Applying Design Thinking In eLearning: Prioritizing The Learner

What Is Design Thinking?

In the rapidly evolving landscape of eLearning, ensuring that educational experiences are both effective and engaging is paramount. One powerful approach to achieving this is through applying design thinking. This human-centered methodology emphasizes empathy, creativity, and user-centered design, making it an ideal fit for creating eLearning solutions that truly meet learners’ needs. Let’s explore how design thinking can revolutionize eLearning by putting the learner first.

Design thinking is a problem-solving framework that originated in the field of design but has since been adopted across various industries. It involves five key stages:

  • Empathize
    Understand the users and their needs.
  • Define
    Clearly articulate the problem to be solved.
  • Ideate
    Generate a range of ideas and solutions.
  • Prototype
    Create tangible representations of ideas.
  • Test
    Evaluate the solutions with users and refine them.

By following these stages, educators and Instructional Designers can develop eLearning experiences that are not only innovative but also deeply aligned with learners’ needs and preferences.

Applying Design Thinking To eLearning: Steps And Examples

Empathize: Understanding The Learner

The first step in design thinking is to empathize with the learners. This involves gathering insights into their experiences, challenges, and motivations. Techniques such as interviews, surveys, and user observations are invaluable here.

For example, in an eLearning environment, understanding the diverse backgrounds, learning styles, and technological proficiencies of students can help in designing courses that are accessible and engaging for all. Empathy maps and learner personas can also be created to visualize and understand learners better.

Define: Articulating The Problem

Once you have a deep understanding of your learners, the next step is to define the problem. This involves synthesizing the insights gathered during the empathy phase to identify the core issues that need addressing.

In the context of eLearning, a problem statement might look like this: “Learners struggle to stay engaged with long video lectures and often feel isolated in the virtual environment.” A well-defined problem statement guides the subsequent design efforts and ensures that solutions are targeted and effective.

Ideate: Generating Solutions

With a clear problem in mind, it’s time to ideate. This stage is all about brainstorming and exploring a wide range of ideas. Encourage creativity and think outside the box to come up with innovative solutions.

For instance, to address the problem of engagement in eLearning, you might explore ideas such as interactive simulations, gamification, social learning platforms, and microlearning modules. The goal is to generate as many ideas as possible before narrowing down to the most promising ones.

Prototype: Bringing Ideas To Life

The prototype phase involves creating simple, tangible versions of your ideas. These prototypes don’t have to be perfect; they are meant to be quickly developed and tested.

In eLearning, prototypes can take various forms, such as wireframes, storyboards, or mock-ups of the course interface. The key is to create something that learners can interact with and provide feedback on. This iterative process allows for refining and improving ideas based on real user input.

Test: Refining The Solutions

The final stage is to test the prototypes with actual learners. Gather feedback, observe how they interact with the prototypes, and identify any pain points or areas for improvement.

Testing is crucial in eLearning design because it provides direct insights into what works and what doesn’t. For instance, if learners find a gamified module confusing, you can iterate on the design to make it more intuitive. Continuous testing and iteration ensure that the final product is finely tuned to meet learners’ needs.

Real-World Applications Of Design Thinking In eLearning

Numerous eLearning initiatives have successfully employed design thinking to enhance the learner experience. For example, the creation of personalized learning paths based on individual learner data, the development of collaborative tools that foster peer interaction, and the implementation of adaptive learning technologies that adjust content difficulty in real time based on learner performance. One notable case is Stanford University’s use of design thinking in their online courses. By continually iterating based on student feedback, they have developed more engaging and effective online learning experiences.


Design thinking offers a robust framework for creating eLearning solutions that truly put the learner first. By empathizing with learners, clearly defining problems, generating creative solutions, prototyping, and rigorously testing, educators can design online learning experiences that are not only effective but also engaging and enjoyable.

As the world of eLearning continues to grow, applying design thinking to your Instructional Design process can ensure that your educational offerings remain relevant, impactful, and aligned with the evolving needs of learners. Embrace this human-centered approach and watch as your eLearning programs transform and thrive.

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