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Rethinking the Student Experience with MURAL: Interview with Michael Dain

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
December 12, 2016

Distance learning is more and more common in schools and universities these days. And there are no signs of remote education slowing down. To keep up, teachers and students alike need to adapt to new ways of learning.

This brings about challenges for any instructor. How do you set up a course curriculum that is better suited for distance learning? How can you engage students in each class? How do you know that learning has taken place?

These are questions Michael Dain, adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University, has been asking himself. We were thrilled to hear that MURAL played a role in a recent class format he piloted. Instead of presenting slides or using  a board at the front of the classroom, he conducted the entire course in MURAL.

I caught up with him to find out how he did it in an email interview. Read on to learn more. 

JIM: Tell us a little about your role as an instructor and the types of courses you teach.

MICHAEL: I’ve been teaching user-centered design theories and methods at the University level for the past 15 years. Most recently I’ve taught Human Computer Interaction at the School for Professional Studies at Northwestern University at the undergraduate level.

My latest course is for the Masters in Information Design program in Information Architecture.

JIM: You had an interesting approach to teaching your last course using MURAL. Can you tell us more about that? How did you come to the idea? How did you run the class?

MICHAEL: Classroom teaching, for me, is about creating a curriculum to introduce concepts, often through slides or other materials, and then coming up with a way for the students to explore that concept, often with other classmates. Then, after practice, students should apply their knowledge in a project or deliverable.

Each week becomes an exercise in making sure a narrative arc is followed, concepts build upon each other and students gain practice and appreciation for the topic.

In past courses I’ve been comfortable with the presentation part, but it becomes less easy to come up with a way to engage in an activity that keeps each person focused and active in the class.

So, I introduced MURAL to solve both problems. By having direct visibility into concepts as they were being generated, and being able to improvise and ask for other students’ opinions, MURAL became a living document of the student’s journey that I could see and use for further refinement or exploration of other topics as the students saw fit.

An example of a MURAL used to introduce concepts in an IA course.

JIM: Can you tell us a little more about the setup and logistics of the classes?

MICHAEL: Northwestern uses a course management tool called Canvas. Canvas basically supports a blogging platform for authoring, and a threaded conversation area. Over 6 months I wrote the weekly content (along with the book “Understanding Context” which I chose to back me up). This consisted of 10 weeks of written ‘lecture’ materials. I also created the assessments and projects and a discussion question for each week.

However, this still left a gap, with reading that was to be filled with a discussion forum. I felt as though the subject of Information Architecture would benefit from a more visual and adaptive approach.Instead of a presentation deck or video, I had topics arranged in MURAL in different sections, and students could follow along, with my narrative. Then I had general activity areas where they would add examples from the web, or post-its, and be able to see and react to other students’ ideas and suggestions.

MURAL came in to replace the discussion question. I found a threaded conversation did have some positives, but it also imposed a stricter structure on collaboration, which was something I thought it would be more fun to explore. How do you create information architecture structures on content, conversation, etc.

I then used MURAL to contain more of a live lecture. I think my written content was good, but hardly enough to foster conversation or to assess students understanding of the concepts.

For each class I created several areas to guide us through the topic. Some had just links or conceptual pieces, and many contained an activity. The spaces were used for both immediate reactions to a question, but then were also a place to share work in progress, designs, that I and others would comment on.

Students shared materials for each exercise in real time using MURAL.

JIM: Sounds like an engaging course! What were the student reactions? How did you feel it helped learning and comprehension, in general?

MICHAEL: Well the true test was using this technique when students were not physically in the classroom. This past quarter I taught the Information Architecture course online only.

Students were all around the world and we had to collaborate in non-standard or prescribed times. This is where being able to share designs, talk about specific choices, iterate and explore all came into play.

I thought it allowed for more collaboration than in a real classroom, but I also asked them at the end of the course. “MURAL offered a more ‘meta’ way to explore Information Architecture: when did the structure help or hinder understanding and how did the students learn how to ‘fix’ it?” Here are some typical comments I got from students about the course:

"I really liked the interactivity of MURAL. Because of the free-form nature of boards and lack of immediate structure- I had to do some digging, clicking around, browsing to discover information but it was for my advantage. I read all the comments to make sure I didn't miss anything, would revisit boards or sections to look for updates. I had to become more active in my participation / information gathering. I think MURAL is more engaging as a result."

 💡 Student reaction to MURAL

"I really enjoyed using MURAL as it was a lot easier to visually grab or interact with information rather than just reading paragraph after paragraph of formal responses as I have in other Canvas courses. It was easier and more efficient to follow discussion points, ensuring there was no duplication, and it was a very visual way of showing options; MURAL, in most instances, provided information relatable to the class in easily digestible and organized chunks. Doing this outside of a discussion board provided an interactive way to follow the course content and learn from my classmates."

💡 Student reaction to MURAL

JIM: Reading some of the student comments, it seems part of the "meta" lesson on IA centered around visual thinking. Students were better able to make connections between topics and find new patterns using MURAL. Is that something you felt added to the course? If so, how?

MICHAEL: Yes, it could have been a perfect showcase for MURAL, because it allows us to take unstructured information and apply several different ways to make that information actionable.

As to being visual rather than textual, creating a table or spreadsheet of elements also imparts a bias. Visually, the students seem to be adept at using some of the gestalt principles of organization (proximity, alignment, similarity) to organize content rather than just the typical lexicographic approach (definition, alphabet). This helped reinforce and experiment with the process of how design and organization of content is handled.

While this particular technique may have a meta significance in this subject matter, I believe the visual techniques work across a wide range of subjects, especially in an unfamiliar topic. It is still hard to get people to read and understand a topic, so to explore and guide them in the topic is still the teaching method I find most effective.

JIM: Thanks, Michael!

Close up of one collaborative student exercise to prioritize examples.


MURAL has an offer for teachers and students at universities. Any university teacher or student can use MURAL for free. Please contact us directly and include a link to your school. If an entire educational organization, such as a university, is interested in a school-wide subscription, we can offer a highly reduced rate for an Enterprise plan.

You may also find these articles interesting:

This Is Your Brain On MURAL - Interview With Dr Anjan Chatterjee

Work Through Any Problem With The Innovators’ Compass, a tool in MURAL created by Ela Ben-Ur

About the author

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.