Online Instructors and Design Thinking

Introduction:

For me, the excitement of building online courses comes from the power of design.  I love the idea of designing with intention.  Perhaps that is why I’m drawn to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Apple Computer, MIT Media Lab, modern architecture and, as you read in my last post, art galleries.   When faculty treat online courses less as the assembly of course documents and more as the product of thoughtful design, students benefit.

Stanford’s d.school (Design School) with its origins in mechanical engineering may seem like an odd source of inspiration for instructors who design online courses.  However, it turns out to be not only inspirational but quite practical.

d.school is the fountainhead of Design Thinking.  Design Thinking helps us to apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative way.  It is used to make art, design products, solve business problems – and even to create online courses.

 

design thinking

The Five Steps of Design Thinking: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test

 

What is Design Thinking?

Stripped down to its essentials, Design Thinking requires empathy – it requires us, for example, to ask who our current or prospective students really are, what do they need, what drives them, what do they know, and what are their constraints.

Secondly, it requires definition.  After information gathering on student needs, program needs and employer needs, what is the problem that the course is intended to solve?  What will the students be able to do that they haven’t been able to do before – cognitively, physically, emotionally?

Thirdly, it requires idea generation.  What are all the strategies available to help students master a type of knowledge or skill at a particular level to a defined degree of success?

Fourthly, it requires playing around with ideas – sketching on white boards or on paper.

Finally, we need to test the usability and effectiveness of our ideas on real people.

That is Design Thinking in a nutshell:  Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

 

Design Thinking and Instructional Design

For the last several years, instructional designers have written about Design Thinking and its interrelationship with various traditional and agile design approaches. Corporations have used it in building user-friendly products that meet needs.  But the benefits of Design Thinking and even of Instructional Design have bypassed online learning instructors.  Why?

For one, online instructors can be fiercely independent.  They are the subject matter experts – the content experts. Of more than two thousand faculty members who responded to the Inside Higher Ed’s 2017 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, only 25 percent said they have worked with an instructional designer to develop or revise an online course.  That is a very low number but not completely unexpected.  Jean Dimeo in her article Why Instructional Designers Are Underutilized, cites possible reasons why:

  • Faculty are busy
  • Institutions have few or no instructional designers and/or learning support personnel
  • Instructors may be unaware that instructional design services exist
  • Faculty don’t want to be told how to teach

 

Design Thinking Applied

In a Design Thinking approach, with the help of an instructional designer, faculty don’t need to develop a course alone.  At our university, we have a conference space surrounded by white boards.  Our training space is clad in white boards.  The instructor can invite colleagues and we can invite team members who understand design, the technology, the media and can help get things done.

Empathize

The instructor, with some help, can gather background information on the students, the curriculum, the program goals, the employer and community needs, and whatever information will drive the curriculum.  A large part of this is human factors.  The table of contents of a textbook may not be the best place to start.  Understanding the learner is a much better starting point.  Dee Fink describes this as shifting the center from content to the learner.  José Antonio Bowen describes this as finding the entry point.  That means the student entry point. Instructors already know and love their content; but how will student be first introduced….and hooked?

Define

The definition phase is like holding a magnifying glass to paper on a sunny day.  It is where something so broad and diffused as goals, aspirations, needs, and requirements sharpens to a focal point.  The course author focuses on the objectives of the course or the problem that must be solved or the task that students must master.  M. David Merrill in his first principles of learning places the problem at the center of everything.  The activation of prior knowledge, the presentation of new information, the practice and feedback, the application of knowledge outside of the course, etc.  are all centered on the definition of the objective, task or problem.  This is tricky work.  Most of our less stellar efforts can be traced to poor definition of what the course or module or learning object needed to do.

Ideate and Prototype

After this hard work, the fun begins.  The white boards come alive with ideas and quick prototype sketches.  Instructors can benefit from folks who really understand the breadth of strategies that can help students achieve an outcome.  In our conference space, we talk about everything from journals to electronic portfolios, VoiceThreads, interactive case studies, simulations, electronic books, OER, publisher resources, to whatever.  The challenge is to find strategies that help students with a certain level of learning (apply, analyze, synthesize, etc.) and a type of knowledge (procedural, problem-based, conceptual, etc.) and degree of mastery.  Is this something we are introducing, reinforcing or, indeed, mastering?  Do we involve students in discussion?  Does the instructor model a practice?  Does she observe student performance and provide feedback?  Do students interact with the content – check their mastery, build their skills?  Faculty may have one or two favorite strategies.  Centers for Online Learning or Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTL) or Centers for Teaching Excellence or eTeaching Services or Innovation labs — or whatever they are called — have a much deeper tool chest to choose from than the individual instructor.  Seeking their help is a critical first step.

Test

These ideas then need to be tested.  We can design websites or interactive content and theorize how effectively students will use them.   The validation comes with the testing.  We can simply observe students interacting with course elements.  We can assess students for performance and survey them for attitudes.  We can do simple control and experiment group comparisons.  The scope and effort will vary but we need some form of validation and feedback before faculty commit to full development of the project.  A recent faculty project featured a very long survey.  It is one thing to anticipate and imagine the wear on students after many minutes of survey taking; it is quite another to observe students complete a long survey.

The First Step

The first step for some faculty can be to seek out their institution’s instructional designers.  Many professionals with different titles play the instructional designer role.  In some places, instructional technologists, learning management specialists or curriculum specialists may be instructional designers. As mentioned, they also live in places with different names.  Seek out the places with all of the whiteboards. Finding the instructional designers may lead to finding other professionals who can help with idea generation.  Oftentimes, the instructional designers can bring the right people together.

Faculty can begin with Define and Ideate.  An instructional designer and her colleagues can help them sharpen objectives and brainstorm strategies that help students achieve the outcome.  Think of it as just hanging out with people and brainstorming with two very very important requirements.  Faculty must do their homework and supply critical background information.

Next Steps

From there, faculty can engage the instructional design team to whatever level they feel comfortable.  Maybe they walk away after getting some ideas.  Perhaps they engage in the testing of ideas.  If the instructor’s locus of control is respected, more of the benefit of Design Thinking will be realized.

The beneficiary is always the student.

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