I recently led a Design Thinking Crash Course at Trinity Lutheran College as a part of our strategic planning process. Through the training, we wanted to help leaders in our strategic planning process to experience and learn more about design thinking. The crash course introduced primary concepts in human centered design such as:
- Developing empathy for users through interviews.
- Using divergent thinking before moving to convergent thinking.
- Sketching to develop and communicate ideas.
- Developing prototypes.
- User Testing.
For the crash course, we used the structure and materials developed by Stanford’s d.school. This enabled us to complete the crash course and have a debrief discussion in about 2 hours. The d.school toolkit is well developed and easy to use.
Space was a major consideration in planning the crash course. We didn’t want the course to take place in a regular conference room or classroom; we wanted to provide a space where people felt free to interact and work differently than they normally might in a work meeting. We chose an open gathering space with great window views for our event. In the space we set up groups of small tables filled with sticky notes, pens, markers, colored pencils, and craft paper. We also had music playing in the background. For the music we used a Pandora jazz station, however the commercial interruptions were very distracting, next time we will play music from a device to eliminate the commercials. The space worked well and people got into the creative spirit of the work.
In a happy last minute addition, we invited our project management class to join the crash course, since their class was meeting at the same time as our event. Having students and school leaders work together in the crash course worked really well. The student and staff interactions brought great energy and multiple perspectives to the conversation. We are planning to invite both students and staff to our next crash course.
The event was a success; participants were excited about design thinking and had a several ideas on how the framework could be used to support work in the strategic planning process. One of the big ideas that came out of the discussion was an idea to develop personas, brief biographies of aggregate student groups, to help us better understand who our prospective students are now and who they might be in 2020. The crash course succeeded in launching a discussion on design thinking as a part of our strategic plan and we are planning another crash course for others who want to know more about the process.
Course syllabi are often policy documents describing course policies, assignment requirements, learning goals and the course schedule and often they look like legal documents, written in small type with dense paragraphs. I’ve been wondering recently if syllabi could be more student friendly. Since I teach in a visual communication program, it also seemed appropriate that my syllabi should demonstrate some understanding of the principles of graphic design.
This fall I redesigned the my syllabus template, trying to create a document that is nice to look at and easy to use. The syllabus is structured so the learning goals, student projects, grading scale and schedule are in the front of the document and the policy information at the end. Additionally, since syllabi are a primary document that represents the college, I worked to have the syllabi be on-brand, using the appropriate typefaces and logos. It’s still early in the term so I don’t have feedback yet from students on the documents but I’m excited to learn how well they work for them.
See the syllabi for two of my courses:
- VCOM207 Digital Design Tools
- ARTD103 Photography and Image Framing (This course is also my first attempt at a competency based grading system. I’m excited to see how this works.)
Prototyping and user testing are common practices in many design fields, yet when designing courses and curricula within higher education, developing prototypes and testing them with users seems to be a rarity. How might prototyping and user testing help us improve our designs for learning?
Prototypes help designers discover and address design challenges and constraints early in the design process through creating low-cost and often low-fidelity mock-ups. There is nothing like building a prototype to uncover the real challenges in a project. Prototypes can lead to solutions that could not have been imagined at the start of the design process, but through repeated efforts to improve a design, a beautiful solution is found.
Prototyping becomes even more helpful when we get our prototypes out into the world and test them with the people who will ultimately use what we are designing. Through user testing, we get incredible feedback on our design solutions. User testing gives us real answers to questions such as: Is it easy to use? Does it meet users needs? Did we make good assumptions about how users will approach our design? Through user testing, we get a view into the mind of our users so we can evolve and further develop our prototypes to better meet their needs.
When designing courses and curricula in higher education, we do have some practices that might be considered prototypes. Syllabi, curricular maps, and learning activity designs evolve through many drafts in the design process. Yet, are we treating these drafts as prototypes or are we refining a single solution? By developing multiple prototypes, each representing different approaches to a design challenge, designers take on a frame of divergent thinking-expanding and exploring many aspects and possible solutions to the challenge before moving to a convergent thinking mode to narrow and refine ideas. Yet, how often in learning design do we develop multiple concepts as possible design solutions? Often we skip exploring multiple approaches to a challenge and move immediately into narrowing and refining an early concept. Additionally, the process of developing multiple concepts requires a time commitment. Yet in learning design, do we give enough time to the prototyping process to allow designs to evolve and improve through the iterative building and refining of multiple prototypes?
While we may do some prototyping in course and curricular design work, I rarely see prototypes tested with students before a course or a curriculum is launched. There may be some good reasons for this, as many curricula take students several years to complete. User testing something so large prior to launch could be improbable or impossible for many institutions. Even at the course level user testing can seem impractical, trial running a semester long course for the purposes of user testing could be challenging for many schools.
Should we just skip user testing all together and make adjustments over time as we run the course with students year-over-year? This seems be to a standard practice in course design. We put together a syllabus, launch it, then gradually tweak and improve it each semester or year. Of course we should use student feedback to improve our designs over time, but don’t students in the early runs of a new course design deserve our best design efforts? How might user testing give us feedback to improve our designs prior to launch so that a course might be great on the first offering rather than having to wait a few years for it to be refined?
If doing a full semester or multi-year trial seems improbable, how might we do smaller, modular user tests? Could we develop user tests that allow us to test prototypes of particular learning activities or core resources? Could we find ways to test curricular structures and sequences with students without going through the whole sequence?
It seems we could learn a great deal in the design process and produce better designs more quickly by involving more prototyping and user testing in the process. So how do we do it? What have you seen that works well?
Designing the scope and sequence to learning activities for a new course can be a challenging process. In the early stages of course design, my brain is full ideas and concepts for learning activities, possible readings and resources to assign, and presentation techniques I might use. It can be difficult to get that jumble of ideas into a meaningful course structure while trying to maintain a good balance of work for my students and me during the term. Until recently, I would rough out the scope and sequence for a new course in a word processor as a part of writing my syllabus, but I’ve been finding that the building the first draft in a word processor makes it difficult to make quick changes. Additionally, at the early stages of course design, I am trying to form connections between concepts and ideas and drafting in the word processor forces a linearity to my thinking that makes it harder to see those connections. To better get the ideas out of my head and into a place where I can work with them to build connections, I have recently been using a visual method to help me sort out all of the pieces of a new course in the early stages of the design process.
Using different colored sticky notes, I write out the weekly activities, assignments, and student projects and add them to the board under the number of the week that the activities will take place. I write out topic and content themes for the assignments. The theme notes help me to develop a thematic progression through the units. I will also make notes, either on the board or somewhere else, about the amount of time I expect students to work on the assignments or projects.
On other sticky notes, I write out the reading selections, noting the main themes of the reading and the page quantity for the selection. The theme notes help me to match reading and assignment themes. The page numbers help me create a balanced work load through the weeks of the term.
Having the entire semester of assignments and activities posted on a single board helps me to see the flow of the course in a way I can’t when the schedule is spread over multiple pages in a document. The large format helps me to make connections on unit structures and themes and to quickly see if the work load is spread evenly through each week of the term. If I want to make a change, it is fast and easy to move notes around the board or to write out a new note. Once I feel I have a good scope and sequence developed, I write out the schedule in my syllabus, make final adjustments, and add the information to my course in the LMS. By using an analog visual structure for drafting the scope and sequence of a new course I find it easier to get the jumble of ideas out of my head and into a space where I can easily move them around to form a coherent course design that has good thematic flow and a balanced work load for students.