Using empathy and service design tools to re-design education

by Michael M.

Design thinking is a new vogue word in Universities (of Applied Sciences) in the Netherlands. It seems to be used mainly to foster leadership and innovation among (honours) students that need to work in interdisciplinary teams and as a means to facilitate strategy workshops within management boards.

But is this really resulting in more innovative education or are we just talking & thinking a lot more about design instead of designing and facilitating more innovative education?

This is understandable, as incorporating design thinking into your organization or education requires creative confidence as Tom and David Kelly describe in their book “Creative Confidence”.

At AmIaDesigner we wanted to tackle this and in 2014 we designed a masterclass ‘Design Thinking in Education’ aimed at building that confidence among educators. The first 2 masterclasses we organized in 2014, deliberately focused on educators that teach at bachelor or master level and trainers that work in the for-profit and not-for-profit sector, because these professionals need to not only design these new education programs but they also have to execute them.

Therefore boosting their confidence would probably have the most impact. Besides that, this group is in the position to show their management that they can be better and more innovative educators who are able to create more motivation among students with the use of design principles.

What did these three-day masterclasses cover? We believe that in order to design more innovative education you need to take three different aspects into account: the designers’ process, mindset and tools.

Transferring the process and the mindset are the most important aspects when we talk about creating creative confidence, but it is through using different design tools that our participants get to experience how it feels to design something.

Which tools do we use in the masterclass to help educators experience what it is like to design education? We see education as a service provided to users such as students, parents, society, the work field etc. so we used tools from the service design field and translated them to an educational context.

Universities and educators should listen better to the needs of these users and other stakeholders: try to gain empathy. We give our participants experience in this during the masterclass by having them create personas of their students, other stakeholders and even themselves with the help of Empathy Maps.

The second tool we use from the service design field is the Customer Journey Map which we re-designed into a Learning Journey Map. The Learning Journey Map helps the educator to map the service he provides to the student/ the user of his education. With the help of this tool the educator maps the journey he and his users need to undertake to learn something. After deciding which existing or new program you want to map out, you start by mapping the content you want to deliver to the users. Subsequently you not only look at the way you deliver the content, “what are the educators’ actions?”, but also at what kind of action the user needs to undertake to acquaint himself/herself with the content and more importantly how he/ she perceives the way the content is delivered to the student. “What is the users’ emotional status?” This tool not only helps educators to get a better understanding of the courses/ programs they teach and how they are constructed, it also helps the educators to recognize opportunities for improvement by helping you to create empathy for your users.

We have been using and improving these 2 tools: the Empathy Map and the Learning Journey Map with more than 200 educators from all over the world. We used them not only our masterclasses ‘Design Thinking in Education’ we offered within the DesignThinkers Academy but we also used them in in-house workshops at national and international universities like the TUDelft, the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences,InHolland University, Knowmads Business School and the UPC in Lima, Peru.

Most of the participating educators are very surprised by the impact the Empathy Map and the Learning Journey Map have on the way they look at their own teaching and how they could improve it to better meet the needs of their users. This first important step in “gaining insight into how others perceive your education” helps teachers create confidence in what options they have to improve the learning journeys of their users in a creative yet authentic manner.

For us as facilitators of the workshops and as designers of these tools, we are of course very happy with these reactions, but they did also shock us somewhat, because they show how little attention teachers and management of universities in general give to creating empathy for users. This means that we still need to reach a lot of educators with this message (and these tools) before we can even continue the discussion about doing more design thinking in the future.

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