Designing Change: Critical Creativity in the Digital Age

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In my new role as Director of Student Experience in the Arts Faculty at the University of Warwick, working with our other DSEP Rebecca Stone I have designed a couple of undergraduate modules (10 week for-credit courses). The modules are based in our Liberal Arts department, but can be taken by students from any Arts/Humanities department. The modules are designed to build upon our diverse, but related, disciplinary backgrounds, with a digital mindset and skillset, to support students in developing as “digital change agents”. This is closely based upon the Design Thinking modules that I teach at IATL, but with a stronger Arts and Humanities base. The 2nd year module will run for the first time in Spring 2022, with the applied module for finalists to be in the following year. The second module is an opportunity for students to take on a more substantial project, extending what they have learned in the foundation, and applying their capabilities to challenges in academia, public engagement, and international collaboration.

Foundations module (2nd year)

Starting in Spring 2022.

Introduction

Digital change agents are people with a supercharged capability for applying technology to solving problems and improving the world. You might assume that they are geeky Comp Sci graduates hiding away in dimly lit basement offices somewhere on the Internet. This is simply not true. Arts and Humanities graduates are the real heroes of this story. Their diverse disciplinary backgrounds and interests share many key elements required for success: storytelling, visual thinking, critically-creatively working with language, working iteratively, exploring multiple possibilities, and being comfortable with ambiguity and radical difference. When combined with an understanding of digital technologies, a digital-creative mindset, key concepts and methods (Design Thinking, Systems Thinking), and working in the right kind of collaborative environment, they can achieve great things.

This module will provide students from across the Arts Faculty with everything they need to become successful digital change agents, for the benefit of the Faculty, the wider community (through public engagement), and beyond. 

What does it take to expand on Arts and Humanities learning to become a successful digital change agent? Based on research carried out at Warwick and around the world, including work with successful Warwick graduates over ten years, we have designed a module that introduces and provides scope to practice the essential elements: Design Thinking, Systems Thinking, Visual Thinking, knowledge of and skills with key technologies, remote team working, project management and much more. We use a “problem based” approach (as used in our successful IATL Design Thinking modules), with a range of case studies and design challenges of interest to Arts and Humanities students. Some of these are focussed on developing capabilities within the Arts Faculty itself, others are outward looking, applying our capabilities for the benefit of the wider community. The module begins by exploring each student’s home disciplines, and with a transdisciplinary mindset, the commonalities and connections between them. We will focus especially on the common challenges of public engagement, and how digital technologies are used and may be used in the future. We will introduce the students to the work of our digital-creative industry partners, providing them with opportunities to develop their own network of innovators and experts. The students will critically and creatively reimagine Arts and Humanities practices, proposing ways in which they may be transformed through technology.

Intended Learning Outcomes

  • Describe and evaluate the use of technology in their home discipline, compared to other disciplines and practices in the Arts and beyond.
  • Know, recognise, and diagnose the common reasons for failure and success in digital transformation projects.
  • Articulate ideas from their own disciplines, illustrating how they challenge and help us to overcome the limitations of techno-centricity.
  • Understand key concepts from Design Thinking and human-centred design, and how they address the limitations of a techno-centric approach.
  • Know how transdisciplinary Design Thinking combines diverse academic, artistic and professional disciplines to create teams capable of creating and implementing fresh ideas.
  • Systematically and creatively engage with new technologies, using methods from Design Thinking and Systems Thinking, so as to understand their implications, potential, and limitations.
  • Initiate and shape digital change projects with appropriate teams of experts and participants, playing the role of digital change agent (in this module limited to smaller projects that are feasible within the timescale).
  • Use, configure and advise on a core set of current and emerging technologies (including advanced Teams, VR, AR, mobile computing).
  • Articulate their own transformative journey reflectively, and empathise with the differing needs, ambitions and values of others.

Assessment

We will use the same assessment approach that has worked well in our IATL Design Thinking modules. Students complete a series of design challenges (first individually, then in pairs, and then in small groups). Each student creates their own short account in the form of a design study (text, images, audio, and/or video as appropriate). Feedback is provided continually to help the students develop their responses. The studies are equivalent to 1,500 words in total. At the end of the module each student completes a 1,500-word reflective essay, describing how they engaged with the module, relating it to their home department and the Arts and Humanities more widely, evaluating the concepts and methods introduced, and sharing their vision as a digital change agent.

Delivery

Each week will consist of 2 hours of online study (videos, readings, activities), 1 hour of scheduled online collaboration (whole class and in groups), and 1 hour of scheduled practical activities (on campus and field trips).

Applied module (3rd/4th year)

Starting in 2022/23 (specifics yet to be decided).

Introduction

This module builds upon the Foundations module (a required prerequisite). It provides an opportunity to apply capabilities developed in that module to more significant real-world challenges in the Arts Faculty, the wider community (public engagement), and through international connections. The module begins by revisiting research on what makes for a successful digital transformation project. Although some students may come to the module with strong ideas on what they want to do, we will make sure they engage in an open-minded exploration of the possibilities – this will be a key theme at the start of the module: how to form a good, worthwhile, viable project that will deliver enduring and sustainable results. 

Projects must use technology to have an enduring, sustainable, ethical, positive impact for the Arts Faculty, the wider community (public engagement), and/or international partners. They must have a clear Arts and Humanities element, furthering the development of disciplines and their impact.

We will then move quickly onto the process of project formation, with a networking event to match students with potential collaborators and design challenges. We will use an approach derived from the IDEO design consultancy company to ensure that neither students nor collaborators fixate too early on a project brief or ideas for solutions. A substantial phase of exploration is essential before converging on an agreed brief. Students will use methods for this introduced in the Foundations module (including the use of collaboration and visualisation tools), extended with further methods.

The students are then responsible for forming a project team, recruiting participants and collaborators, and establishing a steering committee, its terms of reference, and an agreed project brief. Online learning materials, matched to a set of Miro templates, will help them with the skills needed to do this effectively. The project brief, ethics evaluation, and plan must be presented for approval by the module teaching team, with approval from each project’s steering committee, before proceeding further (some project will also require full ethics clearance before proceeding).

All projects should be carried out publicly, communicated to a general audience throughout. Each student will publish a continuous reflective journal, which should detail activities, progress, decisions made, successes, problems, failures and collateral learning. Failure is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as we learn from it, and communicate what we have learned.

Intended Learning Outcomes

  • Further apply the ILOs from the Foundations module.
  • Understand and apply key knowledge and methods for successful project formation.
  • Work effectively with diverse groups of people, managing roles and collaborations, meetings and events, and ensuring clarity, understanding and mutual agreement.
  • Write clear, sufficiently detailed, engaging documentation for a public audience.
  • Put Arts and Humanities into context, using digital tools to amplify and sustain impact.

Assessment

Project documentation, equivalent to 1,500 words and published online for public access:

  • Project brief (developed with the project steering committee).
  • Ethics evaluation.
  • Project plan (including resource costs, time commitments, and version history to show changes).
  • Reflective journal (multimedia).

Project review, impact report and reflective account (1500-word essay)

Delivery

Each week will consist of 2 hours of online study (videos, readings, activities), 1 hour of scheduled online collaboration (whole class and in groups), and at least 4 hours of project work. In addition, ad hoc support meetings will be available. Weekly workload will fluctuate, as projects develop.

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Teaching Fellow, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick. Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence.

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