Editorial: Ed Tech defining design curriculum

If you’d asked me ‘What drives your design curriculum?’ a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have said Zoom.

I’ll shortly have to add a whole list of other technologies, services and ed-tech that are emerging as “class leaders” (That was a satirical pun, by the way).

This tech changes how we teach. But I’d argue that it also changes what we teach – and sometimes even why.

If every tool is a hammer …


Martin Weller has written about the tendency of ed tech to infer a crisis only they can solve and has already got his predictions in of what that might lead to. And the individual technologies and services are not all we have to worry about – global education is a huge economic chunk of what humanity does. All the big players are getting involved.

This is not to repeat those concerns or to dismiss what could be genuinely altruistic activity on the part of some ed tech. It’s simply that technology is neither bad or good: it is always both bad and good.

Always.

This is true of blackboards and chalk too, by the way: bad teaching is bad teaching. But having a blackboard lets you concentrate the minds of many on that bad teaching. And, with hyper-scalable, centralised tech systems it’s far easier to distribute bad teaching to millions. Even worse, if the tech is itself based on poor (or even just limited) pedagogical models then it distributes (massively) those limitations.

Technologies affect the way we teach and (as some forget) how our students learn. In some subject areas that might be OK (or more OK) but in design education it can be a disaster. This is simply because few other subject areas require the degree of tool use and embodied learning as design does. It’s not that other subject areas need less attention to ed tech, simply that it’s just more utterly obvious (visible) in design education.

Designers cannot be designers without tools – whether this is pencil and paper or the latest digital design environment. The tool influences the designer and vice versa. In fact, part of the difficulty of working in design education research is precisely that interrelationship between what is done and what is know. Without getting into the theory: it’s a bit tricky to separate what a designer does from, why they do it, and how they go about that doing in order to make progress in a project (which is yet another activity at another scale of doing).

Let me be a bit more explicit – it’s hard to separate these easily and evenly, such that we can see how ALL the parts contribute to the whole. This is (hopefully) what is valuable and purposeful in design education – that facility of tutors and students to explore these parts and then change them for personal improvement.

This is one of the reasons that studio remains a signature pedagogy – it’s a single place where tutors and students can ‘see’ all of these together.

That’s from the teaching point of view. From the student point of view, getting to this point is harder. Many of us will be familiar with our eager students’ desires to get in there and start with Photoshop without first taking a bit of time to think about what and why. This is not a student deficit – I get exactly the same feeling as a professional designer (I want to play with shiny new tools!).

But I am also very aware of how those tools shape my doing and, hence, my thinking.

Here’s three examples:

  • The Sketchup building. I love Sketchup. It’s fast, easy, great to communicate things quickly. But it really, really, really really, dedicated to modernism of the 90 degree variety. Some really bad buildings have been designed in Sketchup simply because it’s really fast at drawing rectangles and extruding them. Great if you live in Milton Keynes; not so great if you live in Barcelona. (Mind you, this is being reset by the current wave of procedural modelling…)
  • Nearly every website since the mid 2010s. I love/hate Google and I admit to being a huge fan of their approach to interface and information design – some of it is delightfully simple and utterly clear in terms of calls to action and response. But does everything have to look like this? Do we have to see such a globalisation of style and approach? (I can feel the burning eyes of UI/UX colleagues…).
  • Every photo since social media was invented. Hang on – a filter to make your photo look like the 70’s, you say? Do all my photos have to look like I’m a smiling hipster who travels the world instead of a vitamin-challenged Scotsman with just over 50% of my own teeth? If I took a picture of my coffee cup the police would want to ‘eliminate me from their inquiries’…

OK, OK – I’m being harsh here. Design is particularly susceptible to style and fashion. It has always been like this. And style, fashion and zeitgeist are important parts of designing. But with modern technology the link between style and technical process is often clearer (conflating the two) and very shareable, often leading to the style being replicated without context, meaning or purpose.

The extent to which you have a design style is the extent to which you have not solved the design problem

(Charles Eames)

Basically, the tools we use affect the way we think: how we think; what we think. It’s really easy to get stuck in only doing a task instead of stepping back to see what that task is contributing. Sometimes, however, it’s great to get lost in a task – ask Csikszentmihalyi (2014).

But an experience designer knows how to bounce in and out of these ‘scales’ of working. A good grounding through design education aims to get past such fixations and always has done.

But what happens when that education take place inside into its own fixation? Will teaching using Zoom affect how it is we collaborate? Or will Trello, Slack, and Monday affect what we learn about design process? Or will Mural help IDEO completely re-define design thinking forever…

I have some answers to questions like these – but I have far more thoughts and opinions and not enough knowledge. We know relatively little, still, about how designers are educated well. More accurately – we all know how this happens; but we can’t describe it fully.

So, who’s going to start the discussion …

References
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. and Wolfe, R. (2014) ‘New Conceptions and Research Approaches to Creativity: Implications of a Systems Perspective for Creativity in Education’, in The Systems Model of Creativity, Dordrecht, Springer Netherlands, pp. 161–184 [Online]. DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-9085-7_10.

Published by Derek Jones

Derek Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Design at The Open University (UK), part of the OU Design Group, and the Convenor of the DRS Pedagogy SIG. His main research interests are: the pedagogy of design and creativity, embodied cognition in physical and virtual environments, and theories of design knowledge.

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