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Applying a Disney Imagineering Approach to Course Design

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Disneyland ferris wheel with Mickey Mouse emblem
The quote above sounds a lot like something you’d read on an Arizona State University website, #1 in innovation and consistently striving to propel ASU education into the realms of the future as the New American University, but it’s a quote from director and storyteller, Walt Disney. Most people have heard of the American theme park creator who continues to inspire children and adults around the world nearly 100 years later. This far-reaching effect flourishes as technology evolves, perpetuating Walt’s innovative mindset to “keep moving forward” into new and thrilling park experiences. Propelling the beloved franchise into technological achievements are Disney Imagineers, the creative and technical minds behind the success of Disney’s theme parks and legacy. Like the heartbeat of the Disney franchise, a spirit of innovation and imagination encompasses the mission and goals of ASU. Similar to Disney’s Imagineers, ASU’s instructional designers and instructors have the opportunity to fuse technology and storytelling to create an educational experience that redirects traditional online education toward new paths that encourage student connection, retention, and changemakers.

What is an Imagineer?

“Imagineering is the blending of creative imagination with technical know-how.” -Marty Sklar (The Imagineering Story)

Imagineers are happiness experts, engineering geniuses, and imagination gurus. They “build the happiest places on earth,” according to The Imagineering Story (Leslie Iwerks 2019), available on Disney+.

Watch The Imagineering Story trailer from Disney+

The impact of Imagineers’ creative and technical vision touches every aspect of the Disney franchise: “Walt Disney Imagineering is the creative engine that designs and builds all Disney theme parks, resorts, attractions, and cruise ships worldwide, and oversees the creative aspects of Disney games, merchandise product development, and publishing businesses” (Disney Imaginations). Utilizing a broad skill-set across a devoted team, Imagineers, more than anything else, are storytellers who show and tell the Disney narrative across a myriad of mediums.

Much like instructional designers in an online course, Imagineers take a concept and bring it to life with design tools, storytelling, and seemingly magic, though the real ingredient is a spirit of innovation. That spirit of innovation permeates ASU’s initiatives--from on-campus programs to online courses.

What does it mean to innovate?

Man in black tshirt and Virtual Reality Goggles
“Innovation” is a buzzword in the modern era and the force behind advancements like face recognition software, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and electric cars. Each breakthrough in technology started with a crazy idea and evolved from a series of trial and error to make that idea a reality. In the Imagineering studio, failure is a vital part of innovation, the foundation on which success happens. In The Imagineering Story, Walt embraces the function of failure by discussing success rates. To Walt, if a new idea took off seamlessly, without a hitch, then they weren’t thinking broadly enough, weren’t truly innovating. Pushing the boundaries, reaching far, thinking outside the box--such idealistic pursuits naturally result in failure at times, but it’s from those moments of failure that creatives learn, noting the mistakes and reworking the formula until they reach their goals. This devoted effort and mindset transformed Disney parks across the world into magical places that boggle the mind and uplift the spirit.

Online courses aren’t really like theme parks, of course, but the spirit of innovation that flows through the world of Disney is the same spirit of innovation that ASU seeks to become the New American University, a “reconceptualization of 21st century higher education” that sets apart ASU’s initiatives.

“More than a decade ago, ASU set forth a new and ambitious trajectory to become a comprehensive knowledge enterprise dedicated to the simultaneous pursuit of excellence, broad access to quality education, and meaningful societal impact. From that point forward, and founded on a vision for a new “gold standard”, all of its energy, creativity and manpower have been brought to bear on the design of a uniquely adaptive and transdisciplinary university committed to producing master learners.” (New American University)

Watch The New American University Video Overview

It’s easy to see the shared passion between ASU’s and Disney’s initiatives, that devoted effort to create something new, but also something better and more rewarding to the community. To reach this lofty goal, ASU pushes the bill in academics, technology, and on-site and online infrastructure to create unique spaces to learn and engage. The process of trial and error, course reviews, course redesigns, and implementation of new technologies are some ways that instructional designers and instructors innovate their courses, in-person and online. Future learning spaces will continue to utilize digital technologies and creativity, but beneath each effort will be a shared narrative. Designing like an Imagineer means designing for an audience that is diverse but shares a common desire to be part of the story. In the section below, we will discuss effective approaches to designing like an Imagineer by focusing on implementing a clear course design, a framework of support, and an engaging narrative.

Lay a Clear Foundation for Learning

Disney modeled his theme parks after the universal hub and spokes design, which makes appearances in a variety of areas like the layout of Paris, transportation grids, information technology network design models, visual aid diagrams, wheels, and even video games. Like the circulatory system of a design, the hub and spoke layout consists of a central location in the middle, with multiple paths branching out from the center toward other areas of the design--all parts eventually leading back to the center again. Considering the scale of a Disney park, Imagineers utilize the hub and spoke design to provide visitors with a helpful and familiar pathway to follow that eases anxiety while visiting the park. 

Map of original Disney park
Naturally, reduced anxiety and clear expectations make way for more engagement and a better overall experience--whether at a Disney park or in an online course. When students access an online course, they become their own tour guides in a way: they have to locate their assignments, expectations, and due dates. They have to figure out how to best manage their time, locate valuable resources, and traverse the online paths that will, hopefully, lead them to successful completion of the course. When instructional designers and instructors provide a clear design for students, they become Imagineers of the online course, easing anxieties and encouraging more connection with the learning materials. Here are some ways to incorporate a clear central design for students:

A Landing Page

Consider an intentional landing page that welcomes students when they enter the course, introducing them to an overview of the course by utilizing a welcoming tone, relatable images, an instructor welcome video, and the essential information that students must know to begin navigating the course. In short, if one page told the story of the course, what would it say? Will students know where to go next? Will students know how to seek help? First impressions play a huge role in user experience and set the tone for their perceived expectations.

A Consistent Template

After hooking students’ attention and giving them the confidence and tools to get started, weaving in a consistent experience into the course design will establish a feeling of trust and clear expectations. Most online courses incorporate a module overview page, learning materials pages devoted to what students will read, and the accompanying activities or assessments that students must complete. Consider the following enhancements to these pages that can help students navigate the course successfully:

    Module Overview

Think of this page as a mini home page for each module, introducing students to topics that will be covered, but also emphasizing how this module’s content and activities apply to their future careers. In other words, consider using this page to hook students and make them care by emphasizing the applicability to students.

    Module Learning Materials 

Screenshot of Canvas modules view
The Imagineering approach to design seeks to guide students along an experience. Instead of a bulleted list of reading materials, consider listing resources with a short overview of the value of each resource, notating key concepts to look out for to prepare for an assignment or points of interest that may prepare students for the workforce. In other words, showcase the value of these resources.

    Textual Headers

In the module outline, textual headers can break up the content into organized sections. Additionally, the use of emojis is a great way to add visual cues and narrative to the outline to visually tie concepts and topics together.

    Naming Conventions

Consider naming pages and assignments intentionally so that students know what they’re about to view before they open the page. For example, instead of naming an assignment “Lab 1,” go one step further and title the lab to indicate which lab students will complete. This deliberate naming process is another way to ease the anxiety of students and guide them through the “hub and spokes” of the course outline from a bird’s eye view in the module outline.

Provide Assistance Before It’s Requested

At every corner and experience of a Disney park is a person, sign, or resource directing guests to where they want to go, as well as to other areas of the park they may not have planned to visit. This is a method employed by the Disney team to anticipate the needs of the guests, their anxieties, and how to propel them along an exciting and entertaining experience that will make them want to return and do it all again. In an online classroom, there are multiple opportunities to anticipate students’ needs and questions, and here a few ways to support students before they even ask for it:

Hyperlinks

In an online format, learning materials and resources can be a little overwhelming for students with varying backgrounds, interests, and learning abilities. Hyperlinks can help fill in the gaps and scaffold information to ensure that students access learning materials where they are. For example, a Wikipedia page for a specific topic will weave in hyperlinks for other topics that are mentioned to ensure that readers have a full understanding of those topics as the information builds. By providing students with supplemental information in-text, students can decide if they need to pause and review before moving on to other resources or the assignments. This type of supplemental resource could also be used

Supplemental resources

Similarly, providing students with supplemental resources can offer students an opportunity to dig a little deeper on a topic. This would not be information that is covered in an assignment but could be information that students use when completing a research assignment or preparing for their careers. Supplemental resources could be scholarly articles, websites, podcasts, videos, or even company websites--anything that takes what students have been asked to read and goes one step further to building on that experience with valuable information. Clearly marking these resources as optional and supplemental will ensure that students have clear expectations regarding what is required and what is optional.

Module surveys and discussions

In an in-person environment, there are visual cues when someone is struggling. In an online course, it can be hard to determine who is struggling and whether or not they have located the resources they need until an assignment is submitted. Discussion boards are a common way for students to post questions that can then be answered by their classmates or instructor. Discussion board formats can vary across tools like Yellowdig and Slack, but the common goal is for students to have a place to be heard. Module surveys provide instructors an opportunity to see what questions students may have that they did not want to posit to the class. Surveys also allow instructors to ask students if they found certain learning materials helpful or not, if diversity was clearly represented, or if bias was evident in the verbiage of the course. Instructors can then take this feedback and weave it into a future run of the course, potentially helping answer the questions of future students before they’ve had to ask.

Announcements 

In an online course, there are tools and features that weave in a feeling of authentic, real-time support to help students feel supported. One helpful tool is course announcements. I wrote an article for the Teaching Innovation Center on The Art and Science of Course Announcements that discusses many ways to design effective announcements. Consider reading it to see how announcements can weave in an authentic, supportive presence that propels student success and connection.

Prioritize the Point of the Story

"I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse." -Walt Disney

Statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse with fireworks in background
Walt Disney could not have known the far-reaching impact the story of a mouse would achieve. He simply told a story and worked hard to grow it into an experience that could spark joy, creativity, and connection. The one thing that has consistently remained in the 100 years of progress of the Disney franchise is the underlying story of seeking innovation and providing excellent service. ASU has grown since its inception and, as we strive to become the New American University, our pursuit of innovation and service must remain at the heart of our design efforts as well.

Beneath the structural facade of online courses is a pulse that beats through each page, propelling students along a narrative toward the end of the course. How do we keep their attention? How do we make them engage and care about the content? And then how do we provide them with the tools they need to be successful adults in their chosen career paths and lives? One effective way to engage an audience is through the ancient art of storytelling. We can do this by enhancing module pages and assignments after student evaluations and professional development during course revisions. We can reach students where they are by providing supplemental resources and announcements that prepare them for assignments, but also for the real world.

At the center of it all--the hub with the spokes branching out--is one single story that we want students to hear: ASU courses are designed with students’ needs in mind. This supportive tone removes the feeling of a course being on autopilot and establishes an environment of trust and connection that encourages innovation.

Conclusion

Imagineers are architects of the happiest place on earth. Similarly, instructional designers and instructors are architects of an online learning experience--terms such as build, design, and measure are often used when discussing online course development. The similarity of these roles is not to say designing online courses is exactly like designing theme park experiences--that one is “entertainment” and the other “educational.” There must be a blend of both to hook students and guests alike--to capture their attention, offer them a part in the experience, and hope they do something valuable with what they’ve learned. Imagineers and instructional experts seek to impact their given audience and, hopefully, have a part in changing the world for the better. When it comes to innovation, the question is: do you start big or start small? The simple answer is: start somewhere and then keep moving forward.

References



Post-Author:

Image of Taylor O'Kelley (post-author)
Taylor O’Kelley, M.Ed., is an instructional designer with ASU Online and the Learning Experience and Student Success team, supporting large-scale initiatives of future learning spaces.

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