After class last week, a student asked me “Is designing a course the same as designing a product?” “Yes,” I replied, “they are both quite similar though there are some differences. They both have users. However, courses are rarely designed by using the human centered design practices that are so effective for products.”
Upon further reflection, I think I was wrong. Designing a course is quite different from designing a product, and the differences might not be good for any of us. The cost of a standard education has become prohibitively expensive for many. The world’s people need global access to knowledge. Many educators are already reassessing their role in the changing dynamics of this world, and new models of education are emerging, such as the Khan Academy. It is very likely that the range of educational opportunities in 20 years will be quite different from what we have today. And that these changes will be good for the vast majority of us.
How can we increase the rate of innovation in education? Can product design tell us something useful about course design? Is it time for educators to adopt some of the principles and practices from product design?
Here is an initial list of the similarities and differences between course design and product design. What other similarities and differences do you see?
|Rarely, if ever, designed by using human centered design practices||Growing adoption of human centered design practices|
|Lower system complexity
||Higher system complexity
|High and increasing costs
||Low and decreasing costs
|User community is
||User community is
|Coaching and mentoring by instructor (the course designer) or teaching assistant||Coaching and mentoring by internal support group, and increasingly by users via online community support|
|Big upfront design
|Instructor wields power
||User wields power
Successful products operate within enormous complexity, scale, amount of variation, and pace of change. They adjust to the complexity of their users and the marketplace. They operate on large scales on several dimensions (quantity, geographically, diversity) during design, deployment and use. They often go through the hundreds of iterations necessary to systematically improve their quality, decrease costs, increase rates of delivery, and increase variety for different types of users.
Courses, on the other hand, are typically designed by an individual, perhaps with a small amount of assistance from others, and delivered locally to a relatively small number of people. In the absence of a manufacturing process to replicate the delivery, assessment and coaching, the instructor is a bottleneck for many activities. This means that each course is delivered (iterated) at most a few times a year, resulting in a relatively glacial pace of change. It also makes it difficult to adapt the course to the individual needs of each user.
Is a course inherently different from a product? I think of a course as a service with a human touch. Online and hybrid learning can help a course to scale a bit, while maintaining some human touch. Systems like the Khan Academy, however, truly scale by successfully packaging course material in easily consumed and useful chunks that are created once, and consumed untold numbers of times. It scales like good products do. This certainly works well in some domains, such as mathematics. Does it, however, provide the same quality of learning as when the course content is confined with a good instructor who can give individual guidance? How far does it get in covering the territory described by Bloom’s taxonomy? When does scale trump quality of learning? How can we have both?
Next quarter I am teaching a course in human centered design, so my thoughts keep returning to how to generate the insights necessary to allow us to redesign our educational system in order to meet the needs of our local and global communities. In particular, I wonder two things:
What it would look like for education design to use some of the product design practices?
More specifically, I wonder:
What would it look like to design a course via human centered design?
Who are the purchasers, influences, and users for which we would need to design? How could we use the observational and ethnographic practices that are central to human centered design in order to discover insights about the latent, unmet needs related to a particular course concept? How could we have a team of designers that collaborate persistently and intensely during this design process, over the hundreds of iterations necessary for creating truly magnetic products that can transform our world?
What would look like if we could do this? What is necessary in order for this to happen? Is it possible for education to operate at the scales of product design? How can courses scale? How can course design more quickly go through hundreds of iterations in order to increase the rate of innovation? Can course design become more iterative, with shorter iteration times? How can course design be informed by the richness of the data analytics in order to uncover more insights? How can courses become more individualized?
In the end, it is all about creating better learning opportunities and increasing levels of scale. Yet, I suspect many of us, including me, are asking the wrong questions, focusing on changing the existing system, being blind to new and highly effective type of system that will emerge.
How can we get out of our heads, as educators, and into the heads of the people we are trying to teach? Or vice versa.