Is Designing a Course the Same as Designing a Product?

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?

Course Product

  • About preparing for careers and creating better citizens
  • Always part of larger product (such as a curriculum, a degree program, accreditation, and professional certification)

  • About solving user’s needs (do something better, faster, cheaper) while generating sufficient profits
  • Sometimes part of larger product family
Rarely, if ever, designed by using human centered  design practices Growing adoption of human centered design practices

  • The number of users is small (at most hundreds), and fairly stable
  • Delivered a few times per year
  • Time boxed (quarter or semester)
  • Few deliveries per design

  • The number users is large (thousands to billions), and often growing rapidly
  • Delivered continuously
  • Used over long time periods (hopefully)
  • Thousands to millions of deliveries per design
Lower system complexity

  • Usually only lightly connected (through the curriculum) to a few other courses
  • Little choice, especially for core courses in the major
  • Usually designed and delivered by an individual
  • Updated every few years
  • One-size-fits-all
  • Simple business model
  • Designed and delivered locally
Higher system complexity

  • Usually connected into an ecosystem of other products
  • Usually many alternatives for the user to switch to
  • Usually designed and delivered by a team, or team of teams
  • Updated quarterly, monthly, or daily, with the trend toward continuous deployment
  • Products are increasingly specialized for niche markets
  • Increasingly complex business models
  • Increasingly designed, delivered and used globally
High and increasing costs

  • Delivery cost is high, and rising
  • High switching costs
Low and decreasing costs

  • Delivery cost is low, sometimes extremely low (e.g. for software), and declining
  • Switching costs are continually decreasing
Artificial environment

  • Delivered in sterile classrooms
  • Contrived reward system for students
  • Often deferred reward (“This will be good for you later”)
Authentic environment

  • Used by people to solve their problems in their home and work contexts
  • Quick reward (usually hours or days)
User community is

  • Small
  • Fixed size for duration
  • Usually local
  • Usually persist for just a few months
  • May have highly restrictive membership (for courses in the major)
User community is

  • Large to very large (hopefully)
  • Continually growing (hopefully)
  • Often global
  • Usually persistent for years (hopefully)
  • Usually open to anyone who can afford the costs

  • User generated data is used primarily for assessment, sometimes for learning
  • Extremely weak data analytics

  • User generated data is increasingly an integral part of the business model
  • Data analytics are increasingly an integral part of the business model
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

  • Course is completely designed before it is delivered
  • Students expect instructor to stick to syllabus
Iterative design

  • Product design is continually changing based on user feedback and new insights
  • Users expect problems to be fixed quickly
Instructor wields power

  • Conflict because same person is teaching and grading
  • Instructor dictates course structure, activities, and measures of success
  • Instructor assesses student performance
  • Student feedback is weak (end of course surveys, and perhaps some conversations)
  • Instructor determines pace
  • Can be expensive to withdraw from course
  • Drives course design
User wields power

  • Increasingly, can switch to alternatives is dissatisfied with this product
  • “The customer is your boss”
  • User determines pace of use
  • Penalty for abandoning product often is quite low
  • Product is continually refined in response to user feedback

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.


About davidsocha

In autumn 2010 after spending 19 years working in a variety of software organizations as a programmer, architect, manager, teacher, ScrumMaster, product designer, change agent, and agile coach, I finally listened to what everyone had been telling me I should be doing and joined the University of Washington Bothell as an Assistant Professor in Computing & Software Systems. My interests are how to create and maintain great teams, particularly those in software development organizations. I am most interested in distinctions that dramatically increase the effectiveness of teams, such as systems thinking, design thinking, biomimicry, and human centered design. I am a pragmatist, a collaborator, and an optimist.
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4 Responses to Is Designing a Course the Same as Designing a Product?

  1. Very interesting David. I will share this with my wife, who is becoming an (elementary school) teacher.

  2. Pingback: Russ Ackoff on An Idealized Design for a University | On the Way to Somewhere Else

  3. Pingback: Russ Ackoff on An Idealized Design for a University | On the Way to Somewhere Else

  4. Pingback: Re-inventing University-Level Learning Workshop Resources | Innovation and Learning

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