The Learner Centered Project 2003-2007

In my first four years in Australia I worked as the Program Director of an undergraduate Industrial Design Program. This was not a job. This was a project. To update, upgrade and to make education align with the contemporary thinking in pedagogy, learning and education.

The project probably never ended.

It is still to be seen.

I am still doing this project.

The names have changed.

It has been 17 years.

I have a text that explains the zeitgeist in 2005. It is a typed out text, not a spoken text. A contextual discussion and chat about this text is available as a podcast in Learner Centered Design Education here.

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RMIT Institutional Award 2005: Enhancement of the Quality of Teaching and Learning at RMIT

Learner Centered Project (LCP)

Overview of project

During 2004, the newly appointed Program Director for Industrial Design in the School of Architecture and Design instigated the Learner Centered Project (LCP), a project to enhance the culture of learning in the program. This initiative is visualized to bring about changes in the way the community of Industrial Design students and staff consider education, university life and each other.

The LCP aims to create an environment where learners are enthusiastic, eager, self-motivated and not focused solely on grades and assessment, and staff are confident, approachable and interested in students’ development. The objectives of the LCP rest on re-configuring the intentions and parameters of the core of the student learning experience, their learning projects. The act of “learning” and the “project” itself are privileged over grading and meeting codified outcomes. Students are encouraged to embark on a journey of learning in their projects to an agreed level of commitment that they feel is appropriate to that journey and project.

The project team has involved a range of staff from the University including the Industrial Design program, the University’s CID Unit and the Portfolio’s Academic Development Services and Support area. Teaching staff have also been employed on contract to work on this project.

The LCP has focused directly upon the context of students as stakeholders of the program and provided a range of platforms and vehicles for their desires and needs to emerge and be expressed. Students’ personal and individual motivations are privileged as being the reason for their specific university experience. As a result, a range of forums and changes have been implemented in the Industrial Design program to remove previously existing barriers, both physical and psychological, to enable the voice of students to be confidently articulated.

Alongside changes brought about by staff, a significant aspect of the success of the LCP has rested upon students taking initiatives that alter their ways of interacting with staff and others in the community.

Evidence of the outcomes of the LCP follow …
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These events and incidents are described in relation to the criteria of the Institutional Award: Enhancement of the Quality of Teaching and Learning at RMIT.

1. Extent to which the project promotes/ facilitates quality teaching and learning

The Industrial Design program offers the learner a truly eclectic context to study design which privileges and therefore realizes a truly student elected, learner- centred program. Students are significantly stimulated studying in such a place. Their intellectual explorations are supported, buttressed, and given ever wider opportunities to open up and grow. The program thus is looking for students who are genuinely curious, wishing to be challenged and keen to explore relevant professional opportunities. (from the Industrial Design Program Guide)

A core aim of LCP is to encourage students to view themselves as self-empowered and self-directed in their learning. Students overwhelming attest to feeling more confident and inspired within the environment of the LCP, also evidenced in the following student comments:

“I am designing for myself now, I guess from the heart. I’ve realized that all I really needed was encouragement to achieve”

“It promotes that I should question and further investigate rather than accept, as the world is obviously not static; why should we assume that knowledge is?”

The LCP has demonstrated that Industrial Design students can be independently motivated to learn for themselves and in a truly enthusiastic fashion, an understanding that was not commonly held in the program before the implementation of the project. Students have evidenced increased self confidence and greater commitment to the university during the unfolding of the LCP. Attendance levels across the program have risen and those courses taught in the true spirit of learner centredness have full classes. Students have been more self-motivated and dedicated to their study. For instance, this has been evidenced by the large quantities of time they have committed to developing blogs adopted in one course where they consider their work to be of high value and personal worth. In other courses, students have favorably mentioned the freedoms they have felt, evidenced in the following student comments:

“Strengths of the course: being able to do what you want. Spend as much time as you want on it”

“Strengths of the course: flexibility, freedom, teamwork/community”

The spirit of LCP openly encourages students to voice their views and express concerns that previously may have impeded their progression of learning and experience in the Industrial Design program. In addition to standard program and course survey instruments, a diverse range of feedback and support options have been established by the program. These include:

  • ‘Ask Brian’, the online help facility
  • year level coordinators
  • the openness and availability of the Program Director
  • community meetings

The variety of feedback options has given students the opportunities and confidence that their views can be validly expressed in ways that suit their individual needs and preferences.

The Program Director is proactive in ensuring issues identified from the various feedback sources and community events are responded to, or commented upon, promptly. He regularly sends emails to students to alert them to key community events, encourage them about achievements, or provide comment on seemingly banal, but powerfully bonding community incidents.

The LCP has also supported the establishment of regular key events to assist in instilling a stronger sense of academic and collegial community amongst students and staff. These include a monthly lecture series and the community meetings. The monthly lecturer series consists of a presentation by students, staff or guests held on a Friday afternoon and includes issues or topics of academic interest. These occasions have become a low-key party for the students and provide space for the conversations about the changes happening in the program as well as contribute to the development of a discourse within the community. A Community meeting is held every semester for students to raise issues of concern. Staff attend but are not encouraged to dominate the meeting to enable students to freely express their opinions and therefore work towards creating an environment of balanced power, equity and openness.

Staff have recognized that in the culture of learner centeredness brought about by the LCP they are able to achieve more in their teaching than when compared to regular methods of teaching design, which traditionally requires intensive and controlled involvement with students. The benefits brought to their teaching by adopting a learner centred approach include less intensive time spent with students solely transmitting skills and understanding, and more opportunities dialoguing and sharing learning and development; less pressure as a facilitator of learning to have all the answers and be the sole custodian of knowledge and skills. Staff have witnessed students engaging in peer- to-peer learning in the classroom and being more cooperative and offering mutual help and support to each other than in previously taught courses. The engagement of students with curriculum has been observed to be more rapid and more intense, and their learning to be both wider and deeper, evidenced in the following student comment:

“The contents of this subject are such a refreshing move away from what we have been exposed to in other classes. I enjoyed the challenge it posed to our understandings of our own design principles”

The LCP also encourages staff to reconsider their responsibilities not just as teachers and lecturers in the program but to also commit to developing their roles as academics in the university. Staff are urged to cultivate an individual research trajectory in order to develop their own expertise and academic credibility within the community and to inform new curriculum pathways within the program.

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2. Extent to which the project assists staff, including sessional staff, to develop effective teaching and learning strategies.

The LCP has assisted staff in developing their approaches to learning and teaching by providing safe opportunities for discussion about and practice of new learning and teaching strategies as evidenced in the following staff comment:

“The idea of grades at the beginning of the course has been tried out and has been an interesting topic floating around for a while now; today has given a chance for this topic to become more real for me, allowing me to really see how it is as new to everyone else as it is to me”

The LCP context of the program has focused staff into engaging in deep conversations about teaching practice and providing opportunities for peer mentoring. Organized sessions and events have been conducted to introduce all staff to the principles of learner centredness. Workshops and brainstorming gatherings have been facilitated to encourage staff to discuss their views about teaching, learning and students and to talk about associated issues openly. Other sessions have been designed around evaluation methodologies and specific approaches to planning courses that suit learner centred practice.

The LCP allows students and staff the flexibility of responding and contributing to a project as it progresses. In this sense the method of teaching becomes truly facilitative, as projects have no predetermined end (other than a time frame and a method of communicating the project at various stages). The approach also means sessional staff have the opportunity and flexibility to spontaneously bring their professional experience into classes, rather than strictly following the lead of set curriculum.

Sessional staff teaching into the program are respected as being crucial resources for students in that they bring fresh, current experience and expertise from industry.

Sessional staff are also provided with opportunities to engage in the LCP development activities to enhance their understanding of learning and develop approaches to teaching that extend beyond how they may have been taught themselves. Most sessional staff also find that approaches of LCP allow them to make more productive use of the limited time they are involved with students.

Staff have access to literature and Internet material to inspire and encourage their development. The Program Director regularly emails staff about the changes before them as a program team and challenges them with the new ways of considering the LCP frontier. Further research by program staff in areas of pedagogy is being fully supported by the program, to enhance and complement the existing knowledge base of program staff currently embedded in design.

Throughout the unfolding of LCP staff have had access to individual one-on-one consultation and discussions with project team members. New ideas and approaches are discussed informally in the corridors and over coffee, spiking the sense of community with enthusiasm and energy for learning.

Admittedly, there is some apprehension amongst students and staff about the LCP and the changes the project is introducing. Students appear to adjust quickly to the new learning environment, usually making proactive and productive responses that enhance their learning. Some staff are concerned or anxious about students having autonomy over their own learning and the potential impact this has on their roles as lecturers or teachers. The flexibility of the LCP allows for staff to gradually and safely adopt approaches of learner- centredness in ways that accommodate any anxiety or worries they may have about trying new teaching strategies.

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3. Extent to which the project/ initiative is innovative and/ or practical

The LCP is innovative when considered in the context of design education. Most education in Industrial Design is based on a ‘project-based learning’ model, but often there is an oppressive side to the experience where learning contexts privilege knowledge as that resting within the experience and practice of design of the lecturer. This can create a situation where excessive power is given to the lecturer and a feeling of complete powerlessness exists for the student. The situation often leads to behavioral transformation in students where they become adept at analyzing the expectations of the lecturer and in meeting these expectations. Design education generally then becomes about induction of young people into the professional community rather than being about challenging paradigms. Often arbitrary practices in the classroom are justified on the basis that ‘this is how things are in the profession’ without encouraging students to develop abilities to deal with the unknown, uncertainty and change.

The objectives of the LCP are counter to this specific culture of design education and make two principles central to the discourse on educational practice: respect for the student, and joy in the learning process. The crucial innovation of the project is to question, and set aside as arbitrary, the privileging of the workplace as the determinant of student learning experiences. This is a significant contribution to placing high value on university experiences and also challenges the way design is taught in the various programs of the university both at Higher Ed and TAFE levels.

In LCP, student projects cease to be emulations of practice and become ‘practice’. Since learning is a process of becoming, the LCP approach can effectively respond and cater to the diversity of ontological positions evident in any community of learning. This is important in that the focus of learning shifts from being concerned with the level at which students access content or discourse, to being concerned with the construction of content that has some relevance in the lives of those engaged in learning and contributes to the evolution of relevant discourse.

In addition to transforming the idea of learning and teaching, the LCP has proposed the notion of the ‘anywhere university’ in which information and learning content is available online to students in ways that support their individual learning projects. The program’s web presence has been transformed to focus upon student needs by providing a range of innovative resources including a gallery that serves as an inspirational archive to showcase excellent student work, and an option to access the website in Chinese.

The primacy of face-to-face interactions between students and staff as constituting the ultimate context of education is being challenged in the program. This is a significant innovation in that it has required staff to set aside the need to rigorously track a student’s learning progression in a project and trust students own capacities to learn independently. This approach has been manifested in one course with the use of blogs. The outcomes of this learning and teaching experience have been spectacular in the willingness and ways students have responded to and reflected upon their learning, in holistic ways that deeply consider their personal present and their futures, as well as their immediate experiences at university. The use of formal blogs has meant a strong sense of an online community amongst student is coming to bear, possibly instilling as powerful a sense of identity as that manifest by the physical building in which the program is located.

Another initiative of LCP, now coming to the fore, is the provision of wireless facilities in the program building. Alongside this a project is underway to enable each student to acquire a laptop computer on a soft lease or reduced price from a computer manufacturer. When this is realized, it is predicted that the nature of the students’ university experience and community relationships will further change.

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4. Extent to which the intended clients/ users utilize or participate in the project.

The LCP is the lived experience of the whole student and staff community and in addition to organized activities and events described above the community continually observes a wide range of formal and informal student initiatives. These activities range from the (informal) painting of the walls of the building to (formal) student organized conferences. Last year, the final year exhibition of graduates’ work was organized for the first time by students. It was highly successful with students procuring notable industry sponsorship as well as doing their own curation of the event. The enthusiasm and energy of the event has motivated this year’s third year students to organize an industry linked conference and associated publications, as well as inspiring the final year students to manage their graduate exhibition with increased industry sponsorships.

An attitude of entrepreneurship is also being reignited where many students are starting their own businesses and being more opportunistic in pursuing grants and competitions available in the design industry.

Staff have employed LCP practices in varying degrees in the courses they teach, according to their confidence and ability to manage change. A significant and totally voluntary adoption is happening in semester 2 this year where staff, including sessional staff, will use a learning contract model as the way to plan and conduct courses with their students. The essence of this model is the commitment to the grade or mark which acts as a contract between the student, their peers (project partners) and their lecturer. Like any contract, if the deal is maintained, the mark is provided. If the deal is compromised or the quality of works is out of step with the original agreement, then the grade is renegotiated. This approach puts learners in control of their learning. As a contract, the lecturer has a responsibility to provide guidance, experience and content in a way that will contribute to the resolution of the contract.

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Evidence of the degree of client satisfaction with the project/ initiative including formal and informal evaluations.

The LCP is primarily concerned with bringing about change in the way the community of Industrial Design students and staff think about education, university life and each other. The staff within the program are committed to continually improve their pedagogic practices. Other programs in the school have also expressed a desire to try some of the innovations of the LCP.

Some of the changes brought about by the LCP to the Industrial Design program have been explicit; for example, the walls of the building have been painted red or learning contracts have been introduced to courses as a teaching strategy. Other outcomes have been implicit; for example, changes in staff attitude to their academic roles or positive responses from the program team to students articulating issues of concern. In their entirety, the complete range and depth of shifts has contributed to an overall sense of the learning environment of the program being remarkably different to what it used to be.

Approval of the changes experienced in the community is made obvious in the conversations, emails and attitudes expressed formally and informally amongst students and staff as they learn, study and work together. Satisfaction with these changes is also expressed in the increased amount of student activity and energy that is now present in the program building.

Anecdotal feedback from students certainly indicates an awareness and appreciation of the changes that enable them to have:

“full creative freedom” “a relaxed environment”

“a fun and approachable atmosphere”

“the ability to go where we want within the program” and to

“learn and experience a whole new level of design”

Since the LCP has been introduced, students sense a positive change in the dynamic of the Industrial Design community and are supportive of this shift, as indicated in the following student comment:

“I cant’ wait to see where we go and what we achieve as a group and as individuals”.

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By Soumitri Varadarajan

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

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