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Editor’s Note
: When we focus on the mechanics of goal setting, instructional design, production, implementation, and evaluation, we should not overlook an important aspect of human learning and development – creativity. It is important to involve the learner in the process of discovery and make his own interpretation of what is learned. This paper explores ways to stimulate creativity in an online learning environment.

Encouraging Creativity in Online Courses

Stephanie A. Clemons

Key Words: creativity, brain-based learning, learning, online, theory, creative ideas/techniques, adult learning


“It is easy to consider the essential role of creativity in bringing joy and meaning

to the human condition – without creativity we have no art, no literature, no science, no innovation, no problem solving, no progress.” – Starko, 1995, p. vii.

Creative people are in high demand in today’s world (Stevens and Burley, 1999). If adults are to be successful and prosper, innovative thinking and behaving must be encouraged. Therefore it is imperative that students continue to receive opportunities to develop divergent thinking skills (e.g. thinking outside the box) (Slavkin, 2004).

Creativity is an important component of problem solving, other higher cognitive abilities, social and emotional well-being, and academic and adult success (Slavkin, 2004). “Creativity is important to society but it traditionally has been one of psychology’s orphans” (Sternberg & Lubart, 1999, 4).

It is still common that traditional classroom educators -- due to demands on time, support issues, and/or curriculum requirements -- hold to the tenet that “learning is a mechanistic experience” (e.g. input/output) (Slavkin, 2004). Therefore, students may lack the opportunity to think abstractly or creatively.

Are there strategies, techniques or methods that can encourage student creativity in online courses? This paper explores creativity and offers reminders concerning the tips and strategies available for online educators.

Review of Literature

Creativity Begins in the Brain

The frontal lobe of the brain focuses on processes such as decision-making, judgment, planning, creativity, and problem solving (Sprenger, 2002; Lucas, 2004). Brains need time to digest and adapt new information. One thing that attracts the brain is novelty, it may be the result of the brain dealing with survival (Sprenger, 2002). Something new and different is examined by the brain to make sure it is safe (Carper, 2000). Novelty and curiosity can boost attention (Lucas, 2004).

Brain-based theory advocates the need for enriched environments (not necessarily physical environments) to encourage learning. Research performed by neuroscientists has indicated that enriched environments encourage the growth of dendrites, which relates to learning (Sprenger, 2002). Neuroscientists have offered learning principles to enhance enrichment in the classroom such as:

  • Give the brain something to do that it is capable of doing

  • Provide repetition (consistently and with some intensity) so that brain neurons fire repeatedly enabling them to become more efficient

  • Give timely feedback

  • Adapt learning to the student (Tallal, 1999).

Enriched environments engender student self-confidence, which leads to creativity.

Learning Theory Supports Creativity

Contemporary learning theory acknowledges human learning to be a complex, constructive process with learners building onto their own knowledge similar to a contractor building a house (Starko, 1995). Learning in pursuit of a goal makes the learning purposeful. Tying information to prior knowledge and understanding can make it meaningful. Since connections created by each student must be original and goal-oriented, learning must by definition be appropriate (meeting the goal) (Starko, 1995). Each learner builds an individual cognitive structure that is unique and full of personal associations. Meaningful learning is viewed as essentially creative (Caine & Caine, 1991).

Creativity: Definition, Theories, Myths, Virtues

Although a standard definition for creativity is still not agreed upon, a common definition is found or inferred from a wide range of studies (Slavkin, 2004). It involves the production of original, useful products as determined by that field (Sternberg & Lubart, 1999). Perkins (1988) defined creativity as a result that is both original and appropriate with appropriateness related to the cultural context in which the creativity is based (Sternberg, 1990). Czikszentmihalyi (1990) proposed that creativity was not a characteristic of people or products but an interaction among an individual, product, and environment. Gardner professed that individuals are “creative” in a particular domain-specific ways. He advocated that the creative individual was a person who regularly solved problems, designed products, or defines new questions within a domain that was perceived novel but ultimately became accepted in that particular cultural setting (Gardner, 1993).

Implicit theories of creativity include themes of originality and utility (Sternberg, 1985). Jung (1972) advocated the importance of personal experience and the unconscious mind in framing creative production. The Creative Problem-Solving Model (Osborn, 1963) proposed a theory and a process to determine ways to use creativity appropriately. Each version of the process included a series of steps that involved both divergent (finding many ideas) and convergent (drawing conclusions, narrowing the field) stages (Starko, 1995).

Creativity is both a communication tool (e.g. literature) and a technique for problem solving (e.g. inventors of modern lighting). In fact, the identification of a problem or “problem finding” underlies all types of creativity (Starko, 1995). Myths and stereotypes of creative individuals include 1) people are born creative or uncreative, 2) creativity is limited to the arts and music, 3) creativity is intertwined with negative aspects of psychology and society (e.g. to be identified as creative the individual must be made, weird or neurotic), 4) creativity is a fuzzy, soft construct, 5) constraints inhibit creativity, 6) a person must be relatively young to make significant creative contributions, 7) creativity is enhanced with a group, and 8) creativity should not be marketed (Slavkin, 2004).

There are two different types of creativity: real-time and multi-stage. Real-time creativity is improvisational, impromptu, and spur-of-the-moment. Multi-state creativity involves the passage of time; students need sufficient time to generate and select ideas (Mau, 1997).

Psychologists and educators have discussed virtues of creativity and its relationship to the intellectual, educational, and development of intellect and talent in children (Slavkin, 2004). Contributions of creativity have been noted in areas as diverse as workplace leadership (Tierney, Farmer and Graen, 1999), healthy coping and emotional growth (King & Pope, 1999) and the maintenance of healthy relationships (Livingston, 1999). Creativity can reduce conflict and violence while promoting conflict resolution (Kovac, 1998). Creativity research related to technology has also been garnering more attention (Kappel & Rubenstein, 1999). Students enrolled in a variety of online classes may pursue this breadth of applications.

Creativity: Challenges and Benefits to Students

Giving students opportunities to be creative means allowing them to find and solve problems and communicate ideas in “novel” and “appropriate” ways (Starko, 1995). Learning occurs best when learners are involved in setting and meeting goals as well as linking information to their experiences in unique ways. To encourage students to find and solve problems in ways that facilitate original ideas, students need tools to communicate novel thinking to enhance their learning.

Inviting innovation from online students may be met with psychological roadblocks. Some students are not ready to think in a different way. To challenge their beliefs and worldviews may be a source of frustration. Other students begin the class with poor self-esteem concerning their creativity. They may have been told by teachers or significant others that they are not creative (Slavkin, 2004). When asked to demonstrate creativity, students may need to reconstruct their own definitions of creativity through hands-on activities, interviews, experimentation, and play to see their potential and personal innovativeness (Slavkin, 2004).

One way to begin an online course and engage the student is to request they assess their creativity. Such an assessment can help understand student perceptions of their creativity level the online classes. An example of such an assessment tool is available at this website: http://www.adventuresincreativity.net/mag5.html .

Students can benefit from creativity exercises, showing greater self-efficacy and improved ability to identify and express creativity within him- or herself (Slavkin, 2004). Findings from a pre/post-creativity exercise survey indicated that an overwhelming majority of students felt that the coursework gave them greater insight into themselves and their abilities to tap into unappreciated and underutilized aspects of self. This newly-recognized part of their personality carried over into other classes, into the workplace and into their personal relationships (Livingston, 1999; Stokes, 1999). In addition, students believed that their leadership abilities were enhanced (Tierney, Farmer, and Graen, 1999)

Tips for Online Educators

Perrone (1994) describes common elements of learning activities that most engage students intellectually. Coincidentally, they echo key attributes of creativity: finding interests and problems, looking in new ways, communicating personal ideas, and creating new products and solutions to problems. Perrone’s elements include:

  • Students help define content of course

  • Students had time to wonder/determining a particular direction that interests them

  • Topics had a “strange” quality – something this is common but seen in a new way to evoke lingering questions

  • Teachers encouraged different forms of expression and respected students’ views

  • Teachers were passionate about their work. The most meaningful activities were “invented” by the teacher or student.

  • Students did something.

  • Students sensed that results of their work were not fully predictable.

Michalko (2001) developed nine strategies for enhancing student creativity that are applicable to the online environment. They include:

  • Making your thoughts visible – think in terms of visual or spatial forms rather than mathematical or written lines of reasoning.

  • Knowing how to see – the first way to look at a problem is too biased toward the usual way of seeing things. Take a different perspective.

  • Thinking fluently – generate quantities of ideas rather than holding onto one.

  • Making novel combinations – permit ideas and thoughts to randomly combine

  • Connecting the unconnected – change your thinking pattern by connecting your subject with something that is not related.

  • Looking at the other side – rather than looking at boundaries, look for the solution outside the assumptions.

  • Looking in other worlds – lateral thinking that allows one ideas from one world solve a problem for another (e.g. biomimicry http://www.biomimicry.org/intro.html and http://www.annonline.com/interviews/971218/ ).

  • Finding what you’re not looking for – creative accidents take place when you are not looking for them. Embrace!

  • Awakening the collaborative spirit – share and discuss ideas without thought of condemnation or judgment; have freedom to propose ideas, without risk.

There are thousands of ideas to encourage creativity that can be used in an online environment. Even encouraging students to investigate various creativity websites or discover their own can communicate the perception that creativity is valued in the online course. See this website for the many ideas: http://www.mycoted.com/creativity/techniques/index.php. Following are three suggestions: introduce novelty, plan for problems, and divergent thinking strategies.


Novelty can be explored from the instructor’s perspective and/or the student’s perspective. It can be introduced from the beginning of the online class with openers such as exciting stories, appropriate jokes, startling facts, interesting visuals (Lucas, 2004).

There are many researchers and educators who have developed unique ways to generate creativity in the student or adult learner. Following are a few novel tips to help students develop a different way of looking at the presented problem in the online course.

  • Multiple perspectives. Da Vinci espoused that until a problem was looked at from three perspectives, a basis for understanding was truly not in place. (e.g. when designing the bicycle, he looked at the problem from three perspectives: inventor/investors, rider/consumer, and municipalities where the bicycles would be used.)

  • Take on a different role. Ask online students to respond to questions such as: “How would the leader in your field write it? How would a precocious child write it? How would a politician write it?”

  • Imagine you are the problem. This is a favorite technique used by T.A. Rich, famous inventor at General Electric. (e.g. think of yourself as a light being hurtling through space.)

  • Switch gender (Michalko, 2001).

  • Note: Too much novelty causes stress and perhaps brain shrinkage. Stress is known to kill brain cells.

Plan for problems

Present broad areas of concern in the online course within which to identify and frame individual problems. Problems can be to research questions, activities, themes, an aesthetic or idea. Remember to divide the problem-solving process into four parts: exploring the environment (internal or external), investigating ideas and materials, recording ideas, and experimenting with production (Starko, 1995).

  • Exploring the environment includes: beginning to “look.” For art that would mean art materials and tools; for writers that would mean scenes, moods and characters; for scientists that would mean patterns and related variables.

  • Experimenting with ideas includes: free play, multiple hypotheses, several sketches, explorations. This is a great phase to use groups in the online class.

  • Recording ideas includes: inventor’s notebooks, writers’ journals, artist’s sketchpads as well as technology tools.

  • Experimenting with production includes: sculpture, technical journalism articles, animation clips, and experiments (Starko, 1995).

Divergent Thinking Strategies

Free thinking, divergent thinking, brainstorming, or creative processing can assist students in make unique connections between prior knowledge and unsolved problems (Slavkin, 2004). The common definition of divergent thinking includes Guilford’s (1986) Structure of Intellect (SOI) model: fluency (thinking of many ideas), flexibility (thinking of different categories or points of view), originality (thinking of unusual ideas), and elaboration (adding detail to improve ideas) (Schlichter, 1986). For more information see this website: http://homepages.which.net/~gk.sherman/mbaaaaab.htm

Of all the strategies for generating ideas, brainstorming is one of the most familiar and is based on Osborn’s (1953) principle of deferred judgment: avoiding the evaluation of ideas until a number of them have been produced. Brainstorming rules are: criticism is not allowed; freewheeling is welcome; quantity is wanted; combination of ideas is sought (Starko, 1995). See following website for brainstorming information: http://www.innovationtools.com/resources/brainstorming.asp

Another strategy for online educators is to use SCAMPER. SCAMPER is an acronym developed by Eberle (1977) who took some of Osborn’s key questions to enhance divergent thinking and made them into an acronym. See website for more information on SCAMPER. http://www.in2edu.com/edulinks/discover%20learning..%20learning%20styles%20etc_scamper%20thinking%20technique.htm  The acronym with its identifiers is as follows:

  • S = substitute something new for the existing

  • C = combine parts or ideas

  • A = adapt from old ideas

  • M = modify or changes in the existing product or situation

  • P = put to other uses or “How can I use this in a new way?”

  • E = eliminate or omit unnecessary processes, items, problems

  • R = rearrange or reverse to develop a different sequence or new parts

Synectics is another technique to use in the online class to encourage divergent thinking. It is quite useful to enhance brainstorming and is easily used in threaded discussions. Synectics is a metaphor/analogy-based technique for bringing different elements together in a search for new ideas or solutions (Starko, 1995). It has been used in business settings, think tanks, and research organizations. The basic premise is to “make the strange familiar” and “make the familiar strange” (Prince, 1968, p. 4).  To make the strange familiar, the familiar is combined with a new problem or situation in order to solve the problem or some to a new understanding. To make the familiar strange, something new or strange needs to be combined with something familiar to gain new insights or perspectives on the already familiar idea. This process is facilitated through various types of analogies. http://www.writedesignonline.com/organizers/synectics.html  or http://www.nexus.edu.au/teachstud/gat/forster2.htm

Authentic Assessment

Many of the skills associated with creativity are vital parts of authentic assessment. The goal of assessing creativity is not to generated creativity scores or to divide students into “creative” and “not creative” but instead to recognize creativity when it occurs and to create conditions to allow it to develop (Starko, 1995). Assessed creativity can expand understanding of human abilities (particularly how creativity related to traditional views of intelligence), provide baseline data that may be used to diagnose student needs, and evaluate efforts to enhance creativity (Starko, 1995).

It is important that students learn to assess the creativity of their own ideas, as creative individuals must not only generate original ideas but recognize which ideas are original (Runco, 1993). Self-evaluation requires students to measure their efforts against some scale or criterion and make judgments about the quality of the final product (Starko, 1995).

Three modes of assessment are commonly used. They are 1) paper and pencil tests when assessing learned knowledge and skills, 2) performance assessment to evaluate the process of learning and creating, and 3) personal communication (or in the case of online courses, threaded discussions) (Mau, 1997).  Other ideas may be to 1) direct students to create a new kind of test that has never been given yet will accurately assess concepts covered in class (Sprenger, 2002); this enhances a “democratic classroom” where students believe that everyone can successfully learn but never at the expense of anyone else (McDermott, 1999) and 2) request some type of performance assessment such as the creation of videos, hypermedia presentations, puppet shows, interviews, surveys, or graphic organizers. These encourage curiosity and risk taking (Sprenger, 2002).


Structuring online courses to enhance creativity can be a slippery goal. A teaching activity that produces an enjoyable outcome does not necessarily enhance creativity unless the students have the opportunity for creative thinking (Starko, 1995). In other words, if the exercise is original but the student’s input is fairly routine then it may not have been a success.

Teaching to enhance creativity has a different focus for the online educator; the creativity is on the part of the student. It is important to provide students the knowledge, skills, and surroundings necessary for their own creativity to emerge (Starko, 1995). Giving students opportunities to be creative means allowing them to find and solve problems and communicate ideas in “novel” and “appropriate” ways (Starko, 1995).

Providing online students with multiple forums for creativity will allow them to find unique outlets and avoid domain- and task-specific expression. Teachers should remember that creativity should be emphasized, but not at the expense of maintaining high standards and expectations (Slavkin, 2004).

Music and arts programs are being forced out of K-12 curriculum throughout the country due to funding cuts. This action opens doors to recognize that as a phenomenon, creativity can support innovation in such subjects as social studies, science, and language arts. It is important to recognize the interconnectedness of knowledge and the importance of how ideas from various areas of study can nurture understanding in disparate knowledge bases (Slavkin, 2004).

Online educators navigate technology challenges that traditional classroom teachers rarely do. However, their goal of enhancing student learning through an enriched environment is the same. Through use of the Internet, other technologies, and navigational tools, creativity can be enhanced in ways unimaginable a few years ago. The creative process can be an extraordinarily personal thing; one that can be explored and assessed safely and appropriately through online environments.

“Imagination is more important than intelligence.” – Albert Einstein


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About the Author

Stephanie Clemons, Ph.D., FIDEC, ASID is an Associate Professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University. Her doctorate is from the School of Education. She is a Past President and Fellow of the Interior Design Educators Council (IDEC) (www.idec.org) and currently serves on the Educational Training Area Council (ETAC) for the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) (www.asid.org), the leading professional organization for interior designers with more than 34,000 members. She has received numerous teaching awards, and has published extensively – both refereed and non-refereed articles. Her specialty areas relate to technology and education (both K-12 and higher education). Clemons has presented research both nationally and internationally (including in South Korea’s World Congress and at the South Africa IFI Conference) and has taught in higher education for over 20 years. Clemons has been teaching online courses for two years.

Dr. Clemons can be reached at sclemons@cahs.colostate.edu.


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