Preparing for (mostly) remote teaching in 2020-2021 – how Design Thinkers do it Part 1


I teach 2 interdisciplinary modules at Warwick University with Dr Bo Kelestyn: Introduction to Design Thinking (undergrad) and the new Design Thinking for Social Impact (postgrad). They both run for 10 weeks from January, and have been very successful (feedback scores 4-5 stars out of 5, great reviews from students, and students all producing work of a high or very high standard). We will also run a special 1-week version of the postgrad module in November, as part of the Humanitarian Engineering masters.

Over the last two years, we have reduced the in-class element of our modules from 2 x 2 hours per week, to a single 3 hour session. This proved to be far more efficient and effective. Less time was wasted, and the students maintained a high level of engagement for the full 3 hours. We used Teams to create a continual whole-class dialogue outside of in-class time, and OneNote ClassNote as the base for project work, allowing us to provide feedback on the students’ work as it was being created. This is the well-documented “studio” approach to teaching design. In a conventional design studio approach, students occupy physical spaces and develop their ideas in the open, so that peers and teachers can freely engage in creative-critical dialogue as designs develop. With OneNote, we can do that digitally (which is for us necessary, as we don’t have access to a studio space). Towards the end of the module in March, we ran individual tutorials in Teams with students who were, by that point, spread out across the world and working in some quite challenging circumstances. It worked really well.

We now plan to move the majority of our teaching online. This is in part motivated by external forces, but also because we know that online remote collaboration will become the default mode of working in many professions, including design and innovation – if it hasn’t already become the norm. We need to get good at this, and lead the world in teaching it.

Over the last six months, Bo and I have been developing our online teaching skills even further. Although I have worked in online learning for many years, starting in 2000 with the pioneering TALL team at Oxford, in the last couple of years the technology has advanced rapidly. Transferring Design Thinking to online also raises new challenges. Consider the typical format of our three-hour workshops (for 30 students). We teach in large open-spaces, and use whiteboards and walls for developing ideas. We start every session in an informal seating arrangement for what we call the “reflective jam”, in which we share experiences and observations, discuss challenges and think about our plans. The main body of the session is a dynamic mix of short presentations, often with interactivity using Vevox, games, creative work, team work, and hands-on explorations (for example, with VR equipment). Sometimes we leave the room for “design anthropology walks”. We do field trips (e.g. to museums). And we have visitors (in 2020 the VR experts Limina Immersive took over a whole session to run an open workshop).

We realise that we cannot simply replace every detailed element of our existing approach. What we need to do is stand back and think about what really matters, what the underlying principles are, and how we might approach them differently. We also, at the same time, need to explore what’s possible with the technologies we have access to – in an imaginative way. This dual-aspect exploration is characteristic of Design Thinking: explore the goals, values, and capabilities of the people; and at the same time, explore the features of spaces, technologies and techniques – looking for new ways in which they can coalesce. Often there’s cross-talk between the two aspects that leads to innovation, to previously unforeseeable opportunities. So what we might see that technology makes something possible that transforms our goals, that encourages us to go further. Or we might see something new in technologies, in the light of applying our goals, values, capabilities to them. This is, we say, an application of “design capability”, that is to say, the four key elements:

Design knowledge concerns the constraints and affordances within which we design. For learning design, that can include aspects of the design that cannot be altered, knowledge of the practices that are usually used in teaching in the context in which we are working, the resources that are available to us (including human resources, technologies and culture), and most importantly, a broad understanding of all of the alternative ways in which we can achieve success (our palette of activities from which we can choose). 

Empathy is essential – we need to understand the challenges and the implications of design choices from the perspectives of the different people who will be involved in the implementation of our design, especially students, but also teachers, admins and supporting professionals. You need to understand their values, what defines good and bad for them, and create a design that fits.  If you can, get all of these people involved in the design process. Otherwise, use whatever sources you can get to build a realistic idea of who they are, how they work, what they like, need, think and feel.

Playfulness allows us to freely try out and reflect upon alternatives. It is essential to the “build-to-think” mentality of Design Thinking (more on that below).

Vision guides the process – imagine an ideal world and the features that make it so great, and let your designing be guided by that vision. Design knowledge, empathy, and playfulness refines our vision, which brings them together into a clear and believable narrative. It takes vision to spot good opportunities amidst the many options, to select what looks good and to persist with their development.

So what’s our vision?

“Authentic learning and authentic assessment”

We’ve already mentioned that we want to provide a learning experience that uses online and remote working techniques and technologies close to what graduates will find in the near-future world of work. We also believe that Design Thinking is best learned through working on real-world challenges, and can only be assessed through real-world methods. Some people call that “authentic learning” and “authentic assessment”. Through the module, we like to see the students progress from rapidly gaining essential design knowledge and participating in the Design Thinking activities that we choose, through to choosing and facilitating activities, managing engagements and projects, right up to creating fresh and insightful knowledge about designs and designing (which extends to the wider social and political context in which designing happens). They become increasingly independent and co-dependent – working in small teams and within the big team that is the whole class (which we conceive of as being a design consultancy). Some go further, when we collaborate with external agencies (such as Limina) the design collaboration widens out, as it would in “real” world Design Thinking. Meanwhile, as they progress upwards through this “capability stack”, we step back as teachers and reposition ourselves as consultants. Assessment is performed as honest critical friends.

There’s a lot of very rapid change involved in this. We have evolved techniques to support the transformation. For example, running a physical theatre workshop in Week 2, led by Highly Sprung Performance, has proven to be effective. This will be difficult to replicate online.

There are also some constants. And it’s these constants that we need to focus on and enable through technology – and hopefully, make even better with technology. These constants could be described as a “signature pedagogy”. What are they?

Challenges and values driven: all of the many techniques, concepts and knowledge that we introduce to the students are done so in the context of believable and worthwhile challenges. We start with challenges that the students can easily relate to (for example, the design of cafes), and progress to more difficult but more impactful challenges (social, cultural, ecological etc.). Throughout, we develop shared values through open debate, and are consciously led by those values.

Teacher as consultant, co-designer, co-learner: there’s a lot said in University teaching about the idea of students as co-designers, but not enough clarity on how the teacher has to re-conceive their role. That’s because it’s quite tricky. In reality, we have multiple roles, are multiple people. And sometimes there’s tension between those roles. But that’s fine. We think it through. The most important thing is to position ourselves as being on the side of the students, as being part of the same journey, as being on a journey together. Tim Ingold does a really good job of describing this very different approach to education in his recent book Anthropology and/as Education.

“For sharing to be educative, I have to make an imaginative effort to cast my experience in ways that can join with yours, so that we can – in a sense – travel the same paths and, in so doing, make meaning together. It is not that you end with a piece of knowledge implanted in your mind that once had belonged to me; rather we come into a concordance that is new to both of us. Education is transformative.” (Ingold, 2018: 4)

Fluidity of mode: synchronous-asynchronous working. Probably the most misunderstood concepts in learning technology! Synchronous interaction happens whenever people are present and communicating at the same time. Asynchronous interaction happens when one person acts, leaves the scene, and another person later attends to that action (listening, watching, thinking, acting in delayed response). We’ve observed that successful, creative, collaborative people actually work in a much more fluid way, dipping in and out of the different modes, and even working in multiple ways on multiple tasks at the same time. So for example, two designers might be working on their own parts of a project, and then connect to briefly discuss some detail, or the bigger picture, or something un-related. They might also attend to a communication from a third person, and be both listening to that for its own sake and using it to enhance their own work. It’s complicated! But that’s how amazing work gets done. And that’s what we see our best students doing.

Build-to-think in the open: the fundamental basis of Design Thinking, as documented by Donald Schön and many subsequent studies of how successful designers work. IDEO’s Tom Kelley invented the perfect term for this in his article “Prototyping is the Shorthand of Design” – he called it “build-to-think”. Don’t try to solve design challenges in the abstract, make things as provocations and as ways in which we can learn about the challenge and its context. Build fast, tell a story, get feedback, learn, build again. Storytelling is essential to this – the prototype doesn’t need to be fully worked out, but it does have to envision a story well enough to elicit useful responses. We use Ellen Lupton’s book Design is Storytelling, to develop narrative skills. Visualisation of the story and its features is also important: diagrams, mock-ups, videos, storyboards etc. We need good ways to rapidly visualise designs, comment on them, and redesign.

Care for the individual: everything we’ve described so far may sound great in theory, but when that theory engages with real students, there’s always some friction and emotional difficulty. Building-to-think in the open, welcoming critical-creative responses to part-formed ideas, is especially challenging to high-flying Warwick University students who are used to creating perfection in private and only releasing it for private summative assessment. Mentoring and coaching is essential to the transformation. And that’s based on attentiveness to individuals. It might be the case that students who do creative work in ensembles (theatre, music, etc.) find it easier, if they can draw upon those experiences (I found some evidence for this in my PhD research, but it needs to be explored further).

Care for the whole team: our Design Thinking sessions are complicated, fast-moving, challenging. We need to be well-coordinated, and able to balance the needs of individuals with the whole “team” (thinking of us as a team rather than a class of students). That requires well-developed facilitation skills, constant awareness and reflection-in-action to steer effectively. This is something we need the students to develop for themselves as well, with facilitation being a key part of the capability stack. For us as consultants/teachers, the question is always, how much steering do we do? when should we let the students take over?

Timing: well-timed and chosen critical-creative interventions and provocations are essential. This is where having two teachers working together makes a big difference. We are able to spot emerging challenges and opportunities, and draw from a big repertoire of examples, concepts and techniques to respond in a timely and precise way.

Agile, responsive planning: our teaching is, as outlined above, dynamic and emergent. We know the overall direction of travel (progressively building up the capability stack). The ten weeks is punctuated by keystone and capstone events and design challenges (which we modify in response to the students). But what actually happens each week is only decided at the start of the week, following a reflective discussion. Even then, we quite often change the plan during workshops in response to the students. Again this demonstrates the value of team teaching.

In part 2

That’s our challenge defined: how might we use an almost entirely online and remote approach to improve our teaching? We know what the essential elements are. We’ve been exploring technologies and techniques. In part 2 we will explore some possible solutions.

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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