All views and opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent TU Dublin in any way.

Entries in Higher Education (4)


Design thinking and creative intelligence

If we are to take Bruce Nussbaum’s word for it the role of ‘design thinking’ in business development and innovation has been in decline since 2011 when he called it a ‘failed experiment’. Nevertheless, I suspect that its value as a methodology for re-framing ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber 1973) has yet to be fully realised. Undoubtedly, there remains considerable confusion around the notion of design thinking. For example, 'Designing Growth', a discussion hosted by Dublin City Council in 2013 to explore how design could be harnessed to drive economic growth in Ireland revealed competing understandings of the role of design in design thinking.

The international panel of experts held divergent opinions – as did the audience, largely made up of members of the design community. The event was intended as 'a discussion on ways to develop new and better public services, communication platforms, education and business models through design' but had difficulty getting beyond a debate on the value of design itself, never mind design thinking. This was a disappointing, if not altogether surprising, outcome: all the more so due to the missed opportunity to convince John Moran (the panel’s deliberately selected sceptic and influentially positioned Secretary General at the Department of Finance) and other policy makers of the value in utilising alternative methodologies to plan the rebuilding of the national economy following its collapse in the recent recession.

The confusion between ‘design thinking’ and ‘designing’ in evidence at the event is not unusual. From an academic perspective Lucy Kimbell writing in 2011 suggests that:

Even on a cursory inspection, just what design thinking is supposed to be is not well understood, either by the public or those who claim to practise it.

In 2007 Nussbaum was a proponent of the role of designers:

My own current thinking is that designers must play a critical role in the creation of this new field of design thinking. The whole core culture of design is essential to design thinking.

Later that year Nussbaum's thinking has developed to the point where he is recommending that CEOs:

have to understand design thinking – using the process to manage the company. That is what [Steve] Jobs does – he isn't a trained designer but he gets it. He focuses on what is important these days. And it took him a while to get these skills. Remember all those mistakes along the way?'

This understanding of design thinking as an approach to problem framing and problem solving – derived from the design process – emerged from business schools. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, interviewed by David Dunne in 2006 says 'today’s business people don’t need to understand designers better, they need to become designers.' Martin had gained an insight into the design process from encounters with a small design firm in Toronto and a later involvement with IDEO. He was fascinated by the way designers approached problem solving by accepting constraints and ‘creating something that looks great and sells’. He also recognised that the same approach applied in business:

As I watched it, I saw that this is what great business leaders do. They enter some kind of constrained environment where they want to do something that is near impossible. They have to figure it out by thinking differently from anybody else. The best of what I see in the best business people is the same as what I see in designers at their best.

Kimbell cites Martin, from the Design of Business (2009) describing design thinking as having:

something important to offer managers, enabling them to shift from choosing between alternatives to helping them generate entirely new concepts.

Designer and writer Aiden Kenny (Notes and Thoughts from the 'Designing Growth' Event 2013) proposes that it may lie in ‘collaborations between business strategists and strategically-minded designers’. This all suggests a particular application for design thinking as a methodology for re-framing problems that society is having great difficulty addressing. But, just as it appears there may be a consensus developing Nussbaum appears to change his mind. In 2011 he writes that:

The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on to another conceptual framework: Creative Intelligence, or CQ.

A cynical response might be that his conversion is simply a strategy to support his new book, Creative Intelligence (2013). But, in fact, he attributes it to the failure of CEOs to understand and implement design thinking correctly and opportunistic designers misusing it to increase business. He reports a conversation with IDEO’s Tim Brown and quotes his analysis:

Design consultancies that promoted Design Thinking were, in effect, hoping that a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change. From the beginning, the process of Design Thinking was a scaffolding for the real deliverable: creativity. But in order to appeal to the business culture of process, it was denuded of the mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process.

The ability to live with mess, with uncertainty, and with the looping circularity of creativity is something that John Cleese (The Origin of Creativity 2009) talks about also. He acknowledges the instinctive urge to move from uncertainty to decision and argues that it limits creativity. The longer one is willing to live with the discomfort and continue exploring solutions the better the ultimate result.

It seems that some of Nussbaum’s motivation in describing creative intelligence is to move away from the preconceptions he believes have limited the potential he, and others, saw in design thinking. He recognises that the wicked problems have not gone away and they require attention – as a matter of urgency. By changing the context in which they are addressed participation in the search for solutions is opened up to everyone. No single profession, design included, can claim ownership of the creative process so perhaps the new terminology will support the framing of problems in new ways that lead to the development original solutions.


Is the future online? 

Earlier this week the online education provider Hibernia College launched a range of new undergraduate programmes in creative computing and business. This is a significant move for a college that has made its name in teacher training and has become the leading provider of primary teachers in the country. When it started some ten years ago it was in the face of considerable opposition from the established colleges and a general scepticism about the likelihood of success for a private fee paying school. The Irish Times suggests the latest launch:

will test the growing market for private third level education in the Republic.

More significantly, I believe, it will test the market for online education. There is nothing particularly new in distance education but it has never had a particularly high profile here. Oscail, the DCU distance education programme, has been offering degrees since 1982. The Open Universitiy also has a base here and many other higher education institutions have some form of distance, remote or outreach offerings. More recently we have seen the rise of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) with proprietary systems such as Moodle or Blackboard and the use of platforms such as Second Life. Until the arrival of Hibernia uptake by students has been modest. Nevertheless, a survey of five higher education institutions in 2008 suggests that students don't believe that lecturers make good enough use of their VLEs.

Closer examination of what precisely is being described by terms like online, distance, remote, blended and elearning is important. For example, the Hibernia, Oscail and Open University offerings are exclusively by distance. They are not based around a campus and delivery is by correspondence and over the internet. Typically, however, there is a programme of tutorial support at study centres. In addition, live online tutorials via the web are becoming a feature of this provision.

But much of what is described as online learning, or elearning, is designed to supplement traditional delivery. Whether it is simply making lecture notes and PowerPoint slides available online or moderating online discussions outside normal class time, allowing students to review recorded lectures or referencing some of the excellent material already available on sites such as You Tube, Vimeo or TED. Clearly the intention is not to replace traditional delivery.

Bigger claims have been made by some. Last month I wrote about the MIT and Harvard Edx partnership which issued 7,000 online students with certificates recently. The Australian online academic publication The Conversation recently posted an article titled Virtual campus: online universities are the future of higher education. The discussion comments following the article are worth reading to get a sense of the diverse opinions held by academics. Many still mistrust the impact of technology on education.

My own direct experience of using distance and remote strategies on DIT's Visual Art degree delivered in Sherkin Island off the west coast and delivering the module Virtual Environments: Is one life enough? lead me to believe that one of the principal benefits of harnessing technology is the widening of educational opportunity. Those once isolated from participating, whether through economic, geographic, political or personal circumstances, can now access education—should we wish to provide it in this format.

So, back to Hibernia's success over the last ten years. It seems to indicate a very definite market for private higher education—a message unlikely to be lost on the Minister for Education and Skills who is determined to generate additional income streams. It also appears to identify a demand for flexible delivery—something we constantly talk about in higher education circles and a topic to which I will return.

There is a final significant element to the announcement—the decision by Hibernia College to seek validation from the University of London. I don't know the reason for external validation nor whether Irish institutions were considered or approached. Either way, it highlights the importance of reputation in higher education. Not only institutional reputation but national reputation. We have always prided ourselves on the calibre of the Irish educational system: in fact we have developed a brand Education in Ireland that is managed by Enterprise Ireland (meaning the brand is aimed at the export market). Brands need to be nurtured and protected. No doubt the new Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority is watching with interest.


What might disruptive education look like?

I have been listening to Horace Dediu's analysis of Apple's success since Aiden Kenny introduced me to The Critical Path podcast last year. His theory on competition through disruptive technologies is particularly interesting. Based on the writing of his former professor at Harvard, Clay Christensen, it proposes that companies like Apple achieve success by disrupting the existing market. In The Inovator's Solution Christensen describes how major industry leaders can be overtaken by smaller players applying disruptive technologies rather than simply making better products or services. They do this by analysing 'The Job to be Done' and finding a way to do this job that people want done rather than merely developing new products. So, for instance, Apple realised that many of us need full-time assistants to help us organise our lives … and invented the iPhone to do the job.

Speaking at Mobilism 2012 in May Dediu describes this process of asymmetric competition as …

finding new jobs to be done because you are studying the needs of the user not the needs of the market.

But he also explains how difficult it is for established organisations to behave disruptively. Their very DNA conspires to keep them doing the same thing and kills off any attempt at innovation. For instance, how does an organisation make the strategic decision to transfer resources from a successful product line that is delivering profits today to a new disruptive technology? But the right strategy is often to destroy value because doing so now is better than waiting for it to be destroyed later.

Now, I think it is necessary for those of us in Higher Eductation to consider what a disruptive intervention in the the sector might look like. Christensen addressed this in The Innovative University which I discussed this in my last post Why Pay for Education? At the moment I am merely attempting to frame the right questions rather than expecting to find immediate answers. But, it seems to me that in the changing and dynamic world we now inhabit where technologies change completely during a student's four years on a degree programme we must reconsider the job to be done by education. What is the Job to be Done for students, for industry and the professions, for nations and for the global economy of which we are so much a part?


Why pay for education? 

In the autumn Harvard and MIT expect to welcome 500,000 new students who will take courses delivered on their newly launched edX plantform. Of even greater interest is the fact that the courses will be available free to anybody with a computer and internet connection – no admission requirements either.

Stanford, Princeton and other universities in the US are also offering courses online. Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig deliver an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence to 160,000 students in over 190 countries. This is offered free also.

So, what's the catch? Well, other than the fact that students don't earn credits or receive a university certificate, there doesn't appear to be one. The principle appears to be that knowledge for its own sake should be freely available to all who seek it. If the universities continue to provide this knowledge without charging then the conclusion must be that the fee being paid by traditional students is for their parchment – and the value it carries in the employment market.

There is a significant philosophical principle underlying this development. In effect, it appears to decommodify education while acknowledging the cachet of reputation. For example, being a graduate of Harvard opens doors that would otherwise remain firmly shut. Thus it seems reasonable that those who can afford to join the club should have to pay for the privilege while those who are simply interested in becoming knowledable are free to do so availing of what is presumed to be the best teaching in the world. There is something of the Age of Enlightenment about it with gentlemen amateur scholars pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

But, is it really as simple as that? Will the online experiment remain free? Is the demand sustainable? Will fee-paying students continue to value attendance on campus? 

Thrun suggests that in fifty years the world will have only ten institutions delivering higher education. At the current rate of take up on his module that seems a reasonable prediction but it would put education, the development of society and the discovery of new knowledge in the hands of a very few – giving them unprecedented power and a means of control never envisaged before. Nevertheless, it is a very real possibility. Harvard Professor Clay Christensen (The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out) argues that the standard model of university education in the US …

… has become unsustainable. To avoid disruption, institutions of higher education must develop strategies that transcend imitation. They must also master the disruptive technology of online learning and make other innovations.

He goes on to remind us that …

… the job that students and policymakers need done is the bestowal of the insights and skills necessary not just to make a living but to make the most of life.

 How do online courses address the latter part of the job? How, indeed, do for profit institutions address it? These questions are set to become increasingly important in Ireland as the Government develop their National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030.