NTU DLC x D-School: Redesign a Learner-Centered Learning Experience
Over the past decades, learning has become increasingly digitalized. The influence of digital technology has extended to all aspects of learning from classroom to course materials. However, digitalization does not necessarily improve students’ learning experience. In fact, despite the emergence of new technologies, the way students learn has not changed much in the past decades in Taiwan. To address this issue, NTU’s Digital Learning Center (NTU DLC) worked with D-School@NTU in D-School’s core course, “Introduction to Design Thinking (DS5104).” Using a design thinking method, faculty and students co-explored how the learning experience of 21st-century students can be redesigned through a learner-centered approach in a digitalized context.
Unlike many studies which focused on designing learning experience for the future generation, this course is primarily concerned about the current generation. Starting with empathy, teams explored questions such as “What are the unmet needs of current students?” and “What are the main pain points of students throughout their college career?” In addition, the team members, as students of a leading higher education institution, were challenged to think deeper on how NTU might cater to the needs of its teachers and students, and create more value for them.
Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation, and empathy is at the heart of this methodology. In the course, students were divided into five teams and started their journey by standing in the end user’s shoes. The teams interviewed learners and conducted field observation. After data collection, they synthesized the data to identify the root cause of the problem. Then, they brainstormed ideas, built prototypes, and tested their hypotheses through re-engaging learners.
A Safe Learning Environment
In Taiwan, schools generally pay more attention to learning materials and instructional methods than to the importance of learning environments. Through user research, a team found that learners’ psychological safety must also be addressed to build an environment that effectively facilitates learning.
Out of embarrassment, many students are afraid of asking questions in class. Thus, the team decided to brainstorm on how to create a learning environment in which students feel safe and comfortable raising questions. With this goal in mind, the team proposed a gamified classroom design, noting that the biggest difference between a game and the real world is that one can always start the game over and try again. The team designed an anonymous interaction system, which frees learners from the fear of making mistakes and gives them the opportunity to learn in a fun and participatory way.
The Importance of Proximity
Besides a safe learning environment, another team found out proximity is a critical factor for learners both physically and psychologically. When students perceive professors to be unapproachable, they tend not to ask questions proactively; when students sit too far away from their peers, it would be difficult to stimulate discussions. With this insight in mind, the team probed into the possible ways of bringing professors and students closer.
The insight could be applied not only to the traditional learning setting but also to the digital context. In a virtual world, it could be even more difficult to bring people closer. When a student sits in front of a laptop, he or she might feel infinitely far away from other students. Thus, when developing future digital courses, it is imperative that we make digital learners feel engaged and part of the learning community.
The Meaning of Learning
Instead of external factors such as learning environments, one team turned to focus on the internal factors that have been affecting students’ learning experience. The problem of “learning without knowing the purpose” was commonly reported in the interviews. This purposelessness is correlated to the lack of learning motivation and tenacity among most students. In order to solve this problem, the team proposed a project-based course that connects learners to a real-world problem. By solving the problem, learners could see the impact of their effort and find meanings out of this process.
In the final presentation, Prof. Shih-Chung Kang (康仕仲), NTU Deputy Vice President for Academic Affairs, encouraged all teams to dig deeper. To find out the “why” behind learners, Prof. Kang pointed out that it is important to not only empathize with individual learners but also explore the context of their learning activities. The course is just a beginning. In order to help the teams continue their project, D-School@NTU supports students with D-Plan, a program providing continuing resources and mentorship after the course is finished. To see real change, it takes more time and effort. Our hope is that both NTU and other higher education institutions in Taiwan will start to adopt a more learner-centered approach to design students’ learning experience.
(Text/Translation: Chun-Ting Li, Digital Learning Center, NTU)