After class on Friday, I also went home with Inge and had a discussion with Inge, Jan (Inge’s colleague) and Suzanne (from The Hague) over dinner about the current state of the program, the European Project and moving forward with CSE. This discussion, and the things that I learned from it, will also make its way into the post.
There are also a lot of challenges with this program. Unlike education in the United States, there are a lot of programs that are intertwined with each other in Europe. There are many partners to discuss with and other colleges to agree with, so change and iteration is not as simple as at my high school or college.
Inge, Jan and the entire CSE team deserve a lot of credit for putting together this program. There is always work to be done, but they have created something very different from the courses currently being taught in Belgium. As Jan said, they haven’t even had an ‘egg-throwing’ day like Olin did back in the first year (the professors overwhelmed the students so much they had to have a carnival and egg toss – some say at the professors – to distress and start over).
This program exists in a huge network of European efforts. They are working with a European Project to get societal engineering and user centered design into the minds of engineers. But, I’ve learned that there are huge differences between the countries in Europe and their mindset towards education. One example is that in Sweden, everything learned needs to be measurable. This is the opposite perspective of a lot of the teamwork activities, because is it possible to quantify the amount of team-working skills acquired?
One other unique aspect of Europe is the huge effort to bring students from all around the continent to different countries. This is because Europe is trying to become a more united entity. This means that a lot of money goes into programs that take international students and there is a large focus on the students that are coming in from other countries in Europe. They even make specific classes and programs just for Erasmus students. Actually, the whole Erasmus program incentivizes students from all over Europe to study in another country (Erasmus is a within Europe exchange program. The students actually receive stipends to go to another country to study).
Since all of the students in CSE are post-graduates, they have had many years of education before this. That means that some may have many years of experience and habits to break or change in order to get user centered design into their head. Even as a college student constantly surrounded by it, understanding UCD was difficult for me. Now that I am here, I can experience what they are doing and see the perspective on it.
I saw this particularly in one of the students who has an IT background. When he was talking about the product he is designing, he focused on the features. If you are in IT, most of the things you talk about are features, so it makes sense why his brain would go there. But instead of features, he needed to talk about user needs, values and requirements – which can be both technical and soft.
This also means they are taking the course for different reasons. For example, I talked to Sonia, a student who has 20 years of experience as a consultant for strategy and analytics. She is taking the course to get back into the societal realm and do community service work. She doesn’t necessarily need the lectures and is much more excited about the field work and the guest speakers over the actual help. When I asked her if she is getting enough guidance, she laughed and said I don’t need guidance. She is also the student who most understands the assignment and the design process, even though she isn’t an engineer. So, her perspective on taking the course is quite different from the other students, some who need very direct help with the design process. One question that needs to be addressed is how do we make sure that each student gets what they individually need out of this course while teaching a specific curriculum.
One other thing that surprised me is that CSE gets far more into the business aspects than I expected. The focus of the course is both sociatal business knowledge as well as design knowledge. I think one of the big challenges with CSE will be making the distinction between the two. Of course what you design using UCD should be marketable and something that would be good for a business, but when designing it, it is important to keep the business aspects out of mind in order to have a freely flowing brainstorming. The challenge of teaching UCD and business in the context of a project will be a difficult one.
But, by being so closely intertwined with a client, it can make the design process more difficult to teach. Since the students face a real-world problem, there are many other pressures than the design process that they must deal with. For one, it is easy to get bogged down in details like technological capabilities (of your own or the current state of the world), economic limits and social boundaries. We naturally think in a sphere of relativity, which is good in some senses, but limits creativity when designing. To design something creative, new and impactful, you need to be able to thing out of the box. The students also get pressure from the people you are working with who are not related to the class. This eliminates the freedom and ability of the student to do the design process. Since the organization they are working with has their own clients and agendas, they can influence what you are doing without UCD in mind. Also, they might have more power than you do, so you won’t be able to follow your path because they have their own mission. Finally, there is more importance to the project, which makes failure and iteration much more difficult, especially because others are reliant on them. This encourages safe ideas and to push forward with ideas even if it is discovered that it isn’t the best. Although it is great experience, and that is what the real world is like, I think these pressures take away from the individual learning opportunities. You don’t have the ability to follow the design process in the proper manner.
To add to this, some of the students had problems identifying and talking about their users, which should be the very first thing considered with the project. This could be because of the confusing set up or a miss in information transfer. I think the initial design activities that were done in the course (and discussed in a previous blog post – Delving into CSE) were too short and not elaborately discussed, which created issues with the transfer of knowledge.
One of the very large differences between CSE and the Olin curriculum is the team aspect. The projects are taken on as individuals and not as a team. This makes sense for a lesson in consulting and because it is a post-graduate course, but rarely is brainstorming or designing ideal to do completely individually. Learning to brainstorm as a team and work together is a very valuable skill that isn’t being taught. Besides that, there is no one to question or discuss the project with who is on an equal level. Some of the most valuable moments in my UOCD experience was when we just discussed the project as a team without necessarily having an objective to the discussion. Not only do you improve others’ ideas while talking them out, but you improve your own. Design exercises are much more valuable when discussed out loud than when they are just thought about individually.
Finally, I noticed that the class-time was spent more on lectures and speakers than interaction. I know that this is the style of education here, but the class-time could be better used if it was half-flipped. This would mean that the students would read some of the lessons or watch lessons before coming to class, and then use class time discussing them or doing exercises. The class time lacked design activities. Especially since they are working alone, it would be very beneficial to have all of the students do the same design activity in class and compare their work.
One thing that I was also curious about, which I didn’t get the chance to ask, is if co-design was a technique that is being taught in CSE. Co-designing is a strategy where instead of asking users for feedback on a design, you actually get ideas from the users by doing design activities with them. Often users have more insight into what would be beneficial than the designers themselves. I didn’t see this as a part of the curriculum and thought it would be a very beneficial addition.
In general, I am very happy with my attendance of the course. I feel like I was very helpful to the students and made good contributions to class. I gave them all feedback on what they were working and was an active participant in class. At dinner with Suzanna, Jan and Inge, I felt like I was treated like a Junior Professional and almost like an equal. They were looking to me for my view and advice. Overall, I feel like I will truly be able to make an impact in my time here and be a productive addition to the team.
Suggestions for Improvement
One of the two courses would be a design course focused on UCD. Here the students would work in small groups to do a smaller project to master the UCD techniques and process before applying it in the larger project. Remember PPIE requires 40 credits of a project and 20 credits of courses. This would have multiple advantages. It would allow the students to learn about the design process in a controlled environment where they can focus on the design strategies instead of being confused by the other pressures and business environment. They will have the ability to iterate without being scared of failure and able to brainstorm without the technical feasibility as a restriction. Finally, working in groups will give them the discussion aspect that is so important in design. Once these skills are mastered, it will be easier to apply in the larger project.
The second course would be a Societal Business Course, which teaches how to start a business or maintain a business in the social sector. This would pick up the business aspects (I can’t describe them completely yet since I’ve only been to one class) that are currently being taught in CSE. I also believe that most of the guest speakers would be in this course. This would make sure that the guest lecturers don’t get in the way of the design activities (since they are in a separate course) and keep the two mindsets separate in the classroom environment.
Finally, I have just learned that reflection isn’t a skill taught to engineers. Inge was surprised at my natural reaction to reflect and write down my thoughts. This is a critical aspect of learning, especially in the design process, so I think it would be a valuable thing to add to the CSE curricula.