What if the best way to make decisions about education technology starts off with not thinking about technology at all? This is the approach the Fuse Architect project took as they began their work this past spring. Rather than jumping into product selection, Fuse Architect participants spent the first phase thinking much more broadly. Using a design thinking process developed by IDEO, schools envisioned the ideal student experience they wanted to create in their schools and considered what it would take to make that experience a reality. The process involved prep work with each school individually that culminated in a day-long design exercise – also known as Design Day – that brought together teams of educators and students from each school.
Designing for the Student Experience
Alongside design thinking experts at IDEO, Highlander conducted school visits in early March in advance of the upcoming “Design Day” workshop. During these school visits, Highlander and IDEO asked each of the school design teams, consisting of students, teachers, and administrators, to articulate the design challenge they wanted to address through Fuse Architect. In addition to articulating their design challenges, Highlander and IDEO asked all school design team members to immerse themselves in their school’s student experience by shadowing students in their school prior to Design Day. This helped them understand what experiences students were currently having in their school, and to consider what improved experiences the design team would like students to have. Teams then considered how to design their school in order to produce those experiences.
With design challenges articulated and aligned to fresh perspectives of the student experience, school design teams were finally ready to participate in the official “Design Day” workshop. The goals of the day included:
- Articulate the design challenge and why the school is addressing it
- Think through how to engage more students during the design process
- Design a roadmap – Pinpoint the first step and the steps in between achieving your design challenge
Designing with Students
During Design Day, school design teams gathered with student teams to conduct design thinking activities like storytelling, prototyping, and brainstorming. In parallel tracks supported by experts from IDEO, adult and student teams brainstormed their school needs regarding the design challenge they had chosen and considered the perspectives of the users and stakeholders in their schools. Students worked both together and separately from their teachers and administrators to address various design problems.
In both rooms, there was an intense desire to re-design teaching and learning structures to authentically include student voice and develop student-centered learning processes. At the start of Design Day, schools tended toward thinking about what the students wanted from the teacher and administrator perspective. IDEO and Highlander pushed the teams’ thinking to think from the student perspective. As some students mentioned in their focus groups, the adults on their design teams tended to have an idealistic view of students and so the students’ true needs were oftentimes not in the design plan. In their own focus groups, teachers across schools noted the persistent refocusing IDEO facilitators provided in their questioning to truly challenge their thinking around student-centered design plans.
Design First, Technology Second
With Design Day behind them and their initial plans in place, Highlander Institute staff met with schools an additional three to five times throughout the spring to flesh out details of design plans. Schools then met with Highlander Institute to conduct planning sessions with community partners. Within the Fuse Architect project, community partners are local organizations that help both teachers and students connect to the community, expand their learning outside the school building, and develop student ownership. By engaging community partners right away in Phase 1, there was an early opportunity to plan around and align each of the school’s design plan goals and tech stack priorities with the community partner’s capacity. Together, the designs and community partners will serve as critical guides in the next phase of the project, which will involve searching out education technology products that can help make the vision developed in the design phase a reality. A member of one of the school’s design teams mentioned, “At first, we thought this project was focused on technology, but this process has taught us that we need to start with design thinking to understand our users’ needs before we can make any decisions regarding technology.”
Fuse Architect still has a long way to go, but participants are already talking about the value of approaching their education technology decisions by establishing a design first and looking for tools and resources to serve that vision. When that design is rooted in a vision of the ideal student experience, the hope is that resulting decisions will be better able to support student-centered learning.