How The New School Incorporates Mural Into the Design of Online Courses
January 19, 2023
Institutions around the world have found themselves needing to rapidly adapt to a quickly evolving higher education landscape. A key focus area has been around student access and inclusion, which has resulted in shifts to more fully online or hybrid courses and programs. As learning designers and instructors contend with the need to convert existing in-person courses to online courses, as well as the creation of brand new online courses, one key area of consideration is how to facilitate the collaboration that occurred in person within these new spaces of learning.
Earlier this year I spoke with Chelien Brown about collaboration in online learning. Chelien served as a manager in instructional design within the Online Learning division at The New School in New York City from August 2020 to June 2022. The Online Learning division is led by Samantha Dilling, associate director of online learning.
Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Designing and developing online courses
Sasha: Tell us a little about your role and the work you do at The New School.
Chelien Brown: I’m a manager in instructional design and I work within Distributed Education, [now called Online Learning], which is a unit at the university that helps faculty develop their online courses, including our Continuing & Professional Education offerings. That help takes many forms: sitting down and listening to plans for courses, giving feedback based on best practices of what would work in an online environment, recording videos for online courses, and a lot of the heavy lifting on the technology end so that people can just focus on being great teachers in the online environment.
Sasha: How do you go about supporting new or converted online courses?
Chelien Brown: We have our own development process that is in line with the ADDIE methodology. We usually start with a brainstorming session. The instructor will come to the table with a broad framework of what they would like to do. We give them feedback based on their initial ideas as well as give them some direction. There's a lot of back and forth and we are thinking very strategically about what the content and assets need to be to make the student experience that much better.
Sasha: What have you found as the biggest challenges in online learning?
Chelien Brown: Collaboration is something that is the hardest to get right in an online class because you are potentially disconnected in a different city or country and a different time zone. So that natural disconnection makes collaboration more difficult.
It is particularly true in the asynchronous parts of a course where people are expected to be online at different times. Collaboration definitely becomes something that you have to think about and do more purposefully.
Sasha: How has Mural helped you to solve that challenge?
Chelien Brown: Getting comfortable with the idea of teaching online, especially asynchronously, can take some time. And I think the biggest concern people have is the collaboration aspect because that is the part that feels most obviously different from in-person teaching.
Mural really helped to bridge that gap. You have the capacity to be in a mural synchronously, at the same time, and manipulate the board at exactly the same moment. But you also have the asynchronous component. And since it’s visual, I feel like it just makes it so much easier to feel like you're in the same room and you're speaking to someone about the same thing, even though that's not the case and you may be working six hours ahead of them. I would say it's also a much more intuitive tool to achieve that compared to other tools I have used.
A great example is, typically, in the first week of a class, all of the students will be asked to introduce themselves very similarly to how they would introduce themselves in person. A prompt such as “What brought you to this particular course?” would be responded to with text. But when done in Mural, we can have this visual component. Students can respond with various kinds of media that connect their interests or experiences to the course for all to see.
Enabling faculty to use Mural for online learning
Sasha: How do you help instructors integrate Mural into their course?
Chelien Brown: Mural is most often used when we have a very specific assignment or activity in mind that could benefit greatly from visual collaboration. I'm usually the one suggesting it, or the instructor may already know Mural from previous experiences. We look for a way to break up the monotony of typical activities that can occur on online platforms, which are usually more text-heavy.
We incorporate Mural early on in the design phase and, if it works well, we then create templates so that it is easy to recreate the murals and insert them into the course. Different instructors who were not the course author can get a template link and, with a click, they have a copy of the mural for the course.
This allowed us to create a system of templates ready to go. We just sent them to instructors in an email: “Here are the five templates for your course.” And then instructors are easily able to jump in to make those copies and use Mural with their classes. And I think that they all look really great!
Sasha: Have you used Mural with your Instructional Design team?
Chelien Brown: Yes, it works really well in a brainstorming capacity with multiple people working on a project. A few months ago, we were discussing updates to the online website that would help any faculty member learn about the things at the university to help them teach online. We used Mural to pitch ideas and find the common threads, which were very easy to pinpoint in this visual format. All of these sticky notes [below] are literally talking about this one issue.
Sasha: Last, what have you found to be most effective when teaching faculty how to use Mural?
Chelien Brown: We use some overview videos for asynchronous learning, but live, synchronous demonstration is the best way to learn new technology. Faculty are always really busy, so shorter thirty-minute demonstrations usually work well. It is really effective to have built-in points where you are actively inviting the instructors into the demonstration, where they can actually get in Mural, test, and ask questions. You did this in the Mural demonstration you ran for our team, where you started by creating a new board and then you sent the link to it in Zoom. You asked all of the participants to jump in and respond to a prompt in a particular way. And I think that was very effective because it turns people's brains on and it gets them to actually start thinking about how to use the technology instead of passively just taking in information.
Sasha is the Transformation Manager for Education and Non-profits at MURAL. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two boys and works as a community organizer when he isn't outside hanging with the fam.