March 16, 2018

Higher Ed Pays Attention to Design Thinking | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellUsing methods familiar to designers as an approach to problem solving in organizations is not a particularly new development, but now higher education may be looking at it as a way to reform how education is delivered.

Design thinking caught my attention nearly 10 years ago. It happened when I was working at a university with a heavy design curriculum. Many of the faculty were graphic or industrial designers, as well as some architects, who transitioned to higher education. Nearly all maintained some connection to private practice or entered design competitions. It was through these relationships that I came to admire the systematic approach that designers took to thinking through problems and developing sensible solutions. My grasp of the designer’s process took a quantum leap when I began taking courses in instructional design, the area of practice most connected with my own interests as a library educator. As is sometimes the case, when we become enamored of a new set of ideas or skills, we are eager to share them—and I fortunately found a few librarian colleagues in the same space. Together we created a community for “blended librarians” who wanted to learn more about blending these design thinking skills into their practice. It was, and remains, moderately useful as a learning community, but efforts to create more interest in design thinking at a larger scale in higher education, as both an administrative and pedagogical practice, failed to gain much traction. That may finally be changing.

Start With the Problem

At the time, if librarians or higher education administrators had any exposure to design thinking, it was through a segment of the old Nightline news episode called “The Deep Dive.” IDEO, a world-renowned design firm, is the subject, and viewers learn how designers do their work. The big takeaway is that designers are problem finders first, and problem solvers second. We discover this by following the design team as it improves a traditional supermarket shopping cart. Watch the video a few times or more and the design thinking process becomes evident. Start by talking to and observing the users of the product or service—that’s the ethnographic research that’s become so popular in academic libraries. Then gather all the information from the data collection process and bring together a team with professional diversity to “deep dive” —or brainstorm—for potential solutions, no matter how outlandish. Once the best ideas emerge, the team builds working prototypes that are then subjected to formative evaluation by actual users. These new insights are then used to refine the prototype in the drive for the best possible solution. This process brings to mind ADDIE, an educational design theory and process in existence for over 50 years, and almost any design practice will bear some resemblance to IDEO’s systematic approach to thoughtfully identifying problems and constructing elegant solutions.

Could Work for Higher Ed

Among the many memorable quotes from “The Deep Dive” is David Kelley’s remark that “Everything we create has to go through a design process.” Does that apply to the work of the higher education enterprise? It must. Everything colleges and universities do is a product of design, be it the curriculum, the campus, or all the programming that supports the institution—and the library. Higher education is better known for irrational processes for identifying problems and developing solutions, and that leads to poor design resulting in dysfunctional systems. In 1972 Cohen, March, and Olsen authored an article that described higher education as an “organized anarchy” in which decision making operated much like a garbage can into which multiple and unrelated solutions are dropped in hope of being connected to an existing problem. While not every institution is an organized anarchy, too many lack a systematic, IDEO-like approach to advancing the institution. In a previous essay, I attempted to bring attention to benefits that might accrue from colleges and universities adopting design thinking to tackle problems for which there are no easy solutions. It went mostly unnoticed. Given the many “wicked problems” confronting colleges and universities, higher education could use a new approach.

Good for Educators and Administrators

Two recent publications suggest that design thinking is getting a fresh look in higher education as a potential methodology for injecting innovation into institutional management and classroom practices. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that EDUCAUSE chose to dedicate one of its “7 Things You Should Know” series to design thinking. We are told that design thinking has “caught the imagination of many in higher education.” Based on my experience that observation may be more aspirational than our current knowledge about and adoption of design thinking would suggest. I tried to promote the idea a few years ago without much success. This “7 Things” may help design thinking catch on with more faculty, librarians, and administrators because it is presented as a human-centered approach to problem solving that can help to both develop curricular content and tackle tough problems. The other item I came across, while not specifically on design thinking, is significant because a Chronicle mention will reach lots of eyeballs—even more so when Jeff Selingo authors the piece. Selingo writes frequently about the need for reform in higher education, a wicked problem if there ever was one. Writing about the Stanford, a nexus for educating design thinkers, Selingo profiles how the applied the design thinking process to develop provocative ideas for reforming higher education. To my way of thinking, the real significance of these two documents is a growing recognition that design thinking has value to higher education.

Indirect Adoption in Libraries

Despite being an advocate for more design thinking in higher education, I can admit that two occurrences doth not a transformation make. I am encouraged that academic librarians are gradually recognizing the advantages of design thinking even if they think of it in different terms. There’s a significant increase in the number of assessment and user experience librarian positions, and more instruction librarians are approaching their work with design methods. All these functions use design thinking in some capacity, be it the use of ethnographic methods to identify problems, the application of rapid prototyping for website development, formative evaluation for instruction enhancement, or deep dives for brainstorming. Design thinking is no panacea for all that ails both higher education and academic libraries (e.g., scholarly publishing = wicked problem), but it may serve us well as one more technique we can apply to problem solving. Academic librarianship could prosper from better integration of design thinking into our practice. One place to start is LIS education. A model to emulate is the Stanford As educators, academic librarians strongly promote the value of college students learning to become creative, critical thinkers who are savvy problem solvers. Injecting more design thinking philosophy into the LIS curriculum and continuing education for academic librarians could advance the development of the skills for ourselves that we aspire to for our students.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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