Design Thinking in Education

Image Courtesy of  Sean MacEntee

Image Courtesy of Sean MacEntee

The role of the university has been questioned in the face of disruptive technologies such as massive online open course (MOOC) technologies and the rising cost of university tuition.  Such external forces will no doubt have a long term impact on the nature of course delivery and enrollment numbers across all universities. As such, the issue of the “student experience” has become critical to the long-term success of any university course. If content, the argument goes, is the sole benchmark for the educational experience, then universities will inevitably be wiped out by MOOCs.

It is within context described above that we are seeing universities embrace the concept of design thinking. Design thinking is collaborative, it is physical and, it is social. It goes against the traditional lecture model that MOOCs try so hard to replicate.  Collaboration, inclusivity, reflection, peer review and trust are all hallmarks of a great student experience, but they are also hallmarks of design thinking. Design thinking is discipline agnostic, and can provide benefits to students and staff alike by creating solutions to real problems. It is however, overhyped and overextended and is being offered as a panacea to every organisational malaise from falling university numbers to declining profits.

This is not to underplay or diminish the role of design thinking. I am a strong advocate of the technique. However, context is important – and context in case of design thinking is empathy. Empathy is about understanding the user and what the user requires. The most important element of design thinking, in my mind, is that it challenges widely held beliefs. It provides us with an alternative means of arriving at the “truth”. I think one of the key benefits of any university degree should be one’s ability to question assumptions and critically analyse the past - analytical thinking. However, intuitive thinking is sometimes jettisoned at its expense. Roger Martin in his book “The Design of Business” describes how companies often protect themselves from the randomness of intuitive thinking. Martin argues that such thinking often hampers the creation of new knowledge. A University, or any educational system, should not simply represent a means of recycling old knowledge (though knowledge dissemination is an important function). Education should also provide students with the tools and skills to create new knowledge and it is here that design thinking excels. 

So design thinking is not a silver bullet, but it can inspire students and businesses alike to challenge assumptions and bring a more human-centered approach to the fore. Over the next few years you will see many more universities embracing the design thinking concept both as sales tool (in the face of the rising threat from MOOCs) and a means of enhancing the student experience.