I discovered through this research process was that the primary need of my students lay in how the pandemic and primarily online course delivery had impacted student attention and ability in their return to in-person class.
I read in the summer of 2021, as I planned my “Writing 275S - Communications in a Digital Age” class, Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. Norman’s 2013 book describes the philosophical and practical considerations that underlie (or at least ought to underlie) the objects that we encounter every day. For Norman, frustrating experiences with difficult shelving doors or opaque internet-of-things interfaces in the home reveal a lack a consideration for the user – the human – at the heart of the countless interactions with technology that now structure our day-to-day lives. I pondered whether the design thinking principles that Norman articulates might be applied to course design and classroom experience.
Norman defines human-centred design as “the process that ensures that the designs match the needs and capabilities of the people for whom they are intended,” and further describes it as “starting with a good understanding of people and the needs that the design is intended to meet.” The stakes of good design are such that the interaction creates lasting fond impressions of the interaction, that it is remembered as “positive,” instead of “frustrating or confusing.” While Norman writes with the design of objects and systems in mind, it occurred to me these principles could also help design classroom experiences that leave lasting positive impressions.
My first point of inspiration for taking a pedagogical approach that centres the “needs and capabilities” of students was in Dr. Robyn Wiegman’s design for graduate seminars, which I took in the first years of my doctorate. For her seminars’ major final assignments, Dr. Wiegman provided students with the flexibility to choose the form that was most useful for students.
In my own experiences adopting this method, I have found that allowing students this flexibility engages students’ attentions, motivates them to provide their best work, and allows students to showcase mastery and skills that other forms of assessment may not capture. A student who was shy in class, for example, revealed herself to be a confident communicator through a series of podcast episodes that she directed and recorded.
I considered while designing Writing 275S how this flexibility and adaptation might be further developed and incorporated into course design. For Norman, the all-important understanding of the “needs and capabilities” of the user “comes about primarily through observation.” The difficulty, of course, is in designing a course that meets students’ needs and capabilities without first having direct experience with these students. To this extent, I planned three ways to approach this problem.
First, while I had never had any of these students before, I do have experience teaching other students, many from similar backgrounds and with similar majors, and I have very recent experience with being a student. Second, I designed the syllabus with a degree of flexibility in the course material, so that as I gained a better handle on student interests, skills, and needs, I could re-order or re-compose the course content to meet them where they are with more consistency. Lastly, I also planned a course survey at the beginning of class, as well as one-on-one meetings with students, to gain familiarity quicker with each of them, and to learn more the unique perspectives and needs that they each brought to the class. I hoped that these approaches, as well as the natural rapport and familiarity that develops between students and between the students and me as our semester progresses, would provide me with better approximations of the unique “needs and capabilities” of my students.
As the school year started and as I started to teach the class, I discovered through this research process was that the primary need of my students lay in how the pandemic and primarily online course delivery had impacted student attention and ability in their return to in-person class. While my students were all very capable in completing assigned readings, participating in class discussion, and engaging with my short lectures, some students reported that the pandemic had drained their ability consistently to pay the quality and quantity of attention that the discussion-based format demanded. To this end, with the help of Denise Comer, a dedicated and experienced professor, I devised different class formats to help students practice different modes of learning and engagement.
Due to the mental toll that my students reported, we focused on physical and embodied modes of learning. And since my class was themed around climate change and communication, I planned for us to meet at the Duke Campus Farm, where Saskia Cornes, the Program Director there, led us through a history of the farm and of the land that we live on. My students enjoyed the experience so much that they asked for us to return, and we planned a second session where we focused on farm work tasks.
Thus, as we went through the semester, I continued to refine, reiterate, and practice observation as a central principle to designing positive experiences. The natural role and relational work that instructors inhabit goes some way toward facilitating these practices, and I look forward to considering further how user-centered design can improve student experiences.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joseph Ren's dissertation, "The Ends of the World-System: Science Fiction During Periods of Hegemonic Collapse," compares post-1973 US science fiction with late Victorian British science fiction to more fully comprehend the conditions of the present.