TOP FIVE IDEAS for Online Programs

These ideas come from Julia Lazarus, an experience designer and cultural project producer interested in creative audience engagement, public humanities program development, and strategic cultural planning. She is currently a fellow with the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. Previously, she served as Assistant Director of Online Learning & Innovation at Brown University’s School of Professional Studies, where her team developed and delivered both fully online and blended courses for high school students, Brown undergraduates, professional adults, and Brown’s global public. Her prior work included museum programming, educational technology, multimedia content production, community journalism, and film. Julia holds an MA in Public Humanities from Brown’s Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, as well as degrees from Duke University and Wesleyan University.

As you shift to online programs, think of this as an adaptation project, as if you were trying to turn a book into a movie: you wouldn’t expect a one-to-one correspondence.  Do we switch formats? What do we retain? What is transformed? What do we let go? How do we capitalize on the new formats and opportunities? 

Use the digital space for what the digital space does well. Here are five tips to help you do this.


What is the outcome of the program supposed to be? Maybe you are trying to teach people something in an educational program; maybe you are trying to build community amongst your visitors; maybe you are trying to build bridges between your community and your institution. So as you are thinking about adaptation, start with this outcome. 

Then think about what you want people to do in this experience that will demonstrate that outcome, maybe even what artifact they can generate. With that in mind, design an activity to produce that “doing,” that will enable the creation of those artifacts. And finally, identify what content/information they need to know to be able to accomplish the activity. The activities should be in the service of these outcomes.

This can also apply broadly to keeping focused on the mission of your department or institution, which is always wise. Whatever scope your program is addressing, keep the strategic goals in mind, and use backwards design to make sure the activities you are offering are advancing those strategic goals.  If you are making beautiful content that you think somehow replicates what you offer face-to-face, but you don’t know that anyone is using it or getting anything out of it, what’s the point? What are you really trying to accomplish? 

The Backwards Design model



Just because you are using a computer — or a mobile phone — to deliver an online experience, everything doesn’t have to happen on a computer. Use the screen space to launch the program. Establish the tone and the parameters, and introduce everyone, in this home base. But then ask people to do reading, looking, thinking, researching, and making on their own. Then come back to the computer to share and discuss.

The best online learning involves active creation. When shifting to online learning you need to shift your lesson planning away from what you want people to know and toward what you want people to be able to do. And the digital space is a great tool for all sorts of doing: researching something, finding and sharing an image or a link, accessing an article or video to read or watch, making a video of your own, listening to music or making a recording, connecting with a group of people to discuss something, using a digital tool. Think about what you will be asking people to practice, and what you can invite people to do both on-screen and off-screen. The doing will enable the learning. Look for ways to connect the content to that activity in an interesting way.


Don’t just Zoom!    

First of all, it’s exhausting. I think many people are experiencing this first-hand right now, but researchers say it’s hard to process people’s facial expressions, and listen, and you don’t know where exactly to look, all on these small video windows (for more on this, see this and this and this). It’s probably not an ideal choice right now for a museum program which is meant to be energizing, or relaxing, or elevating in some way. Of course, Zoom is fine for some things, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of an online experience. What is actually better for engagement in an online space is an asynchronous experience. Delivering something in an asynchronous format — not in one live session, but rather spread out over time, allowing people to participate whenever works for them — has benefits: (1) you don’t have to bring people in for specific hours, so you can reach more people, whenever their schedules allow them to participate; (2) you can reach people beyond your local area, even in multiple time zones, potentially vastly broadening your audience for a given program; and (3) it lets people dip into the questions again and again, and mull them over a long period of time. One student said, “I carry it with me throughout the week.” It’s extending the thinking time in an interesting way that makes it more meaningful.

In the museum setting, we know that getting people to slow down and look and think has a big benefit. Asynchronous learning expands time and processing in the same way.

Think about pre- and post-visit activities that wrap around a given time-limed experience on site at a museum. Use the same concept. It’s a great model.

The other benefit of developing an asynchronous online experience is that you can make reusable digital content pieces, which is an investment in future content, a program you can offer again and again. 


The tool is not the answer – the answer will come from the kind of engagement you want from people. What do you really want people to be doing? Probably not just sit and watch.

Do you want people to look closely and then demonstrate something? That will determine your tool. How will you ask them to demonstrate? What are the tools at their disposal? Can people draw something, or make something with materials they have at home, and then take a picture with their phones, and share and discuss online? You don’t need a fancy tool with a digital whiteboard. Learning the new tool is not where you want their effort.

That said, it’s important for people to have a home-base to come back to – an organizing space. This can be a google doc or a web page – any space providing a sequence or agenda or outline that people are working through. In a learning management system that would be used in an online course this is usually called the learning module sequence, but you can think of it, at heart, as a structured list of activities. Help people know what home base is.

Home base for an online course


Discussion boards, with their long threads of typed comments, can seem visually flat, arduous to wade through, or just boring in comparison to a face-to-face discussions. Online discussion boards do fundamentally rely on a lot of text. However, what people have seen in online classroom learning is that two things happen: (1) Discussion boards level the playing field – everybody posts, not just the loud kid or the brave kid. One good practice is to have people post and then come back a few days later and read everyone’s responses, and also reply to a few other people. So everyone’s voice is heard, and the experience is structured to ensure that people get feedback. (2) Because people are writing, they actually end up making quite articulate comments. They have to take time to think about what they are saying. Instead of offering a comment on the fly, they have the time to  think, edit, even fold in resources – images, links, audio, editorial references. Online discussion boards need good experience design to establish and explain the sequence of steps, and they need facilitation, but when done well, they can generate richness and thoughtfulness as well as equity that is lovely, and not at all a diminished form of discussion.

The final thing to keep in mind is that a facilitator really is critical. Research has shown that the best online learning has three components: “instructor presence” (the feel and actual participation of a person leading the way); content; and social engagement. To be really successful, online learning experiences need all three.


One thought on “TOP FIVE IDEAS for Online Programs

  1. Excellent points. Your focus right off the bat regarding having clear outcomes was music to my ears as critical in interpretive design work no matter what media. when you wrote “Think about what you want people to do in this experience,” and “activities should be in the service of outcomes,” I was silently applauding. Being mission driven and identifying desired results are not commonly grappled with enough at the outset, allowing for weak learning experiences. Glad to hear this being said as that is a big part of our mantra at EID (Experiential Interpretive Design).

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