, donuts, sharpies and colorful post-it notes scattered around tables while participants engaged in vigorous dialogue. But this year, owing to the need for remote work structures, this collaborative process had to be redesigned too!


Adapting to Remote Work


In kicking off this design sprint, the TLL Online Learning Fellows first created a plan for the sprint itself. Spending long hours in front of a screen is draining and not creatively energizing, so a direct copy of the traditional, in-person design sprint process would not meet their needs. The re-design of the sprint process accommodated a change of pace of activities every fifteen minutes in the synchronous sessions, as well as using multiple group sizes to accommodate frequent check-ins rather than long work sessions.


The team relied on their diverse backgrounds to generate solutions. There was a mixture of individuals who had taken HPL, some who had never seen the course, and some who had already embedded themselves in the design work of the course. It was important that the skills represented by team members were both varied and complementary. Some brought teaching experience, others media know-how, and there were also those with experience in design and data analysis.


The traditional sprint format uses multiple walls in the same location to document ideas, questions, and wonders throughout the week so that no idea is lost. With the absence of physical walls in our virtual spaces, the sprint facilitators deliberated on the use of platforms such as Miro and Mural. Keeping in mind the added cognitive load of adding a new tool, they finally settled on the tool the team had the most experience with: Google Slides.

The Process & Emerging Ideas


In keeping with the design sprint methodology, each day the Fellows focused on a new aspect of the design process. In a span of two weeks, the Fellows went from a group of six people who had a friendly relationship but had never collaborated on work together to a tight-knit team working on an intense timeline, pitching new directions for the course.


Day 1: Mapping the Vision and Current Scenario

Dedicated to understanding how the mechanics of how the course already worked, the first day’s session was spent crafting “How Might We” statements that were broad enough to create a generative framing and sufficiently narrow to create an inspiring starting point. It was also critical to spend time reviewing resources that the TLL team had created over the past years of implementation. This step allowed the Fellows to identify directions that had already been explored and rejected due to particular constraints. By the end of Day 1, the Fellows had generated three questions to stimulate their ideation:

  1. How might we leverage student collaboration to enhance flexibility?

  2. How might we make the reading materials easier to consume for English as second language students to improve flexibility?

  3. How might we personalize the learning experience based on individual context?

Day 2: Brainstorming


The second day was dedicated to generating ideas. Starting with a brief meeting to keep in mind the principles of ideation, the Fellows went their own ways to come up with as many solutions as possible. Adapted from Knapp’s suggestions, some principles that were used included:

  • Build on Existing Ideas. Remixing and improving ideas works fine too!

  • Sketch it Out. Use just lines, rectangles and words.

  • More Details are Better. Turn sketches into detailed solutions

  • Timer On! A sense of urgency helps to create quantity and not quality.

  • Quantity over Quality More ideas over perfect ideas wins


Here are few outputs from that day:


Day 3: Voting and Team Formation


On the third day, the Fellows presented the ideas they had sketched out. They voted on ideas, keeping in mind the following criteria:

  • How much new workload would the idea generate for the teaching team?
  • Did the idea enhance community building?
  • Was flexibility remarkably improved by the proposed solution?
  • How did the ideas impact learner engagement and discussion forums?
  • Would the redesign effort be a tweak or a significant new design?

Each person in the team chose the idea they believed had the most potential. And on the basis of this voting, the fellows chose two directions. One group focused on how to scaffold the final module of the course throughout the course, and the other on a flexible schedule that allowed for early, late and regular submission timelines with the weekly assignment modified to include varied options of difficulty level, as well to do the assignment as a pair or individually.


Day 4 : Prototyping, User Feedback, Presentation Creation


As each group worked on the direction they had chosen, they had a day and half to flesh out the details of the idea and receive user feedback. Arranging for user feedback is a critical part of the Sprint. Given the short time frame and variety of schedules each fellow had, they opted for asynchronous user feedback via Google Forms.


Day 5: Mid-Point Presentation to Leadership


The groups presented their ideas to the TLL Leadership. As the group discussed the pros and cons of the ideas that were presented, the questions they wrestled with now moved a bit deeper into the problem. Some of the feedback shared that day reflected the tension between flexibility and community building. The teams were asked to think about:

  1. Were the proposed ideas further increasing cognitive load for the students?

  2. What is the minimum size to create a sense of community in a course?

  3. How can large group interactions and small groups coexist in the same course?

  4. How would assessments work for the new group work suggested?


Day 6: Reworking, Ideating and Incorporating Feedback


Taking these questions to task, the groups got down to work. They spent time as a larger group responding to some of these questions individually, which helped them feel out if they should stick with the same working members or switch team members. Finally, the teams decided to shuffle their makeup to bring in new perspectives.


Day 7: Prototyping and Presentation Making


Shuffling group members mid project meant the Fellows had to quickly find ways to work together while still maintaining the sprint mentality. The three directions worked on were:

a. A flexible calendar for module release as well as assignment submission

b. Asynchronous small pods for consistent community during a flexible course

c. Scaffolding for the final module and chunking the module across other modules

Day 8: Final Presentations


Each group presented and fielded difficult questions around course culture, assessment, student privacy and cognitive load. Some of the questions were:

a. Did the solution proposed around flexibility and early submission create a hidden curriculum that increased pressure for students to be ‘achievers’ by submitting for the early deadline?

b. Would early submission mean that the student would miss out on relevant feedback on their assignments in time for their next assignment?

c. How does one navigate the tension of assessing participation in social learning activities yet ensure the group formation is organic?

d. If the small pods were public in nature, would the lack of privacy be a hindrance to the organic nature of conversations?

e. If the final module would be redesigned and woven earlier into the schedule, would it create too much cognitive load given the task switching required?


And so, the first round of the design sprint came to a conclusion. Before diving too deep into any one of these options for the second cycle, it was important for the Fellows to debrief the process. This pause allowed the team to be better prepared for the next round.




Reflecting on their learning from the first cycle, the Fellows realized that the design process takes more time online (as does teaching!). Between the awkward wait-time between sentences in synchronous sessions to sharing and navigating resources independently online, time can be a challenge. As facilitators this is important to keep in mind as you plan the tasks and time associated.


Taking a principle from the world of running: Gradual Build and then, Pace Up! On the first two days, to map the big picture, fact sheets were presented to the group about the problem and various details. As the days passed, it was clear that the process had not been sticky and over a few days, the information had decayed. Investing the time to understand the details of the course was critical, whether upfront for the group for a longer time or for the group to pick up the details as they work through the problem.


Finally, the facilitators found that inviting their colleagues to take the lead on different aspects of the sprint was a successful strategy. The process allowed them to gain authentic feedback about the overall sprint process as well as leverage curiosity towards involvement and ownership to the entire process. The facilitators were conducting a first time remote sprint and welcomed the formative feedback and support.


And now as the TLL Online Learning Fellows embark on the second cycle of the Design Sprint, they look to integrate their learnings and dive deeper into the solutions.

If you are looking to innovate on your course design, and wish to bring in a wide range of perspectives that push the team to think in a new direction, the design sprint can be a great process. Given the current context of remote-first work, adapt the design process to suit the virtual culture of your team. Experiment with the tools used, experiment with the time-slots and agenda, and most importantly, ensure you implement this with a team who is willing to share and dissect the experience with honesty. And with that, you can use this process to get unstuck and solve problems creatively!

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