A Design Stance for Change and Adaptation in Higher Education

by Jeff Grabill, Director of MSU Hub and Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology at Michigan State University

“We can and should design the next iteration of higher education.”

There are all sorts of fun things embedded in that sentence. Can higher education institutions change? History shows us they do (see my first blog post), but can they do so reasonably quickly? Can higher education change in response to needs that move faster than the time it took to develop the modern research university? Then there is the ethical imperative in “should.” Why should we? And who gets to decide? Which brings us to the “we,” of course. Higher education institutions tend to be slow, by design, and hierarchical, by design. And this last bit means that there are often significant limitations on who gets to participate in deciding the good, the true, and the beautiful when it comes to higher education.

“Design” can and does mean any number of things. For the practice of the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology, our position on “design” is vital.

“Design” names an area of expert practice and indexes more than one academic field or discipline. We inherit a notion of design as an exclusively expert activity that is primarily associated with art or product development or engineering. While true, “design” is now widely distributed and participatory largely because design can be a powerful way to conceptualize and address problems and opportunities.

As Ezio Manzini writes, “in a world in rapid and profound transformation, we are all designers” (1). In this respect, design is what Manzini characterizes as “a way of thinking and doing things that entails reflection and strategic sense, that calls us to look at ourselves and our context and decide whether and how to act to improve the state of things” (1). As Richard Buchanan notes, design deals “with matters of choice, with things that may be other than they are” (25). But thinking and acting in this way isn’t easy. As Manzini also notes, while design is distributed and (should be) participatory, the capacity to design is not: “to be usable [capacity] must be cultivated” (1). Design is a fundamental human capacity and requires specific forms of expertise.

A design practice in higher education lives this tension between exclusive and inclusive, between expertise and participation. However, it has not been our experience that the practice of design is widely distributed in higher education. Quite the opposite. But it has been our experience that the need and desire to design exists in our institution — from academics to residential and hospitality services to student affairs to buildings and grounds. Not surprisingly, there is tremendous expertise and capacity within a university for design. For a design group inside higher education like us, therefore, there are significant affordances for design, but there are few conceptual or practical models. We’ve been searching for a design language that is conceptually rich and that also enables a specific design practice. We’ve been searching for a language that has clear space for expertise but that is also accessible to everyone. Our language describes a stance with regard to design and frames our design practice in higher education.

Our practice is grounded in one of the ancient design arts, rhetoric, which for our purposes here we might characterize as the art of changing the world through language. More concretely, our practice is concentrated on facilitating the right sorts of conversations about learning and education. “Conversation,” in this case, is a term of art fundamental to design.

Paul Pangero writes that “design is grounded in argumentation, and therefore requires conversation, so that participants may understand, agree, and collaborate, all toward effective action” (23). Pangero’s design theory is grounded in “second order” cybernetics, or what Pangero calls the science of effective action: “an ethical, clear-eyed argument for transparent, value-driven design processes” (16). For our purposes here, both Pangero’s cybernetics and our take on rhetoric can commit to a shared understanding of “conversation” as having conceptual and practical value. We are committed to helping people act well in the world. We are grounded in language practices, in conversation (“dialogue” in rhetorical theory). We have well-established analytical stances and practices and are necessarily concerned with ethics and politics.

Pangero writes that “conversation” is the key concept in his design language so that participants may understand, agree, and collaborate, all toward effective action. Not so that we can say, “Wow, we know what’s going on!” but rather so that we might say, “Wow, we’re getting somewhere, we’re improving things!” We are seeing more and acting better. (23)

Conversation has something to do with argumentation, with understanding, with the goal of some agreements and collaboration (action is quite difficult without agreement — ethical action likely impossible). We see design itself as a type of conversation, and our practice is focused on designing conversations as a participatory mode of identifying and realizing opportunities.

As a design pattern, a “conversation” has some common elements: (1) identifying participants in a way that is inclusive and privileges those most impacted; (2) a commitment to ideation that is attentive to perspective, difference, and turn-taking; (3) analysis of our shared discourse; (4) prototyping and iteration based on feedback; (5) understanding and commitment to action.

There is one final point that reinforces the importance of “conversation” as a design practice: it is grounded in language. Most universities are, quite literally, a universe of perspectives, disciplines, and values, all indexed by language. We cannot assume, for example, that “critique” as used here, while highly valued in the humanities, will have the same meaning and value for my colleagues from other parts of the known intellectual universe. We need to be in conversation with each other in order to understand each other.

Our design stance, therefore, is grounded in conversations that become ways to conceptualize problems and opportunities to discover (research) and invent (make) the means by which a group of people come to a shared understanding about what should exist with regard to learning, education, and the future of our university. This stance enables efforts to frame how design might proceed inside a higher education institution.

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MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

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