The Democratization of Learning #sxswedu

Jess Knott LX Perspectives, LX Practice, Opinion

IMG_5340In preparation for our panel at SXSWedu, the panelists and I agreed to write a blog post about how we made the connection between UX and learning design. As I started thinking, I kept coming back to “why,” rather than “how.”

To me, LX means the democratization of learning. It means separating subject matter expertise from “knowing” what students need. It means asking students if things are working and quickly iterating if they are not. Here, I use the word “students” broadly, as we’re all students in the knowledge economy.

I had the fortune to leave the public sector and work for a private company for almost three years, at which time I high-tailed it back to academia. What I found was that I loved the company, and I loved the opportunities I had to work with and learn from the UX designers, but I didn’t feel like the work I was doing was making a positive impact to the bigger teaching and learning picture. It wasn’t even making a negative impact. I felt like it was making no impact at all.

If you’ve ever seen the movie A Beautiful Mind, you may remember the scene where John Nash stands in front of the wall covered in government code. He stares at it, and suddenly patterns begin to illuminate. Numbers jump out at him, and connections are made. That is what it was like for me when I returned to higher education after working with Agile software developers and embedded UX designers. As I looked around, patterns emerged. What if the UX methods I learned working outside the ivy tower could be applied within it?

I changed the way I thought about instructional design and faculty development. I worked with faculty to gather student feedback, act on it, then show students how their feedback had impacted the experience. I stopped saying “instructional design” as much as I said “learning design,” and worked to stop using “I” almost altogether, in favor of “we.” The research I did (including my dissertation) began to look more at how people understood things rather than how they were impacted by them. It became clear that if we could start to share understanding, we could more effectively create shared experiences. This paragraph contains a lot of “I,” but I want to be crystal clear that I was not alone. My department had been doing these things for years – only I had a better means of contextualizing what we did, and defining it for (and with) faculty and students. I was John Nash.

In June of 2015, I transitioned to management, and worked to incorporate design IMG_5523thinking and collaborative idea generation more formally into our processes. As a team, we looked at our processes, identified pain points, and defined what our role was. It went from “we do everything that comes in the door, even if it does not align exactly” to “we still do an awful lot, but we are better able to define scope and our role in it.” Post-It note expenditures increased, as did our shared understanding of how we work. It was not, and is not all roses by any stretch. We debate, and we sometimes disagree, but we no longer silo. To me, this is progress. We interview new team members as a team. We take time out to play and recharge with Legos, coloring books, and meetings where we just talk. The agenda is, literally, to talk. It’s an expensive hour when we do it, but the cost is nothing compared to what we learn from each other in that 60 minutes.

Are we always in agreement? Not by a long shot. Do we all think that everything we do is what we should be doing? No, not always. But we’re better able to understand the department, and our place in it. And, we’re willing to be change agents to the best of our abilities.