Learning interventions: centering on user needs as we customize learning experiences.

Written by Erin Huizenga

How would you feel if you knew every instructor or facilitator you would have at a new job or school would have the freedom to design the learning experience for you based on your needs?

What if colleagues or peers could also help shape these experiences for you along the way?

Traditionally, rubrics and syllabi and curricula are set and measured by a system that has to answer to shareholders, provosts, or parents who are data driven for the sake of their business, district, or service to learners. But design thinking provides a new process for us to put the learner at the center so that we can build the system around the learner’s needs and not the other way around.

We can now think of every point in life as an opportunity to design learner-centered moments for more understanding. Seth Godin calls it “snack learning,” like popcorn, as he illustrates the idea that learning can happen anywhere now from any source in our world today and it’s up to the learner to form a point-of-view about its relevance. He says, “I don't think learning is defined by a building or a certificate. It's defined by a posture, a mindset and actions taken.”

Here are a few examples from our studio’s recent collaborations that represent what the Stanford d.School calls a bias to action and clarity. We’ve built new learning interventions (as I like to call them) by giving learners an active voice in helping us define the problem in order to identify the most well-designed solutions:

Entrepreneur as learner.

We are working with a start-up accelerator to develop global curriculum for entrepreneurs. We tested our first topic area with graduate students in an entrepreneurship course at the local university. In our empathy interviews, we learned that people really enjoyed some of the small primers and side notes we had developed to compliment the main topic and that we should create more of them. These help founders to feel more independent and able to choose their speed and depth of learning. And, we were able to test how learners would interact and fill in the worksheets in order to make them more interactive and helpful to use. Without testing the curriculum, we are only as good as how we personally perceive a solution to how to build the topics. Testing at each stage creates a kind of insurance on how we are building each topic.

Food stamps participant as learner.

While recently doing some research to help people learn how to apply for and maintain government assistance programs, we found that program participants would welcome a text from the county to let them know their status for obtaining food stamps. This represents a small design intervention that we would have missed had it not been for our one-on-one research and call center observational research. Without user research, we may have assumed we needed to build an entirely new call center service to solve the problem, when in reality texting would do the trick and would actually be a more favorable solution for everyone.

Public school teacher as learner.

We worked with the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research last year to find ways to make their academic research more actionable within Chicago Public Schools. Through our empathy work, we realized that there was a big opportunity to design a way for teachers to reflect on their performance and share learnings with their peers within the district as well as with other teachers in similar districts across the country. This reflection tool has the opportunity to sit outside the normal performance review system within their school that’s traditionally tied to performance metrics and teacher salary increases. Without our research, we may have assumed that any design solution would have been focused on the students when really a better design was needed for teacher interaction and growth.

In our studio we are empowering educators and learning officers to do this kind of work everyday. I can’t think of a better thing in the world to do than to help people to define their own version of success by making ways for learners to build, shape, and validate their curiosities. How might you gain more understanding about what your learners want? How might you streamline your material for the sake of your learners? We’re here to help.