About me

Robert O'Toole

Dr Robert O’Toole BA (hons), MSc, PGCE, NTF

I am a design practitioner and researcher with over fifteen years of experience working in educational design and academic technology. I am also a philosopher (BA Philosophy 1st class, University of Warwick), a programmer (MSc Knowledge Based Systems, Sussex and many years working in software design and development), and a teacher (PGCE, Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence).

Have a look through my interactive CV for many examples of my work at Warwick and beyond.

I like universities. Not every every aspect of them. And perhaps not all such institutions. In fact it’s the institutional dimension that I don’t like – or at least the idea that a university is an institution, or indeed a business or a function of the state (concepts inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries but now not straightforwardly applicable to the emergent world of platform Capitalism). But that doesn’t mean I subscribe to Kant’s 18th Century design for the Prussian university, constructed as an impervious shelter around a sacred core of elderly, white, male guardians of Pure Reason. No, my interest is in the reality of the university as spaces peopled by networks through multiple interchanges, conduits for a continual production and reflective critique at the heart of life.

My work at Warwick is largely concerned with how we go about enabling university people to design, build and use such a university – especially how they use new digital technologies to enhance their capabilities.

Did I also mention that I’m a philosopher? A philosopher, a teacher and a designer. I have a PhD in design and higher education, which includes an “assemblages” philosophy of design and designing. The title of my thesis was:

Fit, Stick, Spread and Grow: Transdisciplinary studies of Design Thinking for the [re]making of Higher Education

Transdisciplinary as in transforming disciplines.

My PhD developed out of my work as a Senior Academic Technologist at the University of Warwick, which is a transdisciplinary operation across the entire University.

About my PhD Project

My initial research question was this:

“The IDEO Design Thinking approach is an effective strategy for achieving and sustaining ‘success’ in complex business ecosystems. How can we adapt this approach to the challenge of making ‘excellent’ teaching and learning in Higher Education settings where individuation and diversification are the goals, and creativity and collaboration are the methods?”

The essence of the Design Thinking approach is the realisation that professional designers alone are often not an effective source of design innovations. They do not easily have access to the insights, inspirations, tacit knowledge and will-to-change required to create designs that fit with their intended users and uses, stick in everyday or specialist use for a reasonable length of time, spread across the initial domain to harness the benefits of the network effect, and enable further innovations to emerge and design capability to grow. And at the same time, most people who do not consider themselves to be designers actually are unconsciously designing things as part of their work and their everyday lives – they are designing events, communications, ways of integrating technologies into their practices, teaching, learning, spaces, workflows and much more. However, this everyday designing does not usually benefit from the wisdom and techniques of professional design disciplines.

The Design Thinking strategy builds upon the potential of everyday designing and designers, augmented with the lessons learned by professional design disciplines. It uses a range of methods and tools to devolve design agency (the ability and responsibility to do design change) to collaborations of domain experts – all of the people for whom a design innovation has impact, and anyone who might usefully contribute to design innovation (legitimising peripheral participation). The collaborations are facilitated by professional designers, following protocols and procedures that allow for imaginative freedom where appropriate, and rigour and constraint where necessary. The facilitators ‘coach’ the design collaboration through what can be a difficult and messy process, sustaining their energies and enthusiasm, and guarding against recognised pitfalls. And most importantly, design capabilities are embedded into the contexts in which Design Thinking takes place, amongst the participants who can make it happen.

How might these strategies and methods transfer to the challenging task of “making excellent teaching and learning in Higher Education?