Creating an Ecosystem of Design

What comes to mind when you think of design in education? In education, we might think of learning design or instructional design to support learning through intentional activities supported by a range of resources. We look to learning engineering and learning science to provide the pedagogic underpinning and evidence base of why we opt for certain design approaches and how these approaches are beneficial for learning.

The exponential prevalence of digital education in just the past several years has prompted an increased need for models of design support for the academic community. However, in my experience, design isn’t the ubiquitous language used for course preparation or campus teaching. In contrast, in the world of online education, design and development tends to be standard practice with academics supported by specialist learning designers, developers, and media teams. The technology is integral and design takes the foreground. Why are there different models of support? We could probably agree that these modes are not synonymous, yet isn’t the student at the heart of it all?

This post sets out some reflections as to why I believe it is important to establish an ecosystem of design within a higher education institution. Consider the possible advantages in designing for the student experience, embedding a design first approach which takes account of the pedagogy, and facilitating the adoption of innovative learning and emergent technology.  

Which assumptions are we making when we look how to scale design throughout an academic community, or, even more challenging, through an entire institution? I’ve outlined four assumptions that ought to be challenged and some suggestions to consider.

Assumption 1: Institutions don’t need to invest in specialist design support.

The common thread in institutions that offer online education is that they tend to invest in design, development, and media support teams. This reflects a partnership with academic staff and an awareness that specialist skills support the academic and student experience. Whilst the equivalent service may not necessarily be the same for campus provision, there can be transferable principles. Professional services who are trained and enabled to become integrated team members are critical to an efficient and effective operation. Specifically, specialist design teams that consist of a broad range of professional and student voices provide insight and guidance in partnership with, and in support of, the academic community. This might be in the form of a teaching excellence centre, teaching and learning hub or education service or bottom-up learning design opportunities.

Assumption 2: Academic staff can adjust their academic practice on demand.

Academics have competing priorities between research and teaching and designing their courses over and beyond pre-term preparation may not take priority.  I’ve seen many approaches regarding workload models ranging from detailed time allocation for different activity to completely absent without boundaries to teaching, research or administrative responsibilities. The assumption that academics have time, or ought to make time, for training, induction, and workshops to support new design approaches for teaching and learning must be evaluated. Not all academics are embedded in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Professional development takes time and needs to be recognised and acknowledged as a factor for promotion and in annual reviews. Complementing academic contribution with specialist support teams can provide the guidance and steer to contribute to an excellent student experience. In contrast to campus teaching, online education requires dedicated academic time for design and development well ahead of programme launch, which is a schedule that differs widely to campus teaching.

Assumption 3: Templates solve all design questions.

Templates that support framing learning activities or structure of a course can be useful for the academic subject experts as well as ensuring a solid student experience. Paired with the design team approach proposed above, it can be a powerful tool providing guided autonomy. However, there are some caveats! I’ve seen templates being used and completed by academics only to be returned to the academics from the design team with significant edits. This is incorrect use of templates and is an unnecessary and unfortunate use of time and resource. It is of no use if consideration of voice, narrative, audience, available technology and overall fit within the programme is not scoped in advance.

A template can be a good starting point, especially if there is no specialist learning design team standing ready to support and academics are unsupported. Another point regarding templates solving all design questions, is that they do not necessarily account for emergent technology and different ways of engaging or assessing. It can easily put the learning experience in a rut, doing the same things over and over. Templates are useful as standalone tools if intentionally designed to serve as such. Equally, they can foster a broader design conversation supporting academic and professional services staff for the benefit of the student experience.

Assumption 4: Design is just for students.

Investing time and resources into designing for an excellent student experience is only part of the story. Students will benefit from an online or digitally enabled experience. What are the gains for academic staff? Taking time to design the learning experience is also an opportunity to lift some load for academics in their teaching experience. Upfront time invested in designing a course in advance of the programme going live helps with the teaching load once in session. It is not only academic time to design and develop, but also reflected in the time for professional development. We only need to look at the current higher education sector conversations around assessment and large language models. Educators are collectively being called to redefine and realign assessments. If we look past the fear, we see an opportunity for less assessment and, subsequently, more time for academic staff and more meaningful, relevant assessments for students.

The conversation here has hopefully provided a prompt for further reflection and consideration of models of support and ways to embed design into the curriculum. A systems view and introduction of diverse models of support can help create an ecosystem of design within a higher education institution for improved staff and student experience.

Written by Margaret Korosec for OEB Global 2023.

One Response

  1. Samuel Ben Turay

    Hello Ms. Margaret Korosec
    Dean of Online and Digital Education, University of Leeds, United Kingdom,

    My name is Ben Turay in Freetown Sierra Leone, West Africa. I am one of the invitees for the 29th Annual Global, Cross-Sector Conference and Exhibition on Digital Learning and Training in Berlin, Germany, in November 2023, organizes by the Online Educa Berlin.
    I am the CEO of the Center for Ex-Inmates Programme (CEP), a local NGO in Sierra Leone working within the Criminal Justice system, and social stability to prevention crimes, facilitate re-entry, and reduce recidivism. I also work for the Sierra Leone Legal Aid Board.

    Madam, they sent me the link of the conference where I saw you as one of those personalities invited to be keynote speakers for this year’s conference. I went further also to read about you online. Thus, while reading about you, I understand that you (Margaret Korosec is committed to creating transformative impact through intentionally designed online and digital education experiences, ensuring learners, academics and professional services have the resources and solutions to succeed. She is Dean of Online and Digital Education at the University of Leeds with responsibility for high-quality online and digital education experiences for all learners. With this, I hope to meet with you in Berlin for further discussion as I aim to give an opportunity for Prisoners or Ex-Inmates to access to e-learning programs.
    As you know, distance learning is beneficial for every one including Prisoners.

    Our core priorities include:
     Advocate for Juveniles to access to e-learning education and/ or other skills while in detention and monitor their learning process even after serving
     Reintegrating released-inmates and other rejected persons into society,
     Protecting the rights of children and young people whose parents are serving prison sentence from all forms of Abuse, Discrimination, Intimidation and Rape

    Thank you for your understanding and hope to meet with you.


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