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Think big: Think impact

December 28, 2009

One of the first things you do, when designing a learning concept, is determining your target group. Followed by asking: What’s the objective of the course?

Most fellow course developers and other designers would agree with me on this. It’s the principle of designing any new product. But not Tim Brown. The CEO of IDEO has another take: after identifying the audience, he says, we forget to ask the right questions:

  1. What is the need of my target group?
  2. What do I want to provide my target group?

Cross-disciplines design

“Design is more than just creating an attractive shell. Design is about creating a bigger impact”, says Brown in one of his TED Talks

Though the theory unfolded in the video talk is generally directed at industrial designers, I find it to be quite cross-disciplines.

Brown labels his theory Design Thinking. An outlook he links to Roger Martin’s theory of Integrative thinking: the ability to take opposing ideas and constraints and build on them to create insightful solutions.

Design Thinking: the basics

Like I said, Design Thinking is cross-disciplines and I find it also applies to designing new learning concepts. Here’s my personal outline of the basics:

#1 – Human centred vs Product centred. Design is human centred. A very strong starting point. In one of my last projects I advocated designing a learner centred framework. Despite the fact that it was at odds with the client’s practice.

They were accustomed to creating product centred information and thought this applicable to the eLearning course we were developing. Instead of gently nudging the client herein, the project manager went along with a marketing angle.

Although it was the commercially correct thing to do, I still believe it was wrong. A product based approach concentrates on selling a product and ignores the learner’s needs. The message here is not a good one. You’re shoving your ideas down the learner’s throat. And without a doubt; it will backfire.

#2 – Divergent vs Convergent. Brown states, “When designing we default to our convergent approach where we make the best choice out of available alternatives.”

A divergent approach tackles the learning problem differently. It crosses all existing boundaries and explores as much alternative solutions as possible. Not constrained by any self-editing, it uses ideas as building blocks. We only eliminate after we’ve met the learner’s needs and our solution is feasible both business and technology wise.

#3 – Prototyping vs Fine-tuning. Brown sees prototyping as “Learning by making”. According to him, prototyping speeds up the process of innovation.

Fast prototyping scares me a bit as it’s not my nature. I tend to ‘Think and think and think again’, risking exhausting a concept. So I do see the possible advantages of quickly putting an idea out there instead of endlessly fine-tuning it.

As Brown explains, “Prototyping is the vehicle to progress”. It allows you to explore the weaknesses and strengths of a product. No model is ever perfect. Fast prototyping gives you the opportunity to better it.

#4 – Participation vs Consumption. In a world submerged in mass production, Brown urges to create participative designs opposed to consumptive ones.

I fully believe in active learning that engages all the learner’s senses: visually, interactively and conceptually. When we succeed in creating learning that dazzles the eyes and tingles the mind, we succeed in creating an environment that conduces learning and retains knowledge.

Ask the right questions

If when designing learning concepts we start by asking the right questions, as Brown puts it, we’ll naturally take on an expansive approach to solving learning problems.

I like that. I believe in focussing on creating integrative substantial systems, rather than small expendable nothings. Such a design approach means creating a learning solution that’s learner centred, innovative and overall participatory.

Paraphrasing Brown, “Ask the right questions, think big. Balance the learner’s need with product feasibility and commercial viability and you’ll design impactive learning.”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert K. Walker permalink
    January 8, 2010 09:37

    Dear Evita,

    Here’s my dream (I read your Jan. 4 posting): people everywhere communicating, striving to make the world a better place, without worrying about being pigeon-holed because of some set of personal characteristics.

    Brazil is a paradox. On the one hand, (almost) everybody is mixed, so you don’t have the rigid white vs. non-white pigeonholes that have been the bane of the English and Germans and their descendants (I’m American, of English, Scotch and German background).

    On the other hand, Brazilian society is divided into two pigeonholes, fairly well defined by a set of color, class and residential factors. Youngsters are traditionally separated into “crianças” and “menores.” The Minor’s Code (passed in the twenties) basically applies to the latter; the Statute of the Child and Adolescent (1989) is often erroneously called the “Statute of the Minor,” by people used to the old way of thinking.

    So the human race is divided from childhood into two categories. One tends to have a lighter complexion. They will go to private elementary and secondary schools, then better quality public universities. Their families have health insurance, so they never have to use the “Unified Health System” (SUS). They live in better neighborhoods. There are more of them in the Southeast and South of the country.

    The other group (the “menores”) tend to have a darker complexion. They will go to public schools, then apply to poorer quality private institutions of higher education (if they are lucky and persistent). (Lately, it has been possible for some to get into certain public universities, through the quota system.) They will depend on the SUS, with its long waiting lines and often poor quality health services. They can be identified by the places they live. There are concentrated in the North and Northeast, and in the slums around the big cities. The juvenile detention centers and prisons are almost exclusively for this group.

    Some of the public schools have computers for student use, but they are often outdated and slow, and maybe broken. Most of the time they are locked up, for fear the kids might destroy them, or steal a mouse. The youth think they know more than the teachers anyway. Some have their own equipment; many of the others frequent a nearby lan house. Few subject matter teachers make use of the computer. Brazil’s performance on the PISA and other exams is poor. There’s a “mediocrity pact” in many classrooms: the teacher pretends to teach and the students pretend to learn.

    This is the background for my questioning about the chances of a marriage between one older partner (the public schools) and a youthful one (ITC).

    If we do choose to place our bets on that marriage, what pedagogy shall we promote? Constructivism is widely honored in the breech; I haven’t seen much of it in practice, at least virtually (which is not surprising, considering the context described above).

    Back to my dream: can we really get people (especially youth) of different backgrounds communicating for worthwhile purposes? One problem is the different jargons, which facilitate pigeonholing. Another is a lack of good quality materials and instructional design available in Portuguese. In this context, even very good teacher training might have limited chances for success. Better to invest in content and methodology, as well as “marketing”?



  2. Robert K. Walker permalink
    January 4, 2010 12:34

    Dear Evita,

    I am very much in agreement (see my book, Impacting Social Problems: Writing and Evaluating International Development Projects, available from

    The “institutional strengthening,” “institutional development” or “capacity development” approach so much in vogue (see “Capacity Building is Development”) assumes that the institution (read formal organization) we want to strengthen is the right one to get the job done, and is in fact capable of being adequately strengthened. (In my experience in Brazil, projects have often provided institutional bypassing, rather than much institutional strengthening). Disregard of impact (an important or lasting difference in people’s lives or the environment) is often justified by saying that it can only be obtained in the long term (long past the lifetime of the project), doing experimental research is not feasible or desirable, and attribution is impossible. But the consequence is that impacts are rarely pursued or assessed.

    One practical example I’m working on now: are the public schools necessarily the right instrument for ICT for education? (Or should we re-examine Illich and Goodman?) What are the needs and assets of today’s youth, and what is on the horizon? Would they feel that the public schools treat them poorly, the teachers don’t understand or use ICT (at least not with public school youth), and maybe that high school diploma isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway? Are they capable of going it alone (individually or in groups)? What kind of support would they need to benefit more from this?

    Note: obviously the response will vary from country to country.

    Robert (new member)

    New Year, New Thinking!


    • January 4, 2010 13:09

      Dear Robert,
      Thank you for your thoughts. And yes, let’s all really make it a New year – New thinking! And where better to start than with the example you’ve given.

      I think public schools are a very good place for ICT education. Provided we educate the teachers too. We really need a big turn around here. As some teacher are unfamiliar with ICT (though this is gradually changing — Thank God!), a coach-to-coach approach can well work in such situations. It’s something Russel Ackoff advocated — see Connected (Part 3). And I eagerly back him up on this.

      But I think if we start by simply putting the learner first instead of the project, we’ll go a long way.
      Greetings, Evita


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