Cultivating Creativity and Community in a Design-based Online Course

Nohan Budiono, Design Museum Everywhere 


As part of our research into creative learning design tools, we’re sharing  reflections from our collaborators at Design Museum Everywhere. This summer, they developed a six-week, project-based program for Cambridge high school students. 

We were excited by how the facilitation team designed a digital workspace for students to develop their projects and to share their in-progress thinking with others. They could have defaulted to conventional learning management systems (e.g. Google Classroom), but instead chose a collaboration tool (Milanote) that suited their goals: supporting youth in developing core design skills while creating a supportive community. In some aspects, they improved on an in-person studio experience: a facilitator could “drop-in” on a student’s workspace to see how they were organizing their work and fleshing out ideas. Students in turn had more freedom to express and organize ideas in ways that made sense to them (what we might call expressing their unique epistemological styles). However, a facilitator or student couldn’t easily see their ‘version history’ for their workspace, a possibility that could open up new directions for teaching and learning. Moreover, workspaces were not always easy to follow -- a challenge likely rooted in the transition to a more flexible digital medium. 

We also appreciated how the facilitation team modeled creative vulnerability: they developed new learning experiences and activities in spaces where student participants could see their work as it was being developed. This had the effect of modeling that it is OK to share work-in progress, contributing to a less hierarchical, more collaborative environment where everyone -- students and educators -- could take creative risks. 

If you're interested in exploring how others have designed virtual workspaces to support collaboration and creative work, we also recommend this article.

Cultivating Creativity and Community in a Design-based Online Course

Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas, Mimi Shalf, and Mary Martin. Yusuf Ahmad supported with framing and editing.


Like many others, we needed to adapt from in-person to virtual programming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  We replaced our regular, in-person teen program with a virtual one, the Summer Design Project. The program was a 6-week, paid opportunity for low-income students of color from Cambridge, funded by the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. We hoped to invite participants to learn about design, identify an issue they care about, and design an approach to that issue. We also sought to reinforce community and social-emotional learning at a time when our teens were being asked to carry a lot on their shoulders.

These goals -- supporting teens in learning design through open-ended, project-based work and building a caring community -- are non-trivial even in ‘normal’ education contexts. The pandemic compounded the design challenge and led us to consider alternative tools and strategies. In this post, we’ll describe how we selected an online collaboration tool (Milanote) and how we adapted it to support our goals. We’ll also share some of the insights, tips, and challenges that we encountered in the hope that it might help others hoping to support young people during this challenging time. 

Selecting a Collaboration Tool that Supported our Goals

We explored a number of tools to support open-ended project-based learning and to develop a strong community. Traditional learning management tools (e.g. Google Classroom, Moodle, Canvas) are useful for sharing static content (sending out and requesting content or assignments), but didn’t meet our specific needs: we needed a tool that might allow students to fluidly organize their ideas, develop their projects, and document their work in ways that were easy for others to engage with. This led us to examine tools that designers and other creative professionals use to organize and support their work. We also needed to meet other criteria, including price, accessibility, ease of adoption, and creative documentation. Using Airtable to track our results, we investigated 8 different options and then ranked them based on the criteria. 

We were working with a $150 budget for our online tool, so the program could not exceed that limit. Some of the programs offered discounts to nonprofits and educators, which helped us stay on budget. The software also had to be accessible to our students. In our context, this meant that the software had to be browser based and Chromebook friendly. We didn’t want to spend much time onboarding, so we needed a software that had a low learning curve. It was also crucial to our goals that the software allow us to work creatively and transparently with the students. We wanted a program that allowed us to see work being done in real time and that enabled multiple collaborators. 

After weighing all of the criteria, we decided to move forward with Milanote. The other programs that we explored included Conceptboard, Online Town, Spatial Chat, Miro, Notion, Mural, Google Jam Board, and Google Classroom. We felt that Notion had a high learning curve and seemed more like a shared document than a collaborative whiteboard. Mural and Conceptboard were not viable options based on our budget. Spatial Chat and Online Town are both very innovative programs that employ a novel approach to online chatting, but they lacked the creative documentation that we were looking for. We had initially planned on using Google Classroom, which would have integrated easily with Google Jam Board, but we felt that Google Classroom was unnecessarily complex for our purposes, and that Jam Board felt too temporary. Jam Board is essentially an online whiteboard that works with Classroom, but the only option for saving the information on the board is to export the whole board. In the end, the decision came down to Miro and Milanote. Both of these programs create sharable whiteboards with the ability to add comments or files and organize the content as desired. We felt that both would meet all of our pedagogy needs and create a collaborative online environment that would support our students’ creative processes. Milanote was able to give us a better nonprofit discount on their normal subscription price, which was the deciding factor over Miro. 

How we set-up Milanote as a Space to Support Collaboration and Creative Work

Once we had decided on Milanote as our main collaborative tool, it was time to customize our space. We created a structure that allowed the teens to have their own personal and team spaces, as well as spaces shared by our whole program. After a short introduction during our first meeting together, the teens were able to jump right into Milanote, asking very few questions about the tool itself. We were surprised at how quickly the students took to the tool, creating customized spaces of their own. Some students took to color coding their spaces while others dropped their soundcloud profiles. Because they each had their own personal, yet public, areas, they were able to organize their thoughts in whatever way they felt best, creating a fascinating way to quickly get to know more about each of them. 

Modeling Vulnerability and Sharing In-Progress Work 

Instead of preparing activities in another tool or private space and then adding them to the shared Milanote workspace, we chose to develop our activities in shared spaces with the teens. This meant that teens could see us working and had visibility into how we developed activities. This transparency allowed the teens to see how we worked just as much as we could see how they worked, and in so doing, framed our relationship as colleagues working together to design. 

This is an important distinction — between transparency and surveillance. The students were aware of the public nature of their boards, and had the option to work outside of their publicly shared boards.  We did not ask them to share their personal account information with us, meaning we did not observe what they did on their accounts outside of our shared program workspace. However, by modeling and discussing the value of sharing in-progress work, we hoped to cultivate a creative, non-hierarchical culture, where everyone -- participants and facilitators -- felt free taking creative risks and sharing their work in-progress with others. 

New visibility into how students work

By modeling and emphasizing Milanote as a workspace for drafting ideas and sharing in-progress work, we gained new visibility into what students were working on and how they worked, even as they were in their breakout groups. Typically, once students are in a small group setting in-person, all we can do is cycle between the groups, asking questions and observing what is happening as we flit in and out of their workflow. In virtual breakout rooms, the disconnect is more pronounced. With Milanote, we were able to see the entirety of their creative process as it was happening. In an in-person setting, students work on whatever physical materials they are provided with, large enough to share but too small to see from across the room. This means every time we approach a group, it’s up to the members of that group to walk us through their thought processes, and although that can be an integral part of self-understanding, it can be a challenge for educators to fully grasp each group’s workflow without using time to ask questions (which in turn can be disruptive to student work). With Milanote, we were able to watch as the teens worked together to create, allowing us an insight into their thought processes that was previously unknown. For example, when one group was struggling to better understand the data they had collected through their surveys, we were able to see them actively delaying their data analysis by tinkering and expanding on their prototype. When we reconnected to discuss, we as educators were able to cut right through to what they were avoiding and discuss why it was challenging for them. Ultimately, it led to more nuanced and focused discussions of their projects. 

Challenges and Opportunities

Version History

Although Milanote is helpful for creating an accountable and collaborative atmosphere in virtual learning, it’s not without its challenges. The trickiest and easiest to overlook is the lack of version history. This means that if you want to document your students’ work throughout your time together, or if you want to document a group activity, you need to actively export the board you are working in throughout the process. Otherwise, you are left with the most up-to-date information, having lost the context of anything that was moved or deleted.

Designing for student or educator convenience?

For the purposes of the program, we had a reflection board where we asked teens to respond to reflection prompts once a week.  However, we had a difficult time making sure these reflections got done. Although, the independent project work was completed, they just weren’t doing their reflections.  We think part of the reason reflections were often left untouched is because it was an area of the Milanote board they rarely went to — once a week at most — and thus it was easy to forget about with all the other work that needed to be done. In contrast, the teams visited their team project boards every day, both during our meetings and outside of our meetings. Looking back, creating a board solely for reflection prompts was a choice that was convenient for us as educators, as they were all in one place. However, it was not very convenient for the students, who rarely visited the board and had to keep track of all the things they were doing in different places. 

Learning to organize projects as they grow in complexity

As projects developed, students' Milanote boards became increasingly congested with notes, drawings, ideas, etc.  While we encouraged documentation, the sheer amount of information on the boards made them difficult to navigate. We mostly addressed this by using the comment feature, which allows you to draw a colleague’s attention to a specific point in the board, but comments only helped with finding a specific part of a board, not with navigating it as a whole.  Furthermore, sometimes clicking on the comment notification doesn’t send you to a specific part of the board, but instead to the board more generally. Although the spatial nature of the boards made it easier to orient oneself, in the future we would be more intentional about supporting students in organizing their work as projects go in complexity. 

Final Reflections

Ultimately, Milanote helped us pursue the goals of our program, empowering students to work on open-ended design projects, helping them take ownership for their work, and building a transparent and supportive community. 


Diana Navarrete-Rackauckas is the Director of Learning and Interpretation at Design Museum Everywhere. A museum educator and diversity advocate, Diana is passionate about creating accessible and interactive educational experiences for all audiences. Raised in an immigrant family and community, she is dedicated to holding inclusive spaces that empower participants to more confidently navigate their worlds. Diana can be reached via email at

Mary Martin was Design Museum Everywhere’s Adult Education Apprentice for the summer of 2020. She graduated from Olin College in 2018 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a focus on user centered design. Before joining the Design Museum Everywhere team, Mary worked at Bose Corporation on the Rapid Design Engineering team and on the BOSEbuild team. She is passionate about creating accessible, engaging designs and hopes to continue working in education or museums. 

Mimi Shalf was Design Museum Everywhere’s K-12 Education Programs intern for the summer of 2020 and has extended her internship into the fall.  She recently graduated in May 2020 from UC Berkeley with a Bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Science, minor in Computer Science, and certificate in Design Innovation. Mimi is curious about creative education and believes in the power of design to provide fun and accessible learning environments.  She hopes to work in the intersection of design, education, and technology to make engaging and interesting educational experiences. 

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