Student as Design Thinker presentation for the HEA Conference


This is the talk that I gave at the HEA Conference at Warwick in July 2013. It will be the basis of a working paper to be published soon.

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My name is Robert O’Toole. I am a member of the Academic Technology team at the University of Warwick. As part of that role, I create designs combining technologies and academic practices to enhance learning, teaching and research. The designs cover all of the important aspects of thinking and acting, and span across the digital and the analogue.

Here is an example of our work: an online portfolio system for the Warwick Undergraduate Research Internships. It was created with Nathalie Dalton-King and Charlie Cosham from our Careers and Skills Service, with me and Steve Ranford of the Academic Technology team.

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Sometimes, as in this case, the design work uses university provided technology services. Perhaps developing them by small increments. More often now it requires serious consideration of how to fit together a range of technologies and practices from a range of different sources – things that users bring with them, or discover independently along the way. I am necessarily open minded on this. We have to be, the institution is no longer in control. People bring their own ways of working to the mix, and then they change in unpredictable diverse ways. They construct their often unique blends, increasingly independent of any specific context in which they work, carried across the mesh of intersecting contexts that make up lives in late modernity. I personally believe that the development of robust well designed individuality is good. Furthermore, Warwick is a very decentralised institution. A traditional diffusion of innovations model just doesn’t apply. We rarely see significant cases where experts design solutions and users adopt them following the patterns described by Everett Rogers.

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There are also very few strongly defined communities of practice.

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Communities of practice are not taking the lead on innovation. Instead, innovation tends to occur within ad hoc heterogeneous collaborations that come together for a short time and then dissolve.

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They are collaborations driven by the highly autonomous reflexive strategies described by Margaret Archer in her recent longitudinal study of Warwick undergraduates. My own interviews carried out with successful students, National Teaching Fellows and other award winning academics at Warwick confirms this interpretation. People are increasingly focussed on creating their own solutions in an ad hoc manner to attain their own social and economic targets. Margaret Archer also found a growth in the number of people she describes as meta-reflexive, more concerned with the ethical and social implications of the means by which ends are achieved. But I have found that meta-reflexives are not often driving design innovation and the diffusion of innovation within the university – with some interesting exceptions.

Designing for innovation in this context is challenging.

But we do have clear criteria for success. If we can hit this sweet-spot, then new designs may provide significant benefits. The criteria are:

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My car is an example of a design that fits well and sticks. I bought it in 1999, and it has always just performed the function for which it was purchased. It now feels entirely natural. I don’t ever really think about it much. I just get in and drive. But in no way has the practice of using it grown. It performs the same function today as it did in 1999. And the design has spread only in so far as car ownership has grown in general. There’s no major innovation or diffusion of innovation going on.

My motorcycle, however, is a different story. It fits perfectly, and I have had it since 2001. I’ve covered 100,000 miles in Europe and Africa. But the way in which it fits with me has grown. I have found many new things to do with it, travelling in new ways to new places. It has transformed my capabilities, opportunities and experiences. An aspect of that has spread into other things I do: the ability to manage risk, to plan, to be observant, to be in control at speed even in difficult conditions that comes with riding a motorcycle of that kind. These characteristics have spread to other people too – people who are prepared to go on adventures with me.

The portfolio system was designed with these aims in mind.

The new design had to fit with the existing structure of the scheme, and the enablements and constraints hardcoded into it. The scheme is administered by our Careers and Skills Service. Around 250 students a year are given bursaries to undertake research projects, usually based in their home departments, but sometimes working overseas. Most of them start at the same time, most of them go on for about four months. Some follow different patterns. They are expected to attend a workshop at the start, and undertake a series of reflection and planning tasks at intervals over the length of their project. You can see these constraints and enablements represented in the Ribbon interface on this example portfolio.

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Each task has a scaffolded reflection page on which the student works within their portfolio.

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They are supported by a mentor, who will give them feedback on their reflections and plans, once a task has been marked as completed. They are also supported by an academic supervisor in their department, who will want to keep a watch on progress. Finally, they make a public presentation of their work and its impact. The portfolio homepage performs that part of the task. 

Design Thinking for HEA.012 The design also has to fit with the enablements and constraints of the available technologies – it pushes our web publishing platform in new ways. And of course it needs to fit with the cognitive, social and epistemic practices of the students, as they develop interactively through the experience of undertaking the project.

The design has to be sticky for the length of the projects, for the four kinds of participant (admin, mentor, student and supervisor). We want them to keep returning to it and use it in the correct way. But we also want the planning and reflection practices to be sticky beyond the project, beyond the  portfolio and the specific technology platform. We want the students to carry on using them in their other activities.

 And ideally, we would like all of these academic practices, especially undergraduate research to spread more widely. And then to grow, for the individuals, for the institution and beyond. The design should be able to develop with these growing and spreading practices.

The design collaboration between Careers and Skills and the Academic Technologists pooled our knowledge of this particular context and the participants, along with good practice in the discipline of Interaction Design for Learning. We created a design that seems to be very good.

 So does it work? Does it fit? Is it sticking? Spreading? Growing?

 Yes, to some extent. For some students it fits well and is sticking. For others, less so. For some, not at all. Worse still, we had no certainty in advance that it would work for any of them. And we’re still not satisfied with the progress we have made, even though it is a very good design.

 This leads me to the question that got me interested in the Design Thinking strategy described by Tim Brown, David Kelley and Tom Kelley of the IDEO Design Company. An approach that has become widely used in leading American businesses and business schools. IDEO also asked the question: How can I work differently so as to create designs that fit, stick, spread and grow with more certainty? And answered it publicly. 

Design Thinking for HEA.014In his influential Harvard Business Review paper on Design Thinking from 2008, Tim Brown describes how he, and many other designers, found themselves facing these same problems, and wanting to know how to create more successful designs. The answer is simple: stop designing! Or at least, do less of the designing.

Design Thinking is a designerly conversation amongst the diverse but interconnected people who might interact with a design from their own various angles. A conversation amongst radically diverse people like our students, admins, mentors and supervisors. The aim of Design Thinking is to stimulate designerly conversations amongst all of the people who matter to a design, in a more democratic and inclusive manner. The designer hands their design agency back to the people. That’s what we need to do, to increase our chances of finding a design that works widely. Get the students, mentors, supervisors and administrators designing. And then go further – get employers and other communities  involved.

Design Thinking creates an extended community of design thinkers.

But it’s not that easy. There aren’t many people who are able to naturally think and act like designers – in the kinds of designerly ways described by Bryan Lawson, Nigel Cross and Donald Schön in their classic studies.

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There are many important strategies and techniques that designers use. We used some of them in the portfolios design project. For example:

1. Your first ideal solution will probably be wrong, don’t jump straight to implementation – my colleagues all agree that in HE this is hard, people often find that they have to hype-up a big technical solution just to get other people motivated to initiate a project.

2. Collect and listen to stories from all perspectives, try to cross-pollinate inspirations from other unrelated domains, when you think you are certain, find fresh perspectives that disrupt your certainty.

3. Keep reviewing assumptions about constraints and enablements, they will need to change as people learn through the design process and as new things become possible.

4. At the same time, get people prototyping. As Tom Kelley says, Build to Think, even if your prototypes are lo-fi creations, sketches, scripts, storyboards, toilet-roll and sellotape models – just good enough to see what fits, sticks, spreads and grows. Failure is good. As they say Fail Early to Succeed Earlier.

5. Always keep the people who can implement the design connected. People will put more effort into Design Thinking if they can see a real possibility that change will happen.

6. Guard against over-protective service owners, techies and crafts people, but keep them involved, use their knowledge and skills, and help transfer it into prototyping.

That last point is critical. Higher education is full of people with precious crafts developed through years of pain – academics for example. We need to get this into perspective and reflect upon the power and responsibility that comes with craft – Richard Sennett is a good guide on this: 

Design Thinking for HEA.016 In Design Thinking the role of the designer is to facilitate collaborators in using these strategies themselves. But it has to be a wider, more inclusive, open conversation. Brown describes how at IDEO they use a three-spaces approach to facilitate and scaffold this conversation.

Design Thinking for HEA.017The design thinking conversation takes place in all three spaces equally. We don’t rush to implementation, we aim to accumulate results over time. The Inspirations Space is of equal importance. It is the place for telling stories and sharing impressions – not just linguistic, formal and functional, but also aesthetic – anything that adds to our collective understanding and experience, and from which we can draw upon for the design prototyping experiments that we create in the more focussed, more selective Ideation Space.

In the Ideation Space, people Build to Think. Designers sometimes say that in prototyping they immerse themselves in an interactive conversation with materials and technologies, with the affordances, constraints and enabling constraints that they find in them. Sometimes the conversation flows. A prototype works well, survives our efforts to test it, and forms an object of collective belief. It should then be picked up by the Implementation Space to make it real. But even when success seems guaranteed we should return to the Inspiration Space to see if our certainties can be usefully disrupted. The conversation stays open. Experiences, prototypes and results accumulate. We collectively learn, and enrich our Design Thinking and design knowledge for the domain in which we are collaborating.

We shouldn’t expect this to always work quickly, or to result in everyone pursuing the same ideas and adopting the same practices. And we certainly should not rush the learning process that is built into Design Thinking. But also, we have to make sure that people don’t drift away. Live workshops can help to set the right pace. Maintaining the three spaces as real physical locations in which activities are accumulated is the best possible approach. However such spaces are rarely available.

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To address this, I’ve been working on a design for online design spaces. You can see it in this screenshot. The three spaces are there, with a simple scaffolded system allowing participants to add content. Here is an example.

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The online space draws all of the diverse streams of activity together. It also makes an additional dimension easier to add, an additional personal-reflective dimension. Each participant has their own personal space in which to record their actions and reflect upon their designerliness, guided and facilitated by design mentors and supporting materials. My intention is to introduce a system based on Open Badges, to give a sense of personal growth and progress for all participants.

Design Thinking fits well with the Student as Producer approach. My next case study brings the two together.

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SIBE is a student owned social innovation company based at Warwick. They have about 50 active students, working independently from the university. But they are informally supported by the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning and IT Services. I have helped them with a room (now taken off us by the university), iMacs and camera equipment (NTF funded). They are well organised, with distinct roles and processes and their own training program. They are very designerly and increasingly meta-reflexive, but with plenty of craftspeople (film makers, journalists, programmers) to provide the essential ability to make prototypes and real products.

Here is a short video interview with the founder of SIBE, Sholi Loewenthal, describing their activities and approach. Sholi talks about a major project that included all of the elements of Design Thinking (the Hackathon approach is a good ideation exercise), even though they did not explicitly plan to use the approach. It just happened that way, as smart students worked out the best way to work.

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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