Co-creating a Design Thinking Course
Purpose & Context
Students are often asked to share their feedback only at the end of a course which can be problematic as their input cannot be considered during the course and the instructor cannot respond to needs and wants of students. It can even become a formality that few students fulfill because why should you spend time sharing suggestions when these don’t really matter anymore?
When the only way that students are asked to contribute is through an end-of-course-survey, we operate under the assumption that all students are the same (they are sort of “average” or “standard” students), but we know that humans vary widely! Variability is the norm and, therefore, what might apply to an individual or a cohort in one year might be different in the following year. As a result, the data gathered through end-of-course surveys can be obsolete for the course in the next year. Sure, these results approximate a certain reality, but they do so in an evaluative manner that may not be constructive and useful for the next iteration of a course.
At ErasmusX, we believe in human-centered designs in education. When students feel that their voice matters, that their ideas are heard and valued and that they can contribute to the development of their own course and learning environment, they experience engagement and a sense of belonging. Together with Dirk Deichmann (Associate Professor at RSM), we wanted to grow that feeling that drives the release of high-quality agency through the new Design Thinking for Innovation Elective (Master on Management of Innovation).
We asked ourselves:
“What if we engaged students in co-creating elements of the course before it even started? What if they could create their own assessment model and their own digital learning environment?”
Using principles from Cook-Sather et al. (2014) on partnering with students, we designed a flexible structure to engage in this co-creation process with students. Soon, we invited students to join us in this adventure prior to the start of the course and on a voluntary basis. We held a short online session in Gather Town: a metaverse video chat platform that we wanted to use for the digital learning environment. We thought that one of the ways to amplify students’ voices and share ownership over the learning environment was to make use of innovative digital tools such as Gather Town, since it offers flexibility, stimulates creativity and supports us in equalizing the power between teachers and students through co-creation.
During that session, we used an intentionally inviting tone to inspire students to join us. We emphasized the fact that they often don’t have much of a say in the design of the course they enroll in, and that this opportunity was a way to change that. Therefore, we shared the broad purpose of the co-creation process, and the more logistical aspects in terms of workload and time commitment. Subsequently, nine students (representing 25% of the registered students) decided to get involved in the co-creation process.
During the co-creation sessions, we further divided into two main groups working on the following aspects:
- Designing assessment challenges, providing choices of questions to solve in a group.
- Designing process tools, for groups to develop agreements from the start and monitor their progress in terms of addressing their challenge through design thinking and working collaboratively in a team.
- Designing the digital environment for online and hybrid learning in Gather Town to be used for a weekly interactive session and for groups to use in a self-organized manner.
How did the co-creation process go ahead?
Co-creation Session 1 (online, 2 hours)
During the first session, we aimed at building a psychologically safe climate as a prerequisite for process quality. We also started to explore the motivations and interests of students, their potential concerns and we explored initial ideas.
During the session, we explored our shared purpose and values and got to know one another. We focused on listening to one another and suspending our tendency to converge too fast. We discovered the different motivations of each participant and negotiated the boundary of our influence by laying down the decisions we had control over and the ones that we didn’t (e.g., the course needed to be graded on a scale of 1–10 points).
It was also critical to be explicit about the level of participation we were hoping to reach as a group. Co-creation, when done authentically, is an emancipatory process that does not give students agency but releases it. We adapted the “Ladder of Participation” by Hart (1992) to our context and goals and determined that we were in the green zone, around step 6, in our endeavor with this co-creation project.
Students chose their focus: pedagogy or technology, and we spent some time in breakout groups using the Compass Points Thinking Routine, and established some of our needs, worries, drivers and next steps.
Subsequently, we regrouped and shared our findings, developed new questions and decided on asynchronous tasks to anticipate the next co-creation session.
The pedagogy group members thought about challenges that they would be interested in working on during the Design Thinking for Innovation course. They provided problems and contexts for using the design thinking process, based on personal interests.
The technology group members would start playing around in Gather Town, exploring templates and tutorials and beginning to imagine what the Design Thinking for Innovation online space could look like.
Co-creation Session 2 (online, 2 hours)
During this session, we narrowed down our focus a bit more and we divided into two groups to tackle different directions:
- The Technology group worked on a first concept of the Gather Town space by brainstorming, engaging in playful explorations and exploring examples.
- The Pedagogy group shared specific ideas of challenges for the course and came up with a range of topics. They then developed these initial ideas into more elaborated scenarios using the GRASPS approach (based on Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
Before closing, we all decided on our next steps with some asynchronous tasks to anticipate the next meeting which would be the last co-creation session.
Co-creation Session 3 (face-to-face, 2 hours)
During the last co-creation session, we were the most action-oriented and concrete as we developed prototypes of tools in the pedagogy group and refined the first version of the Gather Town space for the course. During the session, we created essential frameworks for the learning process.
The Pedagogy group was subdivided into two groups which worked on developing tools for content and process monitoring. As a result, we decided on a single-point rubric that would help students to self- and peer-assess the quality of their work during the course and they could also use this to provide specific feedback to other groups. We also created a protocol for group process monitoring which included a team contract as well as reflective tools that team members could choose from — therefore providing structure as well flexibility.
The Technology group refined their first version of the Gather Town space which included several zones for large and small group work as well as areas for socialization and informal learning.
In this quick prototyping session, everyone was engaged in creating mock-ups and versions within a short time, listening to each other, and responding by editing their work immediately. Subsequently, each group presented their deliverables to each other and, in doing so, received immediate feedback which provided them insights into how to refine their models.
Finally, the course started! So, how did it go?
Co-creation students present their outcomes to peers
Some of the students from the co-creation group presented their work back to the rest of their peers in class, taking ownership of their contributions and delivering it to the “real” users. For instance, the Gather Town space was shown during the first class. The students responded positively and expressed their excitement about using Gather Town.
A couple of other students from the co-creation group presented the single-point rubric and finally, in another session within Gather Town, another group of students demonstrated the group agreement template, and the group process tools, which had been added onto a shared and collaborative Miro board, for each group to be able to adopt and adapt.
Learning about Design Thinking by balancing structure and agency
In the first week of the course, the students were presented with a list of possible challenges to choose from, based on the work of the students involved in the co-creation sessions. They could also choose a ‘blank’ challenge and develop it themselves. This was a bridge between the students from the co-creation group and the rest of the class, since everyone was now together and empowered to exercise their agency.
Each week, the students attended one physical session that was either a workshop or an interactive session based on a specific Design Thinking phase, and one online session in Gather Town where they would start together in plenary and then breakout into their group space as well as engage in peer-learning by either receiving feedback or by giving feedback to another group, using the single-point rubric in Miro.
They also monitored their team process using one of the tools from the ones proposed by their co-creation peers.
Finally, we could observe that some of the students who had taken part in the co-creation process were particularly responsive to other student needs and proposed new ideas during the course. For example, there were many small iterations of the Gather Town space to make it more user-friendly, clear and engaging. The idea of adding a discussion forum on Canvas, with FAQs, was also implemented based on students’ input. Such contributions were always welcomed and showcased students’ engagement and agency.
Finally, the assessment of the course occurred via group presentations as well as a portfolio. For the latter to be student-centered, the teacher posted a first concept and invited students to share their ideas. The prototype was then improved with several iterations.
Reflection session (Face to face, 1 hour)
After the course: reflecting on experience
A couple of weeks after the course ended, all co-creation students were invited to join a reflective session to think about what had happened, what we learned and what we could do differently and better new time.
Some of the key insights from the feedback included the following:
Which led us to then focus on envisioning the future and helped us generate new ideas that could be implemented in the next iteration of such a course. For example, students mentioned that “it would be nice to continue the co-creation during the course”, which was interesting since the boundaries of what is and isn’t co-creation became blurry when the classroom follows a flexible structure. Some more specific inputs related to the idea that it would be helpful to pause and review the tools (that were co-created before the course) so that these can be improved for the students during the course. Finally, other ideas included the creation of authentic challenges to make an impact at EUR and, this is where we leave you with suspense since we are currently working on making this happen!
Final words and takeaways
Co-creating is not as simple as asking students what they think or want. It goes beyond consulting students. Real co-creation is a practice of emancipation whereby individuals don’t just choose tools or create together but also engage in conflicts, debate and transform their thinking in the process. As the sessions progress, everyone becomes aware of their values and explores tensions between thinking and doing.
If you are a student who would love to be involved in co-creation, you might want to share this post with teachers so they can explore this opportunity.
If you are a teacher, you might want to explore some of the processes illustrated in this case and contextualize them into your practice and perhaps in your future educational development.
And finally, a question for all readers, regardless of their role in education or in the world. What are you becoming aware of as you finish reading this article? What can you do to create an authentic and democratic co-creative process that honor people’s voice?
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Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hart, R. (1992). UNICEF, Children’s Participation: from Tokenism to Citizenship. Innocenti Essays. №4. Retrieved from: http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/childrens_participation.pdf
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.