Image courtesy of Steve Snodgrass

In 2010, the BBC produced a documentary series called The Genius of Design. I was taken with how design has changed over the last century and the influence it has had on so many areas of our lives. The other day, I heard a technology focused radio program which had an unusual guest considering his speciality. He is a woodworker who designs and crafts incredibly beautiful bespoke wood planers. He was in town to speak at a technology conference on the design process and how this can influence both form and function, no matter what the end product. While his target audience in this case was software and web designers, his message sparked some ideas for me in the area of curriculum and course design.

When I arrived at home, I did a little digging online and I stumbled on this ‘design manifesto’ by Stephen Hay. Stephen takes readers through the process of how to be more consistent and creative with their design work. Obviously, this is written for a different audience, that of web designers, but after reading this short document, I was intrigued at how much this parallels the design process in creating courses and programs for education. Stephen sets out five steps in the ‘design funnel’:

  1. Define values and goals: Ask the client what they want to have at the end of the process. He mentions asking for keywords and problems, but he says to write down whatever they mention.
  2. Discover moods and metaphors through association: Take the keywords and problems and start to make them more visual by connecting them with metaphors and visual elements.
  3. Generate ideas and define a concept: Brainstorm ideas and of how things may look. Use the metaphors and visual components to help you with the general concept for the end product.
  4. Create a visual language: Take the concept and start creating a ‘design language’ for it, using things such as imagery, colour, typography, form, and layout.
  5. “Design” it: put everything together into a final product.

While reading this, I tried to think how this could be applied to the course design process and if I was trying to make connections where there shouldn’t be. In the end, I took the five steps and worked them to fit the context in which I am working:

  1. Define values and goals: In order to understand how this works in the course design process, you need to define who the client is. If I am the teacher, it is primarily the student, although other stakeholders such as administration, government agencies, and parents also have to be considered. Doing a needs analysis with the students is the most obvious way to go about this, but after reading this, I was intrigued by what Stephen says about clients often offering “solutions to problems instead of simply stating their problems.” I can’t count the amount of times a student has told me they “want to speak better,” instead of saying “I have a problem with talking with shopkeepers,” or “I can’t think of the words to say when someone asks me a question.” This is also a problem with asking administrators what they feel they need. They offer suggestions like, “We need an IELTS preparation class,” instead of saying that students are struggling with the writing section of the IELTS examination. I am thinking of reworking how I do needs analyses with my students with a focus on keywords, possibly supplied with a list, and problems, maybe with the use of stem sentences or examples.
  2. Discover moods and metaphors through association: I really like this idea of visualizing the keywords. Goals and objectives in language learning can be obscure at times and can create problems when teachers and students have a different idea of what those targets look like. By creating a visual and then sharing it with the student, you can start to narrow the gap of what each of you think needs to be accomplished. If a student says they have a problem with formal English, such as in business English or EAP, take the word ‘formal’ and apply some images to it. You might find a video that demonstrates English being used in an international business meeting or you may find a short letter addressed to the media from a university announcing a new program or initiative. By using samples, it helps ground the idea using concrete examples. It may even be good to uses visuals such as pictures to describe how students feel about certain components such as grammar or writing. Turning it over to them to create the visual using the keywords they gave you helps you gain insight into how they feel about the learning process.
  3. Generate ideas and define a concept: Finding particular components in part two can help generate ideas on what can be done in the class to teach and learn those items. If the business meeting video sparks interest in the student, you can think about how that fits into the objectives for the overall course and start slotting those into the bigger picture. Since this is still the brainstorming session, write down everything and then sort through it later. What may seem crazy or irrelevant in the brainstorming section may lead to different, more sustainable ideas later on. Don’t just look at things from the language learning point of view, take a look at other areas of education and even beyond that to things such as software design and architecture. Everything must point back to the initial information given to you by the stakeholders.
  4. Create a visual language: Here is where the ‘rubber meets the road’ or the visual takes shape. In the course design component, this is where you start gathering materials to use in class. By finding what is needed for the class, or creating and adapting materials, this will help clarify and refine the creation of the curriculum. It may be that the story you find may be used to teach vocabulary or reading strategies. Don’t worry yet as this will come in the next step.
  5. “Design” it: Once you have collected or created what you need, it is time to put everything together into a cohesive unit, focused on the goals and objectives laid out from the start of this process. This will take time, but should be fairly clear now that the you have a clearer picture of what is required.

While reading this ‘manifesto’, I found a few quotes that are worth examining in the light of course design.

“Good design is always tailored to the message one wishes to communicate. If our design is more or less a copy of what others have designed, what are we communicating?”

If the medium is the message, what are we saying to our students through our course material and design?

“Creativity and inspiration can happen spontaneously, but it is possible to achieve these through a process, and not leave everything to chance.”

Being creative does not mean being random or waiting for inspiration. By gathering a great deal of information, we are armed and ready for when inspiration strikes. This also means understanding the theoretical underpinnings of language education so we are prepared to separate fact from fiction, good from bad in regards to language learning.

“Do look at what the competition is doing design-wise, but see this simply as an orientation exercise. note the things that work and the things that don’t. You will not be copying what the competition does. That would be design sameness.”

It is good to review what is out there in the area in which you are working, but don’t be swayed to copy what is already there. Think outside the box and be prepared to change things up, but not just for the sake of change.

“It can help to consider the opposite of every idea you get, or to place fake limits upon yourself.”

Create an environment for yourself in which you need to be creative. Maybe you put a limitation on how long you need to complete something. Perhaps you tell yourself to work in a different physical location once a week. It could be that try to rework a writing assignment as a listening task in order to see how thing would look. Put yourself in your student’s shoes to see how things look.

“This process is about design that communicates. Design that stands out. Design that will be considered more creative than most because it is based on ideas rather than design trends and cool techniques. This process starts at zero for every project. nothing is determined beforehand, and you’re free to create something unique to fit each specific project. Don’t be afraid of the thinking, the brainwork. As with anything, the more you do it, the better you’ll become.”

Don’t be swayed by every ‘cool’ trend or idea that comes along. Design is still required to meet the needs of the client, not the creator. It shouldn’t be about making yourself look good or something you enjoy unless it helps the students meet their goals and objectives. Education technology can be a valuable tool, but it can also be used to entertain rather than educate. Find what works and remember to keep it simple. If students spend more time working on figuring out how to work the tool or website, that is less time they will have to learn the content and grow. There is a growing trend to find the ‘best tool’ for the job, when the ‘best tool’ might be what is easiest to use, not the flashiest.

“Designers have their own bags-of-tricks as well. Good designers leave their bags unattended, or dispose of them altogether. You should do the same.”

Don’t be afraid to start from scratch. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut, doing the same thing over and over again. Stop. Look. Listen. Then start again.

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