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Nurturing creative confidence and learner empathy: designing for academic staff development

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Abstract

As a contemporary and boundary spanning approach, design thinking is gaining traction in higher education, but it has not yet been established in academic staff development. The aim of this study is to reflect on a recent staff development intervention on blended learning course design, aimed at promoting a 'design thinking mindset' among university lecturers. By analysing empirical data gathered through participant interactions, we discuss the implications and potential of design thinking for academic staff development. Data analysis shows an increased awareness of the complex and diverse student body, a recognition for interdisciplinary collaboration, mentoring and reflective thinking. Additionally, it is highlighted that adopting design thinking is not without challenges, which include the need for continued practice, securing departmental buy-in and upscaling initiatives. The findings emphasise the importance of creating a 'safe' space to experiment, modelling a designing-on-the-go approach, focusing on the iterative processes of (re)design, providing scaffolding for learning, making design thinking processes explicit, building a community of practice, regular feedback and maintaining the balance between playfulness and reflection. Success of such an intervention will rely on balancing the development of design thinking skills, a design thinking mindset and creative confidence.
Nurturing creative confidence and learner empathy:
designing for academic staff development
Daniela Gachago, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, gachagod@cput.ac.za
Izak Van Zyl, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, vanzyli@cput.ac.za
Jolanda Morkel, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, morkelj@cput.ac.za
Eunice Ivala, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, ivalae@cput.ac.za
Abstract
As a contemporary and boundary spanning approach, design thinking is gaining traction in higher education,
but it has not yet been established in academic staff development. The aim of this study is to reflect on a
recent staff development intervention on blended learning course design, aimed at promoting a ‘design
thinking mindset’ among university lecturers. By analysing empirical data gathered through participant
interactions, we discuss the implications and potential of design thinking for academic staff development.
Data analysis shows an increased awareness of the complex and diverse student body, a recognition for
interdisciplinary collaboration, mentoring and reflective thinking. Additionally, it is highlighted that
adopting design thinking is not without challenges, which include the need for continued practice, securing
departmental buy-in and upscaling initiatives. The findings emphasise the importance of creating a ‘safe’
space to experiment, modelling a designing-on-the-go approach, focusing on the iterative processes of
(re)design, providing scaffolding for learning, making design thinking processes explicit, building a
community of practice, regular feedback and maintaining the balance between playfulness and reflection.
Success of such an intervention will rely on balancing the development of design thinking skills, a design
thinking mindset and creative confidence.
Keywords: design thinking, blended learning, academic staff development, higher education, South
Africa
Introduction
Higher education (HE) in South Africa has recently seen widespread disruptions as a result of national protests
against untenable university fees, Westernised curricula and student exclusions. These student-led protests have
highlighted the inequality that persists in the country’s tertiary system, and pointed to the need for fresh
approaches to addressing systemic problems in HE. While not a panacea to structural inequality, ‘design thinking’
has long been touted as a contemporary, boundary spanning and inclusive approach to ‘wicked problems’ in both
academia and civil society (Buchanan, 1992; Goodyear, 2015). More recently, design thinking has witnessed an
uptake in universities around the world - beyond design disciplines - as a learning paradigm that nurtures creative
problem solving and multi-perspective collaboration (Von Thienen, Royalty & Meinel, 2017).
Despite its purported benefits, design thinking is under researched in academic staff development (Gachago, et
al., 2017; Goodyear, 2015). The aim of this study, therefore, is to reflect on the first iteration of a staff development
intervention that set out to foster a ‘design thinking mindset’ among university lecturers. Based on
recommendations from a previous study, the authors developed a short course titled Designing for Blended
Learning, structured around design thinking principles such as problem orientation, learner empathy and
collaboration. In this paper, the authors evaluate the first iteration of the course, which ran in 2017, drawing from
participants’ feedback.
Literature review
Staff development in South African HE
Heavy investments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) for teaching, learning and assessment
in HE in South Africa (Dahlstrom, 2015), don’t always translate into visible change of practice as lecturers
continue to replicate behaviourist/ teacher-centred teaching and learning methods (Ivala, 2016; Ng’ambi, et al.,
2016). Academic development relies on the unlearning of assumptions developed through years of subjection to
ineffective pedagogy as academics instinctively draw on how they were taught as a primary mode of teaching.
Disrupting these practices are notoriously difficult. Bali and Caines (2018) argue that to convince academics to
question their assumptions, reflect on their practices, and embrace alternatives after critically evaluating their
suitability in context, to guide their actions, is as essential as it is difficult. Moreover, most training and support
on the use of technology in teaching and learning focuses on effective use of technology, with little emphasis on
course design and training of lecturers to effectively integrate technology in their practice (Dysart & Weckerle,
2015; Ivala, 2016). Academic staff development is often offered as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ (Bali & Caines, 2018); via
once-off seminars, which raise awareness around opportunities of using technology in teaching and learning and
showcase innovative approaches at the institution. What is missing, however, with some exceptions such as the
regional Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC) short courses, are longer-term sustainable
(inter)institutional strategies. These strategies must allow for follow-up and collaboration between academics and
academic staff developers both in terms of technical and pedagogical support, such as short courses (ideally co-
designed with potential participants) or the set-up of local peer-to-peer support/networks (Ivala, 2016).
Design thinking in academic staff development
Despite the establishment of the Hasso-Plattner-Institute of Design Thinking (HPI d.schools) at the Universities
of Potsdam, Stanford and - most recently - Cape Town, the growing need for design thinking across diverse
curricula is not generally associated with the domain of innovation in learning and teaching in HE, or employed
for academic staff development. While the application of instructional design models such as ADDIE is not new
in this field, design thinking differentiates itself from these models in a number of ways, such as its focus on
interdisciplinarity and the iterative, exploratory and sometimes chaotic nature of design (Razzouk & Shute, 2012),
human-centred design and creativity. Human-centred design offers what most instructional design models lack,
namely a focus on the person we design for (Brown, 2009; Walling, 2014). In traditional instructional design
models, there is also a limited focus on creativity (Clinton & Hokanson, 2011). Finally, the emphasis that design
thinking puts on ethics is of particular importance in the context of student protests in South Africa, which
highlight unequal access to resources.
Although there are a growing number of studies on the potential of design thinking in education (Koh et al., 2015)
and postgraduate studies (Rauth et al, 2010; Ulibarri et al., 2014), in professional development the focus is
primarily on teacher education (Garetta-Domingo et al., 2017; Hodgkinson-Williams & Deacon, 2013) rather than
on academic staff development more generally (Gachago et al, 2017; Goodyear, 2015).
Context and intervention
This study was conducted at a University of Technology in South Africa. In 2016 the educational technology
support unit servicing the six faculties at the institution embarked on the design of a short course on blended
learning course design in collaboration with design experts at the institution. Design thinking was the chosen
focus, drawing on a 2016 study on shared characteristics of eLearning champions at the institution (Gachago et
al., 2017). The seven themes that emerged from interviewing these ‘champions’ were: collaboration and
generosity; learner empathy; problem orientation; exploration and play; reflection and resilience; focus on practice
and becoming change agents. We found that these characteristics corresponded largely to a design thinking
mindset (d.school, 2011; Schweitzer & Groeger, 2016).
Research shows that design thinking is not necessarily a natural talent, but a skill that can be learnt (Rauth et al.,
2010; Lawson, 2005) through unconscious adoption as much as through formal training (Porcini, 2009).
Following design thinkers such as Rauth et al. (2010) who argue that design thinking education (i.e. the process
of learning and teaching design thinking) can develop creative competence that ‘assures the students of their own
ability of acting and thinking creative’ (p.7), we set out to design a short course that would incorporate design
thinking methods, processes and promote a design thinking mindset. The course that was offered in a blended
learning format, combining face-to-face workshops and online seminars, ran over a 10-week period. Presentations
during the face-to-face workshops were kept to a minimum to allow for peer engagement and mentoring activities
during those sessions. The online seminars were used for participant-led discussions on topics of blended learning,
such as supporting diverse learners or the ethics of blended learning (link to course outline1). Following others
(i.e. Ulibarri et al, 2014), this approach was employed to challenge lecturers to exchange their analytical, deliberate
modes of being for an experimental, creative and playful approach. The course design was iterative (‘designing-
on-the-go’), and responding to participants’ feedback (through, for example, weekly reflections and other forms
of interaction).
1 See course outline
This study follows a qualitative interpretive approach. In total, eight participants completed the 10 weeks of
training - none of them from Design disciplines. Six of these participants are lecturers in the Faculties of Business
and Economic Sciences and Health and Wellness: Nazleen2 and Riaan work in the Unit of Applied Law while
Precious and Jody are employed in the Sports Management Department. Mark and Sonwabo lecture in Biomedical
Sciences. Noma works for a central support unit as a language lecturer and Tasmeen is a librarian in the Nursing
Department. Data was drawn from weekly reflections submitted by participants as part of the short course
assessment requirements. Furthermore, a focus group conversation at the end of the course was organised,
facilitated by a colleague from a partner institution, who is both an academic staff developer and interested in
design thinking. Five participants took part in the focus group conversation at the end of the course, facilitated by
an external colleague and in which participants discussed experiences during the course. Questions asked focused
for example on whether and how participants’ understanding of course design and blended learning changed and
whether and how certain dimensions of the design thinking mindset were developed. The three participants who
did not attend the focus group, completed an online survey, which followed the question design in the focus group.
Coding was done independently by three of the authors who went through the written reflections, the transcript of
the focus group and the open-ended comments of the survey, to come up with emerging themes. An open, axial
and inductive analysis process was followed. Six major themes emerged from the analysis: interaction and
collaboration (with the sub-themes of nurturing empathy and modeling tools and technologies), creativity,
evaluation and feedback, experimentation, time and transferring theory into practice. These themes are discussed
in detail in the next section. Ethical clearance was obtained through institutional channels.
Findings and discussion
In what follows, we describe themes that emerged from participants’ feedback on the course.
Interaction and collaboration
One strong emphasis of the course design was collaboration among colleagues from within and outside their
disciplines. Working with and from different perspectives allows participants to learn to cope with contexts that
are messy, complex and ambiguous (Jobst, Endrejat & Meinel, 2011). Participants were encouraged to sign up
as departmental course design teams and were grouped across disciplines for workshop activities. This was
appreciated as Nazleen’s comment shows: “But then because [my colleague] was here, we could bounce ideas
and correct each other’s understanding of certain things; ... doing it with someone who understands the context
that you are working in was invaluable.”
An activity that the design team introduced in this course was the world cafe methodology (Soeder, 2016) that is
usually employed to facilitate large group dialogue. This methodology encourages everyone’s contribution,
connects diverse perspectives, promotes listening together for insights and shares collective discoveries, as Mark
states: “I was pleased to learn that my fellow participants are all from various disciplines, it made the experience
more varied. I especially liked the rotation between discussion groups [in the world cafe]”
Nurturing empathy
One of the key components of user-centred design (Brown, 2009), is focusing on the end-user and the importance
of co-designing interventions with this end-user (in our case, the learner). To emphasise the notion of designing
for a specific learner, to put the learner at the centre of the design process, the design team introduced the ‘persona’
activity at the beginning of the course. Personas (Seitzinger, 2016) are graphically represented user archetypes
that help define the intended design activity (Van Zyl & De La Harpe, 2014). It is an informed and experienced
description of a hypothetical (end) user (in our case, the learner), their context, challenges and goals. Respondents
commented on their increased awareness of their students’ diversity in circumstances, personalities and needs.
The following comment of Precious illustrates this: “I have started to pick up distinct differences in my students
that I have previously been unaware of.”
Modelling tools and technologies
The course designers invited a variety of mentors / champions to the course and encouraged them to share their
own practices in informal conversations (rather than formal presentations) with participants. Using their
pedagogical innovations as case studies, to be analysed and used as examples or ‘precedent’ (Lawson, 2005; Hitge,
2016) by course participants, was an important strategy to encourage more creative uptake of technology. Jobst
and Meinel (2012) call this strategy of constantly observing others as model in action, ‘vicarious experiences. The
success of this approach depends on mentors’ ability to externalise their tacit knowledge, i.e. design thinking (Koh
2 All names changed.
et al., 2015), and the mindset that enables it, as the following comment shows: “Loved [the experts]. Inspirational
and encouraging. More confident to try new things [survey].”
Design activities and assignments for the course focused on a participant’s teaching practice and were chosen to
be as authentic as possible. While we modelled certain tools in the course (such as the online conferencing tool,
Blackboard Collaborate, as mentioned in comment 1 below), participants were encouraged to go beyond the
course tools and experiment with a range of tools and technologies if they saw them fit for their context (see
comment 2). In respondents’ comments we found a growing understanding of the affordances of tools and
technologies and an increase in sensitivity towards their students’ established practices:
…. using Blackboard Collaborate gave me ideas on how to use it in my own class (focus group)
I think Zoom is convenient easy to use tool as it saves time, using 1 tool for various functions allowing
the user/student to select which format (mp4/mp3) he/she wants to utilise (Tasmeen)
I would like to try [Twitter] with my class, however something to think about is most of our students in
South Africa are more likely to have Facebook accounts than Twitter, and if they do they are likely not
very active users. Another popular social media platform these days is Instagram, though I'm not sure
how effective it would be as an education tool; probably not very helpful as it is mainly to post pictures
and short videos and such. In sport maybe we could use it to post pictures of events we attend and signage
at the venue and such (Precious)
Promoting creativity
Research shows that creativity is best taught through domain-specific training and by developing skills associated
with creativity, such as problem identification, conceptual combination, idea generation and idea evaluation
(Clinton & Hokanson, 2011). Design agencies such as Ideo (2011) developed design activities for educators to
model design processes. Such activities include stakeholder interviews, persona development, problem definition
and the use of metaphors. Participants remark positively on the design activities, but mention the persona activity,
the focus on problem definition and the learning metaphor as particularly useful:
I have [...] begun to empathise more with students as [the persona activity] has opened me up to the idea
that I have neglected the fact that there are different personalities in the classroom and they all behave
differently, learn differently and face difference struggles and ... require different interventions to reach
their full potential (Precious)
Design thinking focuses on the process rather than finding a quick solution, which allows for flexibility
to teaching interventions and testing of different ideas towards solving complex problems (Jody)
... the other highlight for me was the learning metaphor and having that graphical visualisation of what
your subject is about was actually quite an eye opener (Mark)
Having participated in the course, respondents noted that they started thinking differently about learning and
course design. Participants noted that the course helped stimulate both their individual and collective creativity,
focusing more on the iterative process of course design rather than on outcomes.
So for us it was it actually changed the way we were thinking of designing our subjects and especially
because we have students who will be going back to their communities, we will be doing block release
with students and those sort of things. So, it’s given us a lot of tools that we can use and it made us think
about the whole process of designing our courses very differently (focus group).
I think because design thinking pushes the boundaries of our “conventions”, it will challenge me to think
outside the box and bring real creativity to my delivery of my course. I think design thinking is very
different from our “traditional” ways of curriculum design because it is not linear (Precious).
Hodginkson-Williams and Deacon note: ‘a key component of the design thinking process is fostering the ability
to not only solve problems, but to define problems’ (2013: 84). Koh et al. (2015) warn that more experienced
academics might jump too quickly to established solutions and design surface level change, finding it difficult to
shift their established practices. Interventions such as the world cafe and the design brief development gave
participants time to ponder a variety of problems from different viewpoints, thereby remaining in the problem
space for longer (Lawson, 2005), as the following comment shows:
For me it never occurred that a problem could be understood. I just saw a situation; there is a problem
and then what’s the solution? That was my standpoint before I started this course but now I can
understand that there is more to a problem than just what I see there, is the other person’s point of view
as well, where they are standing and how they see that problem. And what might be a problem to them
might not appear to be a problem to me so for me, that understanding of what a problem is and looking
at it from all angles or all possible angles was a revelation and I enjoyed coming to it (focus group).
Ongoing evaluation and feedback
Design thinking contains iterative cycles of creation and reflection (Rauth et al, 2010). As part of the assessment
strategy in this course, participants were required to conceptualise and design actual course interventions. A strong
emphasis was placed on continuous reflective practice (Hitge, 2016). Participants wrote weekly reflections on
their design journey, and they were encouraged to obtain regular feedback from peers and students, as well as to
take part in facilitated online and face-to-face reflective design conversations (Lawson, 2005) aimed at fostering
creativity and innovation. In their feedback participants noted the value of regular feedback and evaluation loops
in their current course designs.
The present feedback mechanism ... cannot ensure timeous intervention or a change in direction for those
that raised issues. So [students] input in the design is limited and for them most probably meaningless.
It seems then that feedback must occur as delivery takes place. So the design process must include
feedback and redesign (Riaan).
Safe and supportive space to experiment
Ulibarri et al. (2014) highlight the importance of creating an emotional, supportive, non-judgemental atmosphere
to foster creativity. One example of how we introduced playfulness is the introduction of learning metaphors.
Learning metaphors prompt and guide the development of a learning activity or a course by framing all elements
of the activity within a certain learning experience, such as ‘sitting around a campfire’ or ‘the amazing race’
(Morkel, 2015). We also tried to design activities that participants would experience as ‘different’ (as shown
above) and challenging, such as facilitating online webinars. Participants noted that the course was challenging at
times, and make reference to their lack of digital literacy skills, but also working in disciplines not known for their
creativity, as Riaan notes: “As academic disciplines, Law is not known for encouraging risk-taking”.
As enabling factors participants mention the support received from their peers and course facilitators, as this
comment from the survey shows: “It’s [the] continued support from facilitators and I feel I have an academic
community I belong to... they are passionate about their work and exercise a whole lot patience... why not clone
them perhaps?” Moreover, the course enabled them to experiment with various tools without the fear of failure
within a community of practice, supporting each other. In this regard, the course was a safe space within which to
explore options and alternative interventions, as discussed in the focus group: “And you don’t feel isolated. I mean
we could, when we went to report back in meetings, we could back each other up so it doesn’t seem as if you’re
this mad hatter trying to convince everybody of something that you read off the internet somewhere”.
Time commitment
As expected, the course did present a number of challenges. For participants who were mostly academics, already
under considerable pressure from high teaching loads, administration and research expectations, signing up for a
10-week course, required a significant time commitment, as the following comment from the focus group shows:
‘It could have been a little bit more condensed if it makes sense, to five weeks instead of ten’. Participants also
commented that the course material was too much: “I didn’t get the chance to do the readings that we got
beforehand because there wasn’t time to do it (focus group).”
The preparatory readings required for the online session, were discussed in depth during the focus group. While
some reported to enjoy them, others argued for ‘less academic’ reading, that should have taken them outside the
‘usual’ academic space/practice: “Ja, I think for me it’s more of an escape. I feel like we read a lot, every day it’s
always about reading. At work you read, most of the time you have to read. So, I thought it would just just get
an escape from your everyday” (focus group).
Transferring theory into practice
Most disappointing for us, however, for a course on blended learning course design, which should focus on
iterative prototyping, was that participants expressed concern that the course did not allow enough transfer into
their own practice, as exemplified by the following exchange during the focus group conversation:
Participant: We would have liked, with the exercises that we did, designing the
personas and all of that [...that] we can go back to class, maybe see
how we can use that in class. I don't know if that makes sense.
Interviewer: So you mean more applied or…?
Participant: Yes, yes.
This is an important observation as the course specifically set out to support academics in the practical
integration of tools and technologies in their practice.
Conclusions
This paper set out to reflect on the first iteration of an academic staff development intervention on blended learning
design, aimed at promoting learning design / design thinking principles, processes and mindsets (Rauth et al,
2010). As Taheri et al. (2016) suggest, towards developing design thinking capacities, we need to consider three
specific outcomes: skill-based, cognitive (i.e. design mindsets) and affective outcomes (i.e. creative competence).
The data shows that the course was received positively and there is evidence of a shift in how participants
understand and engage in course design. Participants also display a growing awareness of the complexities of
designing learning for a diverse student population (both cognitive outcomes). The course encouraged playfulness
and experimentation through the design activities selected, the informal atmosphere and the mentors (i.e. slightly
more experienced eLearning champions), who shared their practice and experience - all of which has helped
develop creative confidence in participants (affective outcome). As this was the first iteration of the course design,
we were ‘designing-on-the-go’ which also added to the atmosphere of experimentation, openness and modelled
risk-taking. Similar to other studies (Ulibarri et al, 2014), participants appreciated the course as a safe space to
think, talk about design and ‘play at design’. ‘Designerly ways of knowing’ (Cross, 2007) were modelled and are
evident in participants’ responses.
There was an important concern about direct application and more rapid prototyping of design activities in
participants’ practice (skill-based outcomes). Taheri et al. warn (2016, n.p.) that ‘while design thinking trainings
create a safe environment for failing and experimenting for trainees so that they develop beliefs in their own
creative ability, the development of skills which foster their creative agency is important.’ They argue that this is
particularly important in professional contexts, where individuals need to apply their learning within their own
working contexts. An exaggerated focus on cognitive and affective aspects of design thinking might result in
unrealistic expectations of what can happen outside the training space. However, as Irwin (2015, p. 93) notes,
when introducing design thinking into new contexts, at the beginning, the main value of design thinking processes
may not be ‘the ideas and solutions we developed but rather the cultural transformation that resulted…. [over time
we] developed a (mostly) collaborative, consensual group process that became the basis for profound change’.
Another important point raised in the feedback was the need to (co)-design with and for all participants.
Participants’ responses reminded us to be sensitive to designing for a diverse group of people - those more and
less digitally literate, those more or less risk averse, those in teaching positions and in other roles, those drawn to
academic readings and those looking for more accessible information.
Our reflection on this course emphasises the difficulty to strike a balance between process and product, playfulness
and structure, challenging tasks and feeling of safety and trust, lightness and depth. It encouraged us to create a
‘safe’ space to experiment, take risks and fail, and in doing so to challenge attitudes of perfectionism prevalent in
academia. We also recognised the importance of combining established elements of academic staff development,
such as academic readings, to establish trust, with activities that push participants’ thinking about teaching and
learning. We noticed the importance of modelling a designing-on-the-go approach through design team and
mentors, focusing on the iterative processes of (re)design while working on larger projects (course designs) and
providing scaffolding to help participants develop and gain creative confidence. Most importantly, it shows how
follow-up and continued work including constructive feedback on lecturers’ practice is crucial to strengthen
cognitive, affective and skill-based outcomes of such academic staff development.
Design is a slow process (Goodyear, 2015; Irwin, 2015; Ulibarri et al, 2014) - not a quick fix. How to sustainably
transfer design thinking into one’s own and into a departmental practice is an important challenge to consider.
Nurturing creative confidence and learner empathy requires a community of practice to draw from, on an ongoing
basis. This suggests that a brief once-off academic staff development intervention is insufficient. Instead,
academics should be encouraged to continually share their experiences (failures and successes), present their
approaches to blended course design, ask questions and share solutions, at various departmental, faculty or
institutional meetings or other academic forums.
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