Design for What Education Needs Now

A pile of multicolored crayons
A pile of multicolored crayons

We must design for what education needs now. At this extraordinary COVID-19 moment, the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology (the Hub), in collaboration with many units, colleges, and individuals from across the university, has been supporting Michigan State University (MSU) in its move to online teaching, learning, and working. It has been heartening work: lean teams banding together to deliver what’s needed to help this university move. It’s inspirational. It’s necessary.

But we’re not just talking about the design of online programs (though we are involved in many right now).

Design helps sort out varying and even competing ideas about what is good or true or beautiful. At MSU, our goal is to nurture the university’s capacity to solve complex challenges and make ideas real.

We’ve provided people and expertise in online learning. We’ve helped guide teams and university decision-making on the technologies to best meet the needs of our learners and to support the faculty training and development to do so.

And as we do this work, online learning isn’t our primary value offering. It’s design. And it’s through design that we help MSU answer fundamental questions about the value of a higher education and address inequities made deeper now.

As an internal design consultancy for MSU, the Hub helps the university learn to dynamically design itself to best meet the needs of those it serves: students, faculty, staff, and the larger public at the core of MSU’s land grant mission. We are now launching our new website and this Medium space to engage in conversation about this design work: our successes and challenges, our practices and patterns, and what it means to design transformative learning experiences across our campus and beyond.

Design appropriately dwells in the space of the indeterminate and the uncertain and the changeable in order to change current moments into better ones.

Design for Learning, Growth, and Transformation

Design is, at its core, is about learning, growth, and transformation. To design is to “[devise] courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon, 1988, p. 67). Design appropriately dwells in the space of the indeterminate and the uncertain and the changeable in order to change current moments into better ones. Learning is at the center of this change. Here, design provides a learning-focused frame for conceptualizing problems and opportunities and a stance toward addressing them. And designers nurture a human capacity to learn through current realities and realize hoped-for outcomes and growth.

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Design provides a way of discovering and inventing the means by which a group of people come to a shared understanding about what is a proper course of action or outcome. It is especially important at moments when new and unexpected challenges and opportunities surface where “tradition is weakened and [people] must learn to design their own lives” (Manzini, 2015, pp. 31). Here, design helps sort out varying and even competing ideas about what is good or true or beautiful. At MSU, our goal is to nurture the university’s capacity to solve complex challenges and make ideas real.

Design is a Smart Investment

Design’s value has become increasingly clear across US organizations and beyond. This has meant big organizations such as IBM and others have focused further resources on bringing design into the core of their organization (and to compelling results). This means more internal design capacity, adopting more design and design thinking principles, and a rise in more human-centeredness. Companies are increasingly focusing on the nature of experience: how human beings engage across moments and how we might make these moments the best moments for them.

We take a human-centered approach, letting people and systems lead into the problem-framing of challenges and opportunities at our university.

We see ourselves as part of this investment in design value, as higher education has seen further need for innovation amidst rapid change and has responded by creating a variety of innovation functions such as ours.

The Hub’s Approach to Design

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The Hub’s mission is to help our partners (colleges, departments, units, and the connected faculty, staff, students, and administrators) design and deliver transformative learning experiences. We design for transformation through workshops and conversations, sprints, targeted market and user research, prototyping, and ultimately guided implementation of solutions. We do this work to help MSU provide distinctive experiences that make us a destination for students passionate about growing, advancing, and leading their communities.

We take a human-centered approach, letting people and systems lead into the problem-framing of challenges and opportunities at our university. It allows us to best surface partner needs, power dynamics and inequities, and the complexities of systems we are collectively working to change. We’ve used this approach over the past four years to help our partners design: programs, events, conversations, and even the Hub organization.

The core of our design practice is rooted in Learning Experience Design (LXD). LXD combines the learning sciences, design sciences, instructional design, user experience design, and service design to bear on educational challenges (check out this collection of resources for more on LXD). Our design process begins with dialogue and inquiry to surface fundamental project needs and the complexities of problem spaces. We then prototype and iterate toward solutions for sustainable success. Across our portfolio, our staff co-design solutions to a whole host of university challenges.

The Hub’s People and Portfolio

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We are a diverse team of designers and researchers who combine an interdisciplinary set of approaches to address the multi-layered challenges of the university. From day-long design and innovation sessions, to five-day design sprints, to year-long program designs and redesigns across our Learning Experience Design, Online Program Management, Culture Change, Innovation Workshops, and Design Sprint services.

Our projects span our large campus and beyond: from the design of a Physician’s Assistant Program to address the the healthcare worker shortage, to an iOS Design Lab in collaboration with Apple to bring developer and coding courses to all undergraduates, to the My Spartan Story Co-Curricular record to help students track the valuable out-of-class experiences so central to their learning, to design inquiry related to the undergraduate student transitions experience, to helping the university navigate the increasingly digital educational landscape through our work on online.msu.edu, designing the shift from a reactive to a proactive advising experience for our students, to a collaboration with IBM on its Academic Initiative and Skills Academy to further bring digital skill resources to our students and faculty, and launching Science Gallery Lab Detroit for creating generative collisions between art, science, and tech for 15–25 year olds.

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And recently, we’ve supported our campus in the rapid move to remote and online teaching, learning, and working amidst COVID-19, helped design and deliver an online new student orientation, and continue to facilitate ongoing organizational design work such a recent opportunity sprint to support strategic planning for MSU’s Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Across our projects, it has been our focus on design that has allowed us to dynamically work with our partners to understand the challenge and opportunity space and design for the current moment in higher education. And this focus on design will be what continues to help us best meet the needs of MSU.

The Design Questions Driving Us

We have seen tremendous value for leveraging design in the higher education space. We are currently driven by a series of design questions that we look forward to asking and answering in this space:

  • How might we best design and deliver transformative experiences that are a reason to come to MSU?
  • How might we best keep our learners at the core of our designs?
  • How might we best develop the learning experience designers necessary for transformative learning design work?
  • How might we best develop the necessary practices and patterns for transformative learning experience design work?
  • How might we best show the value of design for learning work inside and beyond higher education?

We hope this space will provide us the necessary opportunity to regularly ask and answer these questions with you. It is through this larger conversation that we continue to sharpen our design value and to build the necessary networks in higher education and beyond for sustaining the important work that design can do in our organization and beyond. Please share your thoughts in the comments below, visit our website, and follow us on Twitter @msuhub.

Manzini, E. (2015). Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation (R. Coad, Trans.). The MIT Press.

Simon, H. A. (1988). The Science of Design: Creating the Artificial. Design Issues, 4(1/2), 67.

Written by

MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

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