Design Thinking: Digital Writing in the Classroom

When I began my work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013, I was surprised to find both confusion and concern over teaching with technologies from the millennial preservice teachers I worked with- so-called tech-savvy digital natives. Little coursework and even fewer opportunities in practicum/student teaching placements offered experience planning for or implementing technology in the classroom. Even when I integrated digital writing projects into our methods curriculum, we still faced the challenge of transfer, as preservice teachers needed support diving into the why of designing their own digital writing projects in order to make them manageable and meaningful for their differing classroom contexts. It struck me that these were many of the same challenges facing practicing teachers in the schools I had worked in previously. My session during the 4TDW Virtual Conference on Digital Writing explores one potential solution developed collaboratively with my students.

In order to tackle this challenge, we formed a research team, which my students coined Teachology, in order to design opportunities and tools that would support teachers to engage in guided reflection into their planning decisions. Using design thinking as a springboard, we developed a peer mentorship approach that allows teachers to work collaboratively to plan digital projects that are context rather than tool dependent.


In my session on Design Thinking: Digital Writing in the Classroom, my goal is to offer peer mentorship as a reflective experience for both novice and veteran teachers. This process provides a starting point for individuals just beginning to explore digital writing projects as they think about how traditional writing translates to digital contexts and the affordances and limitations that different technologies have to offer. By focusing on context rather than technologies, however, we approach planning without beginning with technology expertise, as exploring digital tools comes later after teachers have developed clear goals and purpose for their planning decisions.

For veteran teachers of digital writing, this approach offers a reflective refresher that helps us to return back to our initial goals in order to adapt and extend projects for future iterations. In my own experience, this has been particularly helpful for me to design more intentional scaffolding into the creation of digital writing projects, particularly as it relates to generating evidence of student thinking and application of author’s craft throughout the writing process. Such insights are vital to our traditional writing projects, and yet, with the added complexity and demands of teaching in digital contexts, conferring and reflecting throughout the writing process can sometimes too easily fall by the wayside. Peer mentorship has helped me to refocus the central takeaways I hope students will experience through digital writing projects and to therefore be more intentional about how I target and support those dimensions

So what does this peer mentorship process look like? You’ll find many parallels to the process of design thinking:

  • Empathize: Step 1 emphasizes knowing your students (and contexts) in order to identify interests and needs.
  • Define: In Step 2, you use knowledge gleaned through empathizing in order to identify a problem (concern, limitation, etc.) that might be addressed through strategic design choices. Here, we choose a “shift” that will help us to focus our process of design.
  • Ideate: Next, in Step 3 participants engage in open brainstorming to generate potential solutions and opportunities. It is important to think about active student engagement and the corresponding verbs that describe student experience. This will help to develop a picture of what the writing project might look like in a broad sense, as opposed to constraining possibilities to a particular tool too quickly (which limits the outcomes).
  • Prototype: Finally, in Step 4 participants explore particular solutions through design. This often involves engaging with a few technologies before selecting the best fit for designing the actual project. In addition, we encourage the creation of mentor texts to serve both as exemplar and important learning experience for the teacher him/herself. This insider perspective is really crucial for successfully scaffolding digital writing projects.
  • Test: The writing project is then brought to the classroom, and the teacher continues to reflect and adjust in response to student needs.

Taking the time to work through this discussion-based process is a welcomed opportunity to pause and reflect, something we don’t often get the chance to do with our busy schedules. As this process becomes embedded into planning mindsets, our goal is that teachers will feel more confident about their ability to design digital writing projects and that those projects will be more responsive to their contexts through purposeful design choices.

Join us on Sunday, October 9 from 1:30-2:30 EST to see this process in action and explore the resources available to support the leap towards digital writing no matter what level of technology expertise you or your fellow teachers initially bring to the table.