Over the past year, continuing education providers have had to reimagine how they engage with their audiences and find ways to deliver training, events, and networking opportunities online.
Longwood Gardens had an additional challenge. How do you deliver a highly tactile, tangible learning experience like a floral design course to national and global audiences virtually?
We sat down with Longwood Gardens’ Matthew Ross, director of continuing education, Susan Caldwell, instructional designer and learning techniques manager, and Nick D’Addezio, marketing director, to learn about how they’re transforming their programming in ways that get students engaged in the online experience, appeal to new audiences, and help people feel connected to Longwood Gardens—no matter where in the world they are.
Planting the Seed: Where Longwood Gardens Started Its Online Learning Journey
Longwood Gardens has been offering classes for more than 60 years, spanning the whole continuum from school and youth programs to formal two-year professional horticultural training and fellowships. It also offers continuing education classes throughout the year. In a typical year, the Longwood Gardens reaches more than 4,500 students with its in-person and hybrid continuing education courses and 5,000–10,000 students through its fully online offerings.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have been online for more than a decade,” says Matthew. “Our programs really expanded in the online environment when we started developing MOOCs [massive open online courses]. When we launched our first open course, Everything About Orchids, we had more than 7,000 students sign up for it. That’s been a driving force for us.”
“Now, there’s a variety of online content that we’re able to offer that people are taking advantage of,” says Susan. “We have material on our website that people can access. We have Zoom webinars, which are single events, and longer session classes on a variety of topics like ornamental horticulture, landscaping design, and floral design.”
“Our learners are from all walks of life, from horticultural enthusiasts to professionals seeking advancement in their careers to people who are just taking the courses to have a great time,” says Matthew. “It’s great to see our students enjoy themselves, especially now, when everybody needs a little more enjoyment in their lives.”
As the number of students and variety of programs have grown, so too has Longwood Gardens’ geographic reach. Students often come from the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States—Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania—where Longwood Gardens is located, but even before 2020, many students flew in from across the US and internationally to take advantage of educational opportunities and see the rotation of displays throughout the year.
“As one of the great gardens of the world and a cultural institution that’s on the map internationally, there is interest from students around the world to experience Longwood Gardens,” says Matthew.
Adapting to Adversity: How Longwood Gardens Took Floral Design Virtual
A key piece of Longwood Gardens’ continuing education offerings is its renowned and respected Floral Design Certificate Program, which includes several hands-on courses devoted to floral design and arrangement, beginning with Introduction to Floral Design I.
“One of the biggest challenges was taking something that is tactile, that is experiential, and translating that to an online experience. That’s the big question, right? How do you teach floral design with the instructors potentially being 2,000 to 3,000 miles away from the students?” Says Matthew.
Here are some of the ways Longwood Gardens achieved that:
1. Leveraging Video for Demonstrations, Assignments, and Feedback
Vibrant images and videos became keystone content throughout Introduction to Floral Design. Instructors were able to work with the instructional design and marketing teams to help create their instructional videos, making sessions as engaging as possible and providing a consistent overall experience for students. Pictures of Longwood Gardens were also used in courses to nurture a strong connection between the gardens themselves and the online courses.
“For their assignments, students were submitting images and videos to demonstrate their work and address specific guiding questions from teachers. We try to create a variety of materials so that participants would have engagement with us and accommodate very tactile learning styles. I think from the students’ perspectives, they had a really wonderful experience,” says Susan.
“One of the things we like to encourage is for students to use the discussion board and share their designs with each other. Students find it very beneficial to be able to see what everybody else is doing, how they solve their problems, and the approaches they take,” she adds.
2. Providing Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning Opportunities
Today, Longwood Gardens has two methods of delivery for its floral design courses. There is the asynchronous offering, which is available to anyone from anywhere around the world. “This is an active learning experience from a world-class institution where you receive a comprehensive list of flowers and plant materials to re-create the designs. These are differentiators for the course,” says Matthew. “We try to make sure that the materials are readily available for not just those in the industry, but for people who may be taking the class for the first time as well.”
There’s also the synchronous course offering, available to people in the US, for which students are shipped flowers directly to their houses. “That’s not an easy thing to do, especially in the middle of a global pandemic, but being able to get flowers in front of someone so they can work alongside the instructors is pretty incredible,” says Matthew.
3. Learning Collaboratively with Each Other
Another big challenge Longwood Gardens had was re-creating the studio environment and having students be able to share their work. “Our instructors have been the pioneers of transitioning into being online, and they’ve done a fantastic job. They’ve been able to provide meaningful feedback on students’ work and provide a level of instruction on par with what students would normally get in the classroom,” says Matthew.
“We’ve been using D2L’s Brightspace for more than 10 years,” says Susan. “We’ve come a long way and have been able to evolve the kinds of content we share with students. We have beautiful templates and use videos, discussion tools, assignments, and lots of imagery so students are able to move seamlessly through the courses. One of the great things about Brightspace is how it levels the playing field for people of all different skill sets.”
4. Bringing a Little Piece of Longwood Gardens Home
For students in the synchronous course, Longwood Gardens worked with a floral wholesale partner to pack fresh materials and send them throughout the US. “Our instructors thoughtfully went through the materials so that when you open the box, it’s an experience. You get a Longwood apron, you’ve got your scissors, and you have information about how to handle the flowers after they’ve been shipped,” says Matthew.
Beyond the online courses, it’s been those kinds of physical touches that wrap the virtual experience. “Part of course design was really taking the student perspective into consideration and trying to make sure everybody has an extraordinary experience. All in all, it’s been fantastic,” Matthew added.
Growing the Program: What Longwood Gardens Is Doing Next with Online Learning
1. Reaching More Learners
Prior to COVID-19, the waiting lists for classes could be long. “Many classes sold out quickly because we were limited to the physical space of the classroom. We had many students on waitlists even though we were offering the classes upward of three times a year,” Matthew explains. “This has really opened up opportunities for us to have much larger class sizes. With the asynchronous offering this year, we had 160 students in one class alone.”
Longwood Gardens’ membership includes more than 70,000 households. In addition, it welcomes more than one and a half million visitors every year. Capacity constraints with in-person programs meant that, before 2020, most of Longwood Gardens’ programs were marketed toward members and guests.
“We’re really looking at this as an opportunity to reach new audiences,” says Nick. “We are partnering more with organizations and associations to get the word out, which we didn’t do before because the classes filled up so fast. We’re excited now to expand our reach and make sure more people know about these great programs.”
2. Developing Blended Programming
One of the things that makes the program so exciting and unique is that it’s a model of blending workshops, live presentations, and the academic rigor of a robust and rich content experience. “Having the ability to reach our students in their homes with high-quality floral materials, world-class instruction, and the architecture of the course is really what sets us apart,” says Matthew. “You get the lecture materials and instructional videos, do the assignment, share the finished product with your instructor, and get direct feedback. That piece is a signature. Our instructors demonstrate what students really need during the live sessions and build genuine relationships.”
3. Taking Even More Offerings Online
Longwood Gardens has always had a vision to move more of its programs online, but COVID-19 certainly accelerated that pace. That it already had a long-term partnership with D2L made it easier to think about the opportunities and where it could go with its programming.
“Our aspirational goal is to put the entire certificate program online. We’re currently developing Introduction to Floral Design II and Advanced Floral Design I, and we’ll be offering our electives shortly. The walls of our classroom just opened up and I don’t want to close them anytime soon,” says Matthew. “We’re excited to welcome anybody and everybody who wants to learn about flowers and how to have them transform people’s lives.”
Experience Longwood Gardens’ Programs for Yourself
Many of Longwood Gardens’ online and continuing education programs are available to learners around the world. Unlock the basics of floral design. Find out all there is to know about orchids. Discover a botanical twist on cocktails, expand your knowledge of horticulture, and fall in love with exciting houseplants with top experts from across the globe. If you’re looking for a hands-on way to start your journey in floral design, the Introduction to Floral Design I: Certificate Workshop starts March 8, 2021.