Skip to main content

Keep youth at the center of online learning design

By Jeremy Freeman

Four boys working on laptopsEducators across the country are creating and adapting their delivery patterns to offer positive learning experiences for young people -- even during these tough times. But whether we meet in person or online, we must ensure our design and delivery is rooted in meeting youth needs.

To do this, we must, together with our learners, co-create learner-centered environments. This takes time and thought. We should resist the urge to quickly implement a variety of technology tools to meet the temporary needs of a lockdown.

According to Jennifer Lock in her article, Designing learning to engage students in the global classroom, “When selecting tools to support the learning outcomes, consideration should be given to how these items will open the learning space to exchange ideas and support the co-creation of knowledge.” Give careful attention to matching the tools you use with your learning objectives and youth needs in your context.

Here are a few suggestions for keeping youth at the center of online learning design. Can you spot the elements of high-quality youth programs embedded in these ideas?

Be a consistent social presence

  • Make yourself feel real to the participants by your interactions. In her book Teaching Online, Claire Major writes “there are many ways instructors communicate, being aware of these and planning for them can help faculty improve communication and create a deeper social presence.

Give positive feedback

Support struggling learners

  • Assess student proficiency with a technology tool before getting started. Use a fun activity to gauge who struggles and with what components. Woods and Bliss suggest connecting directly with participants who are struggling with the online experience for support early on so they can be supported and motivated to stay engaged.

Choose a relevant topic 

  • Students are more engaged when discussion topics are personal, timely and relevant to their lives. Woods and Bliss’s article notes that allowing students voice and choice in selecting topics increases their sense of ownership and engagement.

Make expectations for communication clear

  • Claire Major’s work, Teaching Online, recommends naming how often and how much participants should respond. 
  • Encourage students to say more than just “I agree.” 

Ask thought-provoking questions

  • Follow Bloom’s taxonomy to form questions around the six domains of learning. Higher-level functioning domains require making judgments and reflecting on the quality of information.
  • Asynchronous online formats can create a great environment for all voices to be heard and reflection to deepen as individuals take time to think and react.

How will you design online content to meet learner needs?  What mechanism or processes do you think are important to positively engage young people in an alternative format?

-- Jeremy Freeman, Extension educator

Learn more about developing a youth-centered program.

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Thank you for offering this piece, Jeremy!!! You provide reasons for involving young people from the beginning and ways that we can achieve this! As we put youth in the forefront of this work, we intentionally realize that they will have ideas and methods that we, as adults, need to remember is providing a way for them to find the solution instead of it happening as an adult-led solution. True Youth-Adult partnerships (youth led, adult guided) to keep the learning and connections going during this time!

    1. Kari, keeping youth voice is vital not only in ensuring that the program meets their needs, but also to keep our programs grounded in issues that matter to them.

  2. Thanks for breaking down these powerful tips for engaging youth in learning via technology. Interesting that the tips include things to consider when you are preparing as well as when you are delivering content. What a great resource! Any suggestions for how to engage youth after teaching, in the wrap-up or as a way to help continue to improve?

    1. Betsy, utilizing youth as designers as well as keeping their voice involved is a challenge but it offers value to the educational process. You raise a great question about how to engage youth in analyzing and improving our programs. I am sure there are numerous ways, but here are some.

      One method would be to take the information from a program and put it into a case study format and bring the scenario to a group of youth. In this way, the group is reflecting on a real issue but one that they do not directly have association with removing an element of bias.

      Stephen Brookfield also utilizes a critical incident questionnaire that I have found value in using to help improve mid-stream as well as post-teaching. He offers some great insight into this process.

  3. Jeremy, thanks for your thoughtful ideas and resources. As a volunteer 4-H club leader, I learned by doing yesterday as we had our first club gathering online! We engaged some youth leaders in the planning, I brought some initial expertise in using zoom and ideas for engagement and virtual team building, and as we went along, the kids had new ideas for what we should do next time!

    One very important design element I want to highlight is that kids want to connect with each other and see each other! They miss getting together! So the team building and socializing is critically important. Sharing projects they are working on was also so important and offers a window into how each child is doing during Stay@Home. Even if they didn't identify it as a "4-H project," they are doing interesting things to learn--we had a book of drawings, a mom and daughter who both did a canvas painting as part of a painting challenge group, photographs of nature, examples of games they had made up for their family, two cloverbuds who showed the pretzel buns they had made, high school youth making cards for medical workers, and others--this was all without any prepping before the meeting but we just offered space for kids to share! The meeting time allowed for reflection in the Exp. Learning cycle...and ideas for future application!

    This strategy of creating space for youth and parents to get comfortable with online meeting was key, and now allows new ideas to be developed by the youth themselves...moving us into more youth-led sharing and learning!

    1. Anne, it sounds like you had a very successful meeting! Every teaching opportunity will always bring about something to improve, which we can take note of but we should take time to celebrate the success as well.

      I like that you employed a low-stakes meeting for this initial involvement for youth. This allows you as the leader to assess where learners are at, and help them adjust and learn in new ways next time. Ensuring we scaffold new online environments for youth through their participation is helpful to make them feel confident in wanting to continue.


Post a Comment