In 2012, Portland State University (PSU) in Oregon launched an online portal where faculty and staff could upload their ideas to improve the university.
The effort, part of reTHINK PSU, an institution-wide reform, was called the Provost’s Challenge. PSU employees were asked to submit ideas addressing specific issues: the acceleration of online learning, the use of innovative technology in educational delivery, and the improvement of student success and graduation. The only rule was that no one could submit ideas on their own; they had to work with their peers to suggest and develop their ideas. Anyone on campus could see the submitted ideas, offer suggestions, collaborate and iterate on an idea.
The challenge generated 162 ideas, 24 of which were funded and implemented. The changes that came from this crowd-sourcing effort ran the gamut from a project reframing the way biology and chemistry are taught on campus to a program awarding students credit for prior learning experiences to the creation of open, free course materials.
reTHINK PSU, which encouraged stakeholder participation, iteration on ideas, and outside-the-box thinking, exemplifies the use of design thinking in higher education reform. More importantly, the Provost’s Challenge clearly shows how an institution that wants to use design thinking for reform can tap the knowledge and passion of its local experts: faculty members.
Design thinking in education reform
Design thinking — a cognitive process used by designers to create a product or solve a problem — has been gaining traction in business and education reform. In the last 10 years, design thinking has become common in education. It’s been used to solve problems in K-12 education and has become a popular subject on college campuses. The process of design thinking is particularly suited to the complex, often-delicate issues that arise when universities attempt to make structural or cultural changes.
The typical steps in design thinking are as follows:
- Empathize: Understand the users you are designing for.
- Define: Understand the problem you are trying to solve.
- Ideate: Brainstorm solutions.
- Prototype: Build one of the solutions.
- Test: Show the prototype to your audience and try it out. When the testing is complete, design thinking encourages iteration on the prototype.
Many institutions interested in using design thinking start by bringing in consultants. It’s important to note, however, that any institution interested in trying out design thinking may already have all the expertise it needs on campus: its own faculty.
Kathleen deLaski is founder and president of Education Design Lab, a national non-profit which applies design thinking to reform in higher education. She tells the story of a vice provost who had previously been a student at Education Design Lab’s Academy for Innovation in Higher Education Leadership. The vice provost left the program excited about the power of design thinking, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that one of the country’s foremost design thinking experts worked at his university.
“You may have more expertise than you think on your campus,” says deLaski. “We have found knowledgeable champions in engineering schools, design schools, learning science programs, and business and architecture schools.”
Using homegrown talent
“Most organizations miss out on the energy and smarts of the people who are at the frontline of the organization,” says Mike Meotti of Ed Policy Group, an education advocacy group. Design thinking “opens up the opportunity for a complex organization, like a university, to capture the smarts and energy of the organization.”
“In most colleges and universities, there’ll be some people known on campus as change agents,” says Meotti. “They’re the ones who are constantly curious, looking for new and different ways to do things. They’re highly motivated about a certain issue, and have probably been involved in efforts on campus to change things.”
Campuses are filled with centers (or institutes) and initiatives started by faculty members who saw a need, developed a plan, obtained funding, and created a solution. Yet these are often isolated, innovative endeavors, says Meotti, and with each functioning independently. Design thinking offers universities a framework that allows the administration to issue a mission-critical challenge, and then draw on the excitement, energy, and creativity of its innovators.
“If you identify a mission-critical challenge, there are going to be people among your existing innovators who are drawn to it — if you give them resources, money, time, and some protections against the status quo protectors that will try to strangle them,” says Meotti.
“If you then let them go to work, and support them,” Meotti adds, “they could use a design thinking process to tackle this mission-critical challenge using their energy and excitement within that process and come up with early-stage, small-scale tests of possible solutions that could work at your institution.”
While Meotti suggests design thinking be applied to large, mission-critical challenges, Rich Crandall, a director at Seattle-based strategy and design firm Intentional Futures and a lecturer at Stanford’s design thinking-centered d.school, suggests universities start small when choosing the first challenge to be addressed by design thinking.
“Pick a problem that isn’t the sexy thing on campus,” he says. “Pick something you know is an issue you haven’t quite cracked yet, but that everyone knows is an issue.”
Then, he said, tell all the stakeholders the campus is going to address the problem in a new way.
“I would engage the brains of stakeholders,” says Crandall. “I’d have students at the table, faculty members, other folks, depending on what the problem is.”
Crandall recommends the stakeholders move quickly while designing possible solutions, tracking their momentum, and paying attention to the engagement of the faculty and students involved.
He’s concerned about those stakeholders particularly because students and faculty are very passionate. If a prototype they were excited about doesn’t work, those stakeholders may see it as a failure rather than a lesson learned.
Because design thinking is a process, the person leading the effort should coach passionate stakeholders to understand that if a solution — even a favorite solution — doesn’t work at first, it’s not a failure. The solution might just need more iteration.
“I hope they would bring the learning from that prototype back again to a better understanding of the problem,” says Crandall. “That often is the most valuable thing.”
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A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.