Topic 4: Gestalt & empathy make a great team
This particular topic (Design for online & blended learning) is not only interesting to me as an academic learning designer, but also as a professional designer in relation to my 20 years experience within the field of design.
I often think that my background as a formal graphic designer has helped me to look at learning design opportunities in unique ways, much like one would do when using design thinking to problem-solve.
Throughout the ONL experience, I have always placed a great deal of importance on the design of content, particularly content that people should engage with in some form or manner. I think that I have always been passionate about the way that design can persuade or 'move people' if you will, and that passion led to my academic involvement in design as well. If I could persuade people using design, then imagine what one could do to persuade people using design and education? It seemed like a no-brainer!
Except, it wasn't!
Well, it depends how you view that in context actually. It is a no-brainer if you put the time and effort into understanding a few key elements. However, like all good things in life, it requires time and dedication to use effectively. This is why I chose the quote by Steve Jobs (above) - he had this deep understanding of people and how people merely want objects that fit seamlessly into their lives. This led me down a crazy design theory path that included Gestalt theory and Dieter Ramm's 10 principles of good design. However, I do think that they are relevant under the circumstances.
If we look at Apple (and how Jobs wanted people to perceive his products) we can see that Apple integrated into our lives easily. The tech works with little to no understanding of technology, and the products themselves have a timeless beauty in their simplicity as well. In fact, Apple prides themselves on NOT being different or appearing new! Yes, it's crazy to think that a company as forward-focused as Apple is not interested in appearing this way. In fact, their entire goal is simply:
“designing and prototyping and making” (Ive, 2012)
Before I digress into the depths of design theory and how Apple has exploited much of this theory to establish a renowned brand, we can rather stop at this point and focus on the goal of designing, prototyping and making. Herein lies the important factor that aligns perfectly to learning design - knowing the user so well that you are able to design for them, produce a prototype, test that prototype within the context of the user and then make the changes for the user before launching. THIS is a winning formula... and has a close link to the concept of UX design AKA User Experience design. I think that this is why I follow a methodology call LXD, or the Learner Experience Design methodology when developing online content for consumption. It is very important for me to consider the user (in this case, the student) as I develop a learning journey for them, and anticipate how they will fare along their journey.
The learning journey
This popped up often in our group discussions, my absolute need to get into the heads of the users/ students, and I know that some people might have found it peculiar but I do think that in our South African space, it becomes even more imperative to walk in the students' shoes than every before. Some reasons include, but are not limited to:
At the start of Covid, it felt like every student was faced with all of these issues, and when things began to normalise, we were then hit with loadshedding.
HOW ON EARTH DO WE DESIGN ONLINE OR BLENDED LEARNING WHEN WE ARE FACED WITH ALL OF THIS?
Well, South African educators proved that nothing is impossible when you have nothing to lose - yes, it was scary, but even I found myself recurriculating an entire design degree to roll out on 4 campuses within 3 weeks of lockdown commencing. Not only was I faced with horrific time constraints along with all the issues our students were dealing with, but added to that, we were not allowed to provide devices to our students either, and over a 3-month lockdown, we taught graphic design to 1st, 2nd and 3rd years using mainly cellphones.
Yes, this was scary.
Yes, it felt impossible, and Yes, there were tears ...
but if design thinking has taught us anything it is that sometimes you need to look at things from another angle or perspective. This is where the theory of Gestalt comes in.
"Gestalt theory emphasizes that the whole of anything is greater than its parts." (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022)
I have referred to gestalt before in our meetings but for me it shows that if we look at all things as a whole, and stop focusing on the small parts - we can focus on the whole (which is sometimes all we need to do). Instead of focusing on all the students not having computers or Adobe Photoshop, it was much easier to look at the big picture, and focus on their annual objectives/ outcomes that needed to be met. Instead of focusing on all the technology issues, it was much easier to focus on what could be achieved using a simple smartphone. In this way, we could focus on the big picture and schedule things differently without losing important learning, i.e. who says you need to work on 1 brief at a time? Who says you cannot research multiple briefs and then submit research for comment before even thinking about design?
Breaking down the old structures allowed us to see beyond the structure, and look to the foundations of the structures (which were actually more important!).
Accepting that outcomes could be achieved in new ways was freeing, and it allowed us to explore multiple opportunities when looking at mediums and tools as well.
It is one thing to focus on the learning and the platform of choice, but how can we assume students will adopt it and benefit from its use?
This is where learning design comes in (much like design). Learning Design is not about forcing content into spaces for the sake of filling these spaces ... it is about taking content and producing a seamless learning journey for the students that is not hard/ difficult to engage with, and allows the user (i.e. the student) to develop skills through this engagement.
One thing I truly love about learning design is that if a learning journey has been successfully created, the student will more often than not learn more than just the content - they will develop soft skills and other 21st century skills as a byproduct of this journey. These skills are almost more important than the content in many ways due to the embedded nature of these skills within the real world of work. (Stauffer, 2022)
One could write hours of content in relation to this but there is already more than enough information that can be accessed so I will rather look at seamless integration of online and blended classes (in general).
So is there a standard?
I am often asked if there is a tried and tested method for developing online/ blended content, and recently was asked by one of my own students as to whether I could provide a list of tools that SHOULD be used. I think that there is a misconception in that there are only a few options out there but this could not be further from the truth. Programs, tools, and learning opportunities are being thrown at us from all corners of the internet and it is up to us to design with empathy, i.e. to think about the people we are designing for and how they are going to interact with the tools, programs and information we provide. In that way it helps us to do what Apple suggests - ask questions, prototype, make changes and then make and release for consumption.
This does mean that there is no tried and trusted method - it requires you to learn about your students, UNDERSTAND them and the way they do things, and then to take that knowledge, along with your content, and to produce opportunities to engage with the content in their own preferred manner (or manner in which is is preferable for them to learn). Sounds easy? Only if you empathise with your users/ students, and realise that learning design is not about designing beautiful things, it is about designing USEFUL things :) [This also means staying up-to-date with research within the field!]
And so, I end this post with a quote that has inspired me my whole life as a designer (and now a learning designer):
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2022. Gestalt psychology. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/Gestalt-psychology [Accessed 31 May 2022].
Ive, J., 2012. Apple’s Jony Ive: Our competitors want to be different and appear new, but they are the wrong goals [Interview] (12 March 2012).
Stauffer, B., 2022. Applied Educational Systems. [Online] Available at: https://www.aeseducation.com/blog/what-are-21st-century-skills [Accessed 31 May 2022].