The design moral of this story is: create prototypes that explore the potential of the available platforms, and look for elegant simplifiers to provide continual shared base-lines to the experience throughout.

In this long article I want to give you an insight into a design process in action, part way through. I’ve taken on something quite ambitious. But it’s a great opportunity to use a more holistic, value-driven, and innovation-rich approach to learning design. At this stage in the process, we are focussing upon gaining a clear, shared, understanding of the style and purpose of the module we are designing, and aiming to find some simplifying elegant design details around which all aspects of the design can form. The focus on getting that it right from that holistic perspective should then enable us to be more experimental with the implementation details.

Here’s my big design challenge for the next six months: create a ten-week long undergraduate module, with four whole-class contact hours per week, that will take any student from any department in the University, and give them a grounding in ‘design thinking’. At the end of it, they will be thinking and acting in distinctly ‘designerly’ ways, and more importantly, they will be able to explain why the designerly approach is more effective as a means for enhancing products, services, platforms and communities. This being Warwick University (where the challenge of learning a practice is not enough in itself), they should also have engaged in the critical and reflective evaluation of the approach, applying theories and methods from other disciplines to their own critical appreciation of design thinking.

And to make things even more difficult, the module itself must work as a showcase for learning design and learning technologies. Plus, let’s not forget that we always design with the intention of creating patterns and implementation details that can spread to further applications and grow our capabilities for further design and innovation.

But this is an interesting opportunity, a design challenge to which we can apply a more holistic approach to learning design, starting with an ethos that will run through every aspect of the course and its delivery, and around which we can more confidently make some radical design choices.

The most obvious problem we have to face is time: in reality a ten week module gives us a maximum of thirty hours contact time in which we can fit lectures, discussions, workshops, student presentations etc. (based on an estimate of 45 usable minutes for every 60 scheduled minutes). We also need to ensure that the students get plenty of practice, which will be increasingly sophisticated and challenging as the module proceeds, and plenty of quality feedback on that practice (which will, it is hoped, reduce as they become a more effective peer-support network). We must include a student showcasing and wrapping-up session at the end, and somehow add one-to-one or small group tutorial time (or in this context, consultancy time) to the overall available contact time. And we have to do this for students who may not have ever encountered a designerly approach, or at least not consciously understood it as such.

Collaborations: The module will sit within the portfolio of the Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) at Warwick. Collaborative interdisciplinary teaching is a core design value to IATL. So right from the outset I need to ensure that parts of the University, and our local community, who might contribute to it, or indeed might benefit from collaborating, are included. Jo Wale (academic manager) at IATL immediately put me in touch with (almost Dr) Bo Kelestyn, a PhD in WBS (Warwick Business School) who has an interest in design thinking and has taught on WBS modules related to it. She is especially skilled at facilitating practical workshops. We will be speaking to other potential collaborators in WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group), Sociology, Psychology, Computer Science, Engineering and maybe even Philosophy. But first we needed to get a good enough prototype ready so as to take the module proposal through the first hurdle in the University teaching quality system – turning it into the rather flat and uninspiring MA1 format (a very big table in a Word document) for discussion at the IATL module approval committee.

Move number 1 – a hi-fi prototype in Moodle: Under many other circumstances we would begin with building the collaboration, and then through design workshops, producing and evaluating some lo-fi prototypes. We might do some work exploring the characteristics of potential students and how they might be transformed through studying the module.

Developing lo-fi prototype student profiles.

This might lead to more detailed paper-based storyboarding. You can see an example of this approach online here, and in the image on the right. But in this case, I judged that we needed to act faster, at least in the opening stages – to build confidence around the idea of the module (which is unfamiliar to most people at Warwick), to show that it could fly and fly fast and high. This had to be inspirational in the first instance, and quickly give believable answers to the many questions on the MA1 form. With such a short time span in which the module could be developed (I haven’t got much time to spend on it), I also felt the need to explore the available platforms so as to find design ideas that could form the backbone of the module. It will in part be hosted in the institutional VLE, a fairly vanilla instance of Moodle. If we can construct something inspirational in such a limited system, while also fitting the pedagogic and developmental needs of the students, then I could be more confident. It would give me a stronger vision to be fleshed-out in detail, which could then itself be transferred into answers for the committee. Of course there is also a well known danger to this design strategy: if we put too much work into a design too early on, we get fixated on the idea and its details, and lose the necessary critical and creative edge. That’s why we usually start with lo-fi, easily breakable, prototypes.

So here it is, a hi-fi prototype. But how does it help solve the design challenges described above? Read on to find out…

User experience design in Moodle – not easy. But I’ve managed to create something clear and simple. The course has 12 stages, listed in the panel on the right (the latest one has an addition week 11+). The current week will be highlighted in red. It starts with a week 0, detailing the prep tasks, especially building upon the students’ existing knowledge and skills. It ends with 11+, detailing opportunities and suggestions for further study (linking to other IATL modules), careers, applying design thinking etc. That in itself is a small innovation that I would like to encourage in other courses, making learning more joined up and extending beyond the individual module.

The full details for each of the weekly sections is contained in a Moodle Book structure, which is, as its name suggests, a series of pages that may be read through or jumped directly to, with an contents page. This replicates the traditional “module handbook”, which even now may be printed and given to the students at the start of the module. The handbook provides detail and narrative. It is a reassuring spine for the whole module – an ancient approach that works well.

There are then also five Moodle sections, which are more usually used to contain the narrative for the course, but here they are used as repositories of resources and locations for activities and discussions:

  1. Knowledge – containing readings, links, videos etc.
  2. Challenges – details of the design challenges that the students will work on, along with resources to help them.
  3. Tool box – details of formal methods, practices etc.
  4. Portfolio – support resources and discussion forum for help for the students creating their assessed portfolios.
  5. Showcase – sharing good examples and best practice.

The contents of these sections will be used throughout the module, and (as the students continue to have access to the site) can be referred to later as usable resources. The last of the boxes, the Showcase, will be used to share examples of good work and best practice. We will reward showcases materials with open online badges.

Move number 2 – what will work in the classroom? I’ll be teaching at least some of the lectures for the module myself. With the support of the online design in Moodle, I will have to do the work of enthusing the students, drawing them into the topic, developing their understanding of the concepts and the implications for practice, leading them through complexity, and helping them to join it all up in their minds, their practice and their writings. That means my own capabilities and styles as a teacher, as a lecturer, are in fact an essential core tool for achieving what we want from the module. So what’s my style? How might it fit or need to be refined to fit better? How might I incorporate other tools and techniques to get it just right for this particular design? I’m sure these are questions that every teacher has in mind at some point. But for me, it is important to get realistic information on this, generate design ideas, and test them out sufficiently as early as possible – that is of course the key characteristic of the designerly way called design thinking.

Time for some more hi-fi prototyping. Just imagining what it might be like is not enough. Fortunately, in this instance, I had engineered some useful opportunities. At the start of 2018 I was invited to do two lectures as part of the Innovation and Enterprise Programme, and interdisciplinary extra-curricular programme of online and face-to-face learning for any Warwick student interested in these topics. Pleasingly, the two lectures were on Design Thinking and Prototyping. Less neatly, they were to be one hour each – quite a challenge. But if I could get that to work, then I could be more confident about the style needed for the series of two-hour lectures.

I usually teach with strong visuals on screen. I use Apple Keynote rather than PowerPoint, to achieve a more exciting graphical style. I do use stock photography, but carefully and critically. Where possible I draw on my own photographs – building up my own collection of photos of examples has been really important, a source of great inspiration. And I will often display a hand-crafted diagram, again made with the stylistic flare enabled by Keynote, basing my teaching around exploring the diagram’s details and flows. I like to get quite animated when I use these visual materials, moving around the room and getting physically drawing the students into the ideas and the flow of the lecture. We now have the Mersive Solstice system in many of our teaching spaces. That allows us to beam presentations to the big screen from any device. So I can be untethered with my presentation displaying from my iPhone.

In the prototyping lecture, I got the students to draw their ideas on sheets of paper. I used Solstice to take photos of this work, beam them onto the big screen, and getting the class to discuss them. This works really well. I had several photos on the screen at the same time, and could move them around and resize them to focus.

I further increased the level of student participation using Turning Technologies ResponseWare, allowing me to pose questions to the students and get their responses sent from their phones or laptops (no one seems to use tablets any more). And in the second lecture, we got to use a Catchbox throwable mic – a radio mic wrapped in a soft cube that can easily be thrown around the lecture theatre between people. This was plugged into out Echo 360 based lecture capture system, so that student voices were recorded along with mine.

Throwing the Catchbox mic.

All of these technologies work to enable a better balance between my input as a lecturer, and the students being active in interpreting, remixing and applying what they are learning together. However, I do know that the room layout itself will still be a challenge. I was teaching in our new Oculus Building, in spaces that are designed to be flexible. However, I realised that in the five minutes before the start of a lecture (after the previous session has left the room), I’m unlikely to have a real opportunity to rearrange the classroom. In my first lecture I did manage to get enough time to create a “turn and learn” layout, so that students could easily go from sitting at desks in rows to forming small groups for working together, and then quickly moving back to the traditional lecture layout. You can see how I did this in the diagram. Getting to use more appropriate learning spaces, for the lecture and the workshops, is a worry.

Turn and learn room layout in the Oculus large flat lecture theatre.

Onwards >>>>

It’s starting to look good. And we are starting to coalesce a design around the kinds of student active engagement and participation we need. We’ve found ways to give a solid, efficient, spine to the ten weeks, and ways to give space for depth, exploration and experimentation. But there’s a lot more work to do!

Published in the March 2018 edition.