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Empathy Insights From Student Surveys & Interviews

What do students love, hate, and wish from online learning? Well as a student myself, I just asked them... These are the themes I noticed.

Photo of Anya Smith-Roman
5 5

Written by

I am a.....

  • Student
  • Kids Coach (gymnastics ages 4-14)

Tell us about your idea

As a student myself, I'm very aware that at this time of year, when everyone is finishing up final exams and getting ready for summer, most students aren't keen to go on a site like OpenIDEO to continue discussing school right after they finished the year. 

So I thought I would lower the entry barrier into this conversation for students by texting a bunch of my friends (7th graders-college juniors) 3 simple questions to get an idea about their opinions of online learning. I also set up a Zoom chat for those that wanted to go more in-depth on the conversation where we did a more personalized interview and also a brainstorming session in response to OpenIDEO's three areas of remote learning, equity, and community. Then I analyzed all the responses, found some themes, and now wanted to share on the behalf of those 23 students who contributed. 

The three questions I asked these learners to respond to are as followed: 

1. What’s your biggest frustration/what’s driving you crazy about online learning? 

2. What’s your favorite part?

3. It would be better if…

The three greatest trends were students being: 

1. Frustrated by their lack of work ethic/motivation/focus.

2. Enjoying the flexibility in terms of space and time offered by online education.

3 Wishing assignments and syllabi, in general, were more greatly altered to better match an online learning environment.


As we analyze these trends a bit more carefully, it makes me think of these "How might we" statements for looking towards the future of education: 

HMW internally motivate students to show up and participate in school? Teachers currently have less power dominance over students when not physically interacting; typical modes of enforcing attendance and participation such as threats of detention, silent lunch, suspension, etc aren't feasible in an online environment. Now that these threats don't exist, students are finding themselves less motivated which leads me to believe that the school work itself and the prospect of learning alone are not intrinsically motivating students. Wouldn't it be great if students actually wanted to come to school and enjoyed participating in school work? The way to encourage life-long learning is to foster intrinsic motivation to learn - that would be a pretty novel purpose for school if you ask me. 

HMW provide flexible learning opportunities post-pandemic? The mid-semester shift to a different learning environment on top of all of the other social-emotional priorities that have arisen due to the pandemic has been predominately challenging; however, the unquestionable best part has been the flexibility it has allowed students with regards to their education. Students have loved being able to wake up late and feel fully rested, knock out classwork while cozy in their beds, and then "get on with the rest of my day doing all the other things I want to do." The ability to plan personalized schedules and work in a setting of choice has been amazing for so many learners, so now that we've seen how much students love this flexibility, how might we continue to provide it upon returning to our schools? 

HMW effectively use technology in the classroom? The design for assignments to be better adjusted to an online structure was noted as a frustration, a positive element, and a wishful opportunity. So students loved the teachers that were adaptable and used going online as a way to incorporate new elements to their class in meaningful ways, and they were bored and/or frustrated with those who did not. The difficulties some teachers have had with adjusting to a new technological mode of communication raises an important question about how we can more effectively incorporate technology into our schooling even post-pandemic. What students warn us of though, is that technology can't just be incorporated just for the sake of saying "I used technology!" It must be incorporated intentionally and meaningfully - there must be a true purpose for why the technology is further enhancing the learning experience. 

Beyond the Main Trends

In addition to the primary trends, I found three key sub-trends that emerge when looking at how some of the trends interact with each other. 

1. Re-thinking assessment (Responses on test cheating, not wanting tests, wanting more collaboration, and more project work.)

2. Maintain a sense of community (Want more socialization, interaction, and meaningful conversations with peers and teachers.)

3. Use a whole-child approach to education (Frustration with expectations not changing, eyes hurting from so much screen time, new challenges such as moving and schooling with family.)

If you want to read student's full responses as well as my more in-depth analysis of the sub-trends, I have added two additional documents as attachments.

What part(s) of the pre-COVID school system do you wish to leave in the past? Why?

Personally, traditional testing drives me absolutely crazy. It's overly stressful and doesn't really allow students to demonstrate creative or critical thinking or any other 21st-century skill, yet these "soft skills" are proving every day to be more vital than the ability to recall a specific date or name in history. We should assess what we claim to care about.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to share this idea.

I'm a college junior and have been passionate about transformative education since high school, particularly the role of student voice in this movement. The most important part of any DT challenge is to make sure we empathize with users, discover their needs, and make sure prototypes are actually meeting those needs. Students are the main users of schools therefore they should be a vital part of the process to transform education. So I was inspired to do this little casual research project to make sure that real student opinions were being captured and shared with all the other educators and designers out there working to reimagine the potential for our education systems; my hope is that my notes and analyses prove to be helpful to someone and maybe inspire or refine an idea or two to best meet student needs. 

What region are you located in?

  • North America

Where are you located?

I'm typically based in Atlanta, Georgia (I attend Georgia Tech, my family lives in Dunwoody, and I work in Sandy Springs as a gymnastics coach). Though I am currently studying abroad in Wellington, New Zealand until November 2020 if all goes as planned.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Oliver Fabian Avila Tamayo

Hey Anya I am happy to see you keep working on your idea !.. Best wishes for you ! I f you need something may I can help you. I consider myself creative and I love to help

Photo of Darry Strickland

@Anya Smith-Roman, this is amazing work and insights here. Based on the themes and needs that surfaced, what experience/product could you design to support your peers during this time?
Thanks again for your rebel leadership, Darry Strickland !

Photo of Paul Kim

Hi again Anya. I appreciate your commitment to the transformation of education. I was particularly struck by your comment: "The ability to plan personalized schedules and work in a setting of choice has been amazing for so many learners..." Can you share insight into how schools might best help learners do this?

Photo of Anya Smith-Roman

Hi Paul, I've done a lot of thinking around this actually. I think the choice of setting is the easier element of flexibility to incorporate by individual teachers, things as simple as if there is an assignment for the day that doesn't require specifically being in the classroom altogether, let students choose wherever in the building to do their work then do a meet up at the end of class. Or offer a wider variety of furniture within the classroom, maybe a corner with bean bags, kids futons, and pillows to stimulate the idea of working in bed or on a couch, but also options like stools, individual desks, and group tables to give a variety of settings for a variety of learner preferences. I know a lot of schools have already begun doing these kinds of things. In terms of flexibility of time, I wonder about the idea of lecture vs workshop days similar to what many teachers have taken on during this pandemic: perhaps instructional time only takes place a few times a week, and the other day's students have the option to come to class for work time and easy access to teacher feedback, or they can choose to use that time for other purposes as long as all the work that needs to be done for the week gets completed by the end of the week. I also think on a macro scale there are lots of different options for widespread scheduling changes. I've often wondered if k-12 operated more similarly to college where class offerings/their time tables were pre-set, and students could build their schedule around what classes and what times they preferred - so if you like early morning classes, sign up for those 8ams if you don't want to start school till 11, go for it as long as you take everything you need to take that semester. There is also more opportunity for choice with different ways of considering the year schedule, like year-long courses vs semester-long vs quarter long, or how my old high school now operates which is on a 6-6week modular schedule where kids take only 3-4 classes per modular vs 6-7 and it gives students more choice on types of classes they can take and encourages more project-based learning. I didn't quite have room with the word count for all of this on my post, but yes, I've definitely done some brainstorming of my own on all of these trends, I just wanted to focus on sharing the insights rather than my personal brainstorms this time.

Photo of Peter Worth

Thank you, Anya Smith-Roman for sharing your research. I really appreciate your documentation of your process. It is so important that we listen to and elevate student voice at this time of reimagining learning. Thanks!