As a product design intern at General Assembly in Summer 2015, I collaborated with the team to find opportunities to increase student engagement on Circuits, a mentor-guided online course. While referencing user research report, I defined user goals, created user journey maps, and proposed recommended solutions.
There are challenges related to student engagements in all types of learning environments, especially in online classrooms. Online learners are engaging in a different physical setting, where they don’t have the direct peer-to-peer interaction with their instructors and their classmates.
This experience can be isolating and prone to losing their motivation. Generally, student engagement is understood as the level of interest students show towards their interaction with the content, instructor, and peers, and their motivation to learn and progress through the course - but what does this mean for students on Circuits?
Circuits is a 10 week, mentor-guided online-learning platform that offers courses in Web Design, Data Analysis, and Digital Marketing at General Assembly. Course producers engage students throughout the course, and the students are encouraged to finish their units and submit their unit projects weekly. Students can have one-on-one conversations, and receive useful feedback on improving their work, once a week with one of the mentors. There are series of different activities - from videos, quizzes, interactive activities, and projects throughout the platform - available to access at anytime.
While examining how other competitors deal with the same challenge, I noticed that many of them tried to engage students using gamification features like badges. While these digital badges seem fun and provide positive reinforcement at a glance, they don't offer long-term rewards. What happens when a student unlocks a badge throughout the course? What do they mean for students?
How can Circuits engage their students in a meaningful way? By tapping into their motivations and celebrating their real accomplishments. I focused on designing from an experience level rather than a product level, as seen below.
It’s important to understand the general types of students by looking into the personas to communicate insights and user goals with the team.
Taking the key metrics that were measured by data, I aligned the user needs and the metrics together based on the personas.
> They're surprised when they find out that there's a project, 3 days before it’s due.
> They don’t know the deadlines for each projects, so one of the course producers made her own deadline date chart and sent it out to them.
> They don’t like receiving emails, and don’t watch the Welcome Video, where it explains everything about how Circuits works, especially about deadlines and mentor models.
To understand where the miscommunication is happening between students and course producers, I created emotional journey maps of Julie and Connor, the two main personas that meet all user and business needs. The journey map identified behavior, emotions, and interactions across touch points. Creating this not only helped visualize students' journey in Circuits but also helped to communicate a compelling story within the team.
Students are most likely to be positive, and are ready to absorb new information, especially right when they sign up for the course and get the welcome email (as seen in Julie and Connor’s journey map). It's a simple way to approach the problem before embarking on a new feature.
We can start testing by using an existing calendar platform - like Google Calendar. It's simple and doesn't require a lot of resources to build on a new feature, which can save the team lots of time.
Course Producers set specific unit project deadlines or live lecture dates, for each cohorts or any individual students who are behind with the curriculum. Students can be notified of any important dates without even logging into the Circuits dashboard.
Not only can native notifications help students stay on track with deadlines and upcoming live lectures, but it can also increase higher engagement with the product. When notifications are helpful, personal, and relevant with actionable triggers, it creates habit-forming anticipation for students.
During research, we learned that students don't like to interact via email. SMS is a simple functionality that is more immediate than emails. This different medium of interaction can make the students feel like they're always connected, and they're not alone throughout the journey of this online course. It can act as a virtual assistant that can remind students of upcoming live lectures, mentor 1:1 sessions, and project deadlines.
When designing products, it’s easy to become over invested in building an grandiose feature. When progressing from the research phase, I learned that coming up with practical solutions that don’t require much resources is a good way to start testing the idea before building a new feature.
When designing products, we tend to toward a frictionless flow where it removes impediments to immediate action and focuses on increasing conversion at all costs. This approach doesn’t consider the deeper story of how we can design and build experiences that are also enriching and fulfilling. Designing for moments by capturing and observing the emotional journey of Julie and Connor provided me with the space to interpret, understand and add meaning to their experiences.
Design advisors: George Bixby, Denny McFadden
PM: Kevin Shiiba
User research report: Kathy Geisel