Problem of Practice Final Design Report

The culmination of the work completed in CEP 817 entailing the use of the Stanford d.school Design Thinking Process is included within my Problem of Practice Final Design Report for Increasing Student Retention in Online Courses for review: Final Design Report – CEP 817. It has been a fantastic journey!

A Reflection of Learning Technology by Design

I Am A Designer – We Are All Designers

Round orange paint design by ArtsyBee at https://pixabay.com/en/users/ArtsyBee-462611

I was a designer; at least for many years I considered myself a designer in both my personal and professional life. My undergraduate work earned me a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree with a specialization in Advertising Design and after graduation I entered the graphic and web design industry where I spent over 16 years serving and supporting corporations and clients with my design work. In 2002 I entered the field of education (part-time), while still actively working in the graphic and web design field. I was a designer.

Fast forward to 2009 where I transitioned from my job in industry into the field of education as a full-time instructor teaching Web Programming to community college students. It was at that moment that I swapped the professional title of “designer” with the title of “educator”. Don’t get me wrong; I am very passionate about education and my role as an educator is one of the most fulfilling roles that I have ever achieved in my professional career. But, I felt a sense of loss in a way because I had thought when I became an educator that all the creativity and design skills that I developed and had flourished over the many years that I served in the industry, were gone. It’s often said, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” that played over and over in my head like a broken record. I could not make the connection between design and education other than a few lessons on design basics sprinkled into the Introduction to Basic Web Programming course that I presently teach. I was a designer.

Education is a part of me, I was one of those kids that loved school and as an adult, it’s not any different. I have a passion for education but deep inside I found myself missing and yearning for the creativity and love of design that I encountered and interacted with every day when I worked in industry, that is until I learned that design exists in everything! It’s not limited to a job title, particular career, or field; it’s in everything that we create and in every single career, industry, and field and also everyday life. The epiphany came during the spring of 2017 in my “Learning Technology by Design” course at Michigan State University. I have discovered how to bring design and creativity to teaching, what I was missing has been rediscovered. I am a designer. We are all designers.

What I Learned About Design

“Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”  ~Steve Jobs

Through my journey over the past few months, I have learned that design has many facets, it’s not only how something looks on the outside it also includes how something works on the inside and there is a formal process to design (and there should be). As I mentioned, I have been involved with “design” for many years simply because of the industry that I worked in prior to education. To me, I saw design as being what a person sees on the outside – a graphic image, a painting, a poster, an advertisement in a magazine, a sculpture, the list goes on. What I was missing was the formal process behind the design – the steps taken leading up to the final product.

My background in design taught me to understand and get to know my target audience, storyboard and create rough drafts of what I was designing based on my audience, and then produce a finished design piece for everyone to see. This could be comparable to the empathize and ideate modes of the design thinking process outlined within the d.school bootcamp bootleg document. But my process essentially only included two modes, what about the other three modes in the design process? I certainly don’t recall defining, prototyping, and testing my designs (the designs were critiqued by my instructors and a few classmates, but nothing more). There were missing pieces, what wasn’t apparent before is apparent to me now and I now realize that the process I was accustomed to was incomplete. Design is about people, a process, a product or service, usability, interaction, engagement, functionality, teaching, learning, problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity! It’s about being open to feedback and the willingness to react and then modify a product or service based on user feedback. It’s about open-mindedness, collaboration, communication, and yes, failure. What once was a simple two-step process to me in my career prior to education has now emerged into something greater and more powerful that I can not only use professionally but also personally in my every day life. I am a designer.

The Learning Experience

We interact with design on a daily basis – from a product we use, to a commercial on TV, a pop-up add while browsing the web, or maybe the way a parking lot is arranged, or how a road is designed that we travel on. Design is all around us. So you may ask, how is design valuable in education? As educators we are continuously working and interacting with curriculum, creating and/or modifying new or current lessons, creating positive classroom learning environments (both online and offline), and interacting with students on a daily basis. All this can be tied back to design either indirectly or directly.

Following a formal design process as outlined within the d.school bootcamp bootleg document where the focus is on five different modes in the process (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) provides a solid foundation and road map for educators to follow during their design journey. It isn’t a coincidence that the process begins with the empathize mode where an educator observes, engages, and immerses themselves with their users and it’s here that we can really learn and start to understand what our students experience. After all, it’s our students that will be interacting and engaging with what we create, they will be using our design as a teaching and learning resource, a tool so to speak. We have to be able to know and understand what they need, not what we think they need.

As we progress through the design thinking process modes, it’s important to keep an open mind and understand that we are identifying a problem with the goal of exploring and developing solutions to that problem all the while keeping our target audience at the forefront. Now, there will be successes and failures during the process but that’s part of learning. I look at each “failure” as an opportunity to learn and then I go back to the drawing board if need be. Just like with coding a website or a web page, nothing ever really works and functions correctly the first time so we find the errors, make the tweaks, and then test it again, that’s usually the same case with lessons or projects that we assign to our students within a course. One of the most important lessons that I learned as I progressed through the design process, is the value of feedback from those that are using and interacting with the product. I view a lesson, a project, a tutorial, a video, an infographic, etc. as a product for student use.

I have come to the realization that a design-based approach can be applied to any type of problem (for which you are searching for a solution) both inside and outside of the classroom as well as both personally and professionally in everyday life. In my professional career as an educator, I can easily implement a formal design process into each lesson or project that I create for my students. In fact if I didn’t, I feel that I would be doing my students a disservice. As I mentioned, it’s so important to know and understand the audience that you are designing for and to get their feedback and use that feedback to make modifications. I am continuously tweaking content every single semester within the courses that I teach based on student feedback. Not a single semester goes by that I’m not modifying a homework assignment, project, or creating an additional supplemental resource. In fact, as I’m writing this now, I realize that without being aware of it, I was implementing a design process of my own.

As I previously mentioned, the d.school’s design thinking process provides an excellent road map that we as educators can follow as we journey through learning about our users (students), defining a problem, developing creative solutions, prototyping our designs, gathering valuable feedback from our users (students) through testing, and then producing a final product that can serve as a valuable teaching and learning resource/tool for our students. Bottom line, don’t be afraid to fail, listen to those that are actually using and interacting with what you’ve designed, and then make the necessary adjustments. In my opinion, the design process is an ongoing process and one that is never ending…it’s a journey not a destination. I am a designer.

Problem Solving & Design Thinking in Life

Reflecting back from the beginning to the end of this course, I view problem solving and the importance of design thinking as something that is essential and that can be applied in both my personal and professional life. Progressing through this course, one of the greatest moments and a huge eye opener for me professionally, was during the empathy mode where I engaged in experience prototyping, character profiling, and requested honest feedback from my students through the use of a 10-question survey. I really began to understand my students at this point early on in the course and see them in a different light – I became more empathetic to their situations and challenges. I was challenged with identifying different types of issues that plagued my students and may inhibit their success. I learned quickly that what I thought was mostly related to my teaching style and how I had created and organized the content within my online classroom was not about me at all, it was about the students and what they needed and wanted. The focus quickly went from the teacher (me) to the student, which is where it should have been from the start. This doesn’t mean that the educator doesn’t fit into the equation at all, but instead of being the focal point, the educator is an active participant in the entire design thinking process just as are the students – both parties play significant roles in the process.

Another one of the greatest moments happened during the prototyping process where I received feedback from my students and had the opportunity to engage in an active learning session with one of my students. This experience served two purposes in my opinion, one was to bridge the relationship gap between the teacher and student and show that as an educator, I truly value the feedback and honest opinions of my students. The other purpose was to demonstrate the importance of collaboration and teamwork as both my student and I worked toward achieving a common goal and outcome. It’s opportunities and moments such as these where important “connections” are made and relationships are developed promoting a very positive learning environment and experience for everyone involved.

Following a design thinking process in the pursuit of problem solving whether it be in a classroom or everyday life, I believe can only enhance the experience and allow us to arrive at creative solutions in all that we do. I feel the design thinking process opens our minds to a different way of thinking that may not be apparent if a particular process wasn’t followed. The process allows us to understand our users, clearly and precisely define a particular problem, brainstorm, collaborate, and discover new ideas or tweak existing ideas, build creative solutions that allows for eliciting feedback and useful data from our users, and to develop a final product that both serves a specific purpose and solves a specific problem for our audience. This by no means that once a final solution has been achieved that the work is done. Design is an on going process. This course has reiterated the importance of user feedback and using that feedback to refine a solution to fulfill the needs and wants of whoever my audience is inside and outside of the classroom. I learned that I must continue to learn from and understand my users and be willing to adapt to change, failure is a learning opportunity, and above all…I am a designer. We are all designers.

References

Oberholster, Venita. (2106, February). [Round Circle, Design, Paint] [Image]. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/orange-round-circle-paint-brush-1210526/

Student Retention – Empathy Mode

Students: photo by StartupStockPhotosThe topic of student retention (student success) often comes up in conversation or as a topic of discussion during the online advisory committee meetings or faculty meetings that I attend, with an emphasis being on online courses. Why is this? Why does the conversation also circle back to online courses? Sure, student retention is important in traditional on campus courses as well, but in a non-traditional type of classroom environment with different classroom dynamics, may bring about a different set of obstacles for students to overcome which may contribute to lower retention in online courses. The focus will be on exploring ways to improve student retention in online courses and identifying the various obstacles that may inhibit success. I have chosen the online Introduction to Web Programming online course that I teach as the focal point.

In beginning to examine the issue of student retention, I engaged in the following empathetic techniques listed below in order to better understand my target audience – the students.

  • Experience prototyping
  • Character profiling
  • Student Survey
  • Research
    • Institutional Research and Planning (*MCC)
    • Discussion with the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning (*MCC)

Experience Prototyping

I registered for the UX501x Introduction to User Experience course from the University of Michigan through edX. I wanted to experience a different online course environment where I was not familiar with its layout. I wanted to try the “experience prototyping” empathy technique since it sparked my interest during this week’s reading. My focus (no pun intended) was on how a student with a low vision disability may interact with an online course and access its materials. I removed my reading glasses, which made things very blurry and difficult to see, and proceeded to navigate through the course (listed above) and its materials.

Some Observations:

  • It took me a great deal more time to move around the course and through the materials simply because I had to keep zooming in on different areas within the online classroom within the web browser (thankfully web browsers have built in zoom in/out options).
  • When I had to interact with my keyboard (zooming in/out) it took me a little more time to complete things. I can type without looking at the keyboard but when I have to input numbers and use special characters, I tend to look at the keyboard to be sure my fingers are on the correct keys.
  • I was able to view the course videos in full screen so I could easily see them without my glasses. I did notice that when viewing the video in full screen mode it fills your browser window (which it’s intended to do) but you have to use the browser’s back button to return to the course content – not easy to see without my glasses.
  • The discussion forums in the classroom were easy to use and familiar. Using the browser zoom in feature allowed me to easily participate and read other’s responses.
  • The handouts in the course were made available for download in PDF format which you can then use the magnifying feature in Adobe Reader to more easily view the content.

Character Profiling

I was able to receive some basic demographic information from the Institutional Research and Planning department under the staff section of the *MCC website. Based on the demographics and my personal interaction with my students, I created three different character profiles using Popplet: Online Student 1, 2, and 3. I included the following focal points in the character profiling from which I built upon:

  • Basics (employment status, age, gender, race, marital status, children, credit hours, major area of study, etc.).
  • The Journey (education costs, financial aid, GPA, education background, etc.)
  • Identification Factors (external conflicts, etc.)
  • Personality Traits (student/teacher interaction, quality of work, etc.)

If interested, click on each image to review the character profile.

Student Survey

In order to get direct feedback from the students currently taking my online course, I created a 10-question survey using SurveyMonkey and emailed the survey link to my students. In a short email, I explained to the students the purpose of the survey and thanked them for their participation. I asked questions of them in order to gain some insight on their familiarity with taking online courses, their success on setting up a connection to the web server (a course requirement and integral part of the course), what they felt was the most difficult activity the first week of class, and the usefulness of the lectures I provide within the course. I also wanted feedback regarding some of the ideas that I’m considering incorporating into the course: how-to videos, an online “meet and greet”, an on campus demonstration of setting up a web server connection, and a new way of conducting online discussions.

The online survey can be found here.

Research

I wanted to include information and demographics directly from the college so I began my research by contacting the Director of the CTL (Center for Teaching and Learning). I was directed to a list of documents from the Research and Planning department located on the *MCC website that included both college and student statistics along with basic student demographics and I also received some spreadsheet data via email as a starting point for discussion. In addition, I was provided with a contact at the college that works within the Research and Planning department that may be able to provide me with specific reports and data pertaining to the online courses that I teach – particularly the course associated with my problem of practice. I will be contacting the department to see what can be provided to me. In addition, I plan to review online case studies and articles pertaining to student retention in online courses (to be included in my final report).

Learning Outcomes (to date)

There are a few things that really stood out to me while engaging in the process of becoming empathetic and learning more about my target audience.

  • I recognized the importance of organization, navigation, and easily accessible content within an online classroom. This became very apparent to me during the experiencing prototyping session.
  • As I was reviewing the college/student demographics and creating the character profiles, I started to become one with each student character profile that I created. I began to see possible obstacles during their educational journey, their aspirations, and background information that may affect their success. I got “lost” in the experience.
  • Reviewing the survey responses to date, there were things that really surprised me and things that did not. A lot of responses alluded to the convenience of online courses and how they work well with their work/personal schedules. I had thought students were having difficulties with setting up a web server connection the first week of class but the survey responses suggest otherwise. I was also under the impression that the additional lecture material wasn’t being viewed, and again the responses indicate differently.
  • This the first time since I have been employed full-time at the college (7+ years), that I actually visited and reviewed the documents from the Institutional Research and Planning department. Actually, I never knew the documents even existed on the website.
  • I also had a very informative conversation with the CTL Director and gained valuable insight. One of the suggestions that was made was to decide on how to define “retention” as it relates to student success because it can be defined differently.

The empathy mode of the design thinking process is very powerful and an ideal place to begin my exploration into ways to improve student retention in online courses and identifying the various obstacles that may inhibit success.

*Macomb Community College – http://www.macomb.edu

References:

StartupStockPhotos. (2015, January). [Computer/Communication] [Image]. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/students-startup-start-up-notebooks-593323/

A Tale from Different Perspectives

Basketball on the court by PDPics

Note: Fictitious names were used in the following stories in order maintain anonymity.

A Teacher’s Perspective

As I stood there in the gym waiting to videotape the event, tears welled up in my eyes with happiness and pride as Albert (suited up in uniform) ran onto the basketball court with the rest of the team  when his name was announced at the last home boy’s basketball game of the season. The team gave him “high-fives” and welcomed him like he had played with them the entire season. This game was very special for many reasons. Prior to this last game, I had talked with one of Albert’s LINKS (who is on the 8th grade boys’ basketball team) that works with Albert during his Physical Education class, his paraprofessional, and my principal to arrange for Albert to shoot free throws during the last home game of the boy’s basketball season. We also talked to the referee prior to the game and asked him to call a foul on the other team so that Albert would have the opportunity to come into the game and shoot a free throw. The time came, I watched Albert walk up to the free throw line and take his first, second, third, and fourth shots, and on the fifth shot you heard the swish of the net as the ball passed through – he made it! The crowd cheered and stood to their feet! I watched with so much emotion and beamed with pride as the boy’s basketball team, many of which are my students, surrounded him and presented him with the game ball signed by each player. I have had many amazing moments in my teaching career but this one was special. I will remember it as the evening that my student Albert, who has autism, felt like part of a team doing what he loves to do – shoot free throws.

A Student’s Perspective

I’m not nervous at all, I’m very excited! I can feel a big smile on my face. I see a lot of people here – my Mom and Dad, and there is Ms. Jones (my PE teacher)! There are so many sounds around me right now. I hear basketballs dribbling, people talking, shoes squeaking on the court, and whistles blowing. It’s very warm in here. They called my name! What do I do? There’s Zack I see him at school, he plays basketball with me. He wants me to run out on the court with the team, wow! Everyone is giving me a “high-five”. I see Mary, she helps me in class and there is the lady that walks in the hallways at school all the time. So many people are here that I recognize. The lights are bright. The man in the funny uniform just blew his whistle, it was loud. They want me to come into the game and shoot a free throw. I have been practicing every day in class with Zack and Mary, I love shooting free throws! 1, 2, 3…let me have the ball again…4, and 5. I made it! So many people are clapping – it’s loud, the team is all around me – I’m so excited! I feel my body shaking. Wow, they are giving me a basketball and it has writing all over it. I’m going to hold it tight and never let it go. There is Ms. Jones again, she’s smiling at me. It’s warm in here.

My Thoughts…

Hearing, writing, and rewriting the stories above was a very interesting experience. It allowed me to sit, listen, and engage in the experience as my friend, a middle school Physical Education teacher, told me an amazing story about one of her autistic students and the idea she had to make him feel special for one night doing what he loved to do in class every day. There were numerous other people involved in organizing this special night that allowed the idea to come to fruition – students, paraprofessionals, the school principal, the referee, and the parents were all instrumental in making this happen.

The experience of hearing my friend tell this story was very emotional, in a good way. I could hear the excitement and pride in her voice and see the joy in her eyes as she told the story. The further she got into the story, the more details she shared not only about the event but about her experience working with the autistic kids in her class and how special they are. I found it a little difficult to express the context of the story (from the teacher’s perspective) in one paragraph because I felt there was so much that needed to be shared and expressed in order for the reader to really engage in the experience. I found that the hardest part of reframing the story and writing it from the student’s perspective, was trying to see and feel the experience as a person with autism. I called upon my friend’s expertise in the area to help me better understand and for a brief moment, walk in someone else’s shoes.

References:

PDPics. (2014, July). [Basketball, Court, Ball, Game] [Image]. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/basketball-court-ball-game-sport-390008/