Making Change, Realizing Goals

Its 2003, I arrive in Australia from India. I have moved countries to take over as Program Director of the Industrial Design Program. In December 2003 two things about the program in were significant:

The program was not ranked highly globally

The graduate satisfaction scores were low

In 2018 things are vastly different:

Ranking: In 2003 the Industrial Design Program at RMIT did not rank in global university rankings. In 2018 RMIT ranks 11 in the QS rankings for Art and Design.

Student Satisfaction (CEQ): In 2003 the CEQ score of the program is 28. That is very low, and below the country wide average for the discipline. Two years later the CEQ is doubled.

How was this dramatic change achieved? A part of the answer lies in a Project initiated in 2004 – The Learner Centered Project.

Change Project

Back in January 2004 I have a brief from the head of school to do something to change and improve the program. I take some time, consult and come back to her with a project of culture transformation that relied upon a shift in pedagogical practices. That project was titled The Learner Centered Project.

The Learner Centered Project

The project drew upon my background in experimental and Critical Pedagogy. The key aspects of the project were:

Building Diversity

Taking the Program Community along

Activating the Student Community

Blue, white and black

For me a unique feature of how we did design learning would be defined by the Australian student – who is reluctant to engage in long discussions, (and on another side) but is a ferocious hard worker. In my rationalisation this capacity for working hard to reach distant goals – is especially developed in students who have a background in competitive swimming ( a large number of them) and competitive sport. For me this ability of the Australian students was something I had seen when teaching in Jerusalem, where the Israeli student comes to design school having completed their compulsory military service (followed by a detox stint as a backpacker in Pushkar or other Israeli watering hole in Asia) and is thus tough and a capacity for hard work that is unique.

Additionally, many students came to university with an eagerness to build and make things with their hands. For these students operating machines and building prototypes came naturally. Design in my early provocation was therefore a blue-collar profession. The rejoinder came swiftly, “there was more money in making”. It could of course continue to be an office job (white collar) in an Industry R&D, and a studio practice (black collar).

Splitting Industrial Design away from product design, and by implication educating for working in an in-house design studio of a manufacturer, opened out the potential for diversity and for multiple pathways.

Taking the Program Community along

The project made huge effort to take the community along. Community meetings (with staff and students), staff one-on-one debriefing and tutor workshops were three iterative activities that were repeated. The letters below provide texture to the effort made

Letter to staff 2006

Letter from Program Director

Activating the Student Community

The project of repositioning the student in the program focussed upon crucially giving students control over their learning journeys. One key and transformative practice was to allow students to self-assess themselves. Aligned to constructivism and critical pedagogy the rule was ‘students assess, teachers give feedback’. You can catch the spirit of the times in this 2006 email.

Letter to Students

Revisiting Student Journeys

Its 2018, and the current Program Manager of the Industrial Design Program asks me if I would go in and teach first year. In design education, there is this thing, that the senior most teachers ought to teach first year. So, it was perfectly natural for me to say yes.

I call the project – My First Six Months. It has a website, and the student transformations are document as they happen.

This is the website of the Project:

I collaborate with 6 others to teach and deliver this project. Its been spectacular, its been fulfilling.

By Soumitri Varadarajan

Soumitri lives in Melbourne, Australia - #probonodesign #codesign #sustainability #patientexperience #quantifiedself #mdg

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: