Education by Design: UT Austin’s School of Design and Creative Technologies Partners with State Education Agencies to Drive Educational Change

Friday, October 15, 2021

By Cami Yates

Julie Schell, Assistant Dean for Instructional Continuity and Innovation

Julie Schell, Assistant Dean for Instructional Continuity and Innovation

Julie Schell, assistant dean for Instructional Continuity and Innovation in the College of Fine Arts, has a strong passion for design thinking and its potential applications to improve teaching and learning in education. Schell wrote about the lack of pedagogy in design thinking training in the Journal of Design and Creative Technologies in her 2018 article “Design Thinking Has a Pedagogy Problem... And a Way Forward.” In her article, she explores how fostering a new era of design thinkers through innovative pedagogy could help solve complex problems in our communities, especially in education.

With the CoFA’s School of Design and Creative Technologies, Schell has led strategic partnerships with both the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) and Waco Independent School District to apply design to solve two wicked education problems: improving digital learning in higher education and teacher retention in K-12, respectively.

Using design thinking to create a digital learning resource people will actually use

SDCT and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the state’s higher education governing body, launched a design project to inform the development of a new platform to drive innovation in digital learning throughout the state of Texas and beyond: The Digital Learning Clearinghouse, or DLTX. Led by the state’s Division of Digital learning, DLTX aims to use design to establish and diffuse the standard for a quality digital student experience in Texas.

Together, SDCT, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the digital ethnography firm Vidlet conducted user interviews to learn more about how Texas faculty, students and administrators experienced digital learning before and during the pandemic, and what the kinds of pain points and positive experiences they had experienced. These interviews helped identify problems that a new product, tool or resource that could help solve to support digital learning for Texas higher education institutions. The resource will have broad impact in Texas, since these institutions include around 1.5 million students.

“By using design to frame this project, we are ensuring that we co-create a digital learning platform that educators actually adopt rather than neglect,” Schell said. “That it will be a resource that provides a really positive, useful and hopefully transformative user experience, which is what design is all about.”

Dr. Michelle Singh, assistant commissioner of the Academic Affairs Workforce Education and Academic Planning and Policy at the THECB, said the Division of Digital Learning is the newest division of THECB, established in November 2020.

“We want to make sure that we can understand and support our community and the growth that they currently have within their academic programs,” Singh said. “Specifically with digital learning and how we create an ecosystem that supports it.”

To help with the project, SDCT and THECB partnered with Vidlet, a mobile ethnography and design research firm, for the design research and reporting. The team explored what digital learning looks like from multiple perspectives, what services are being provided, what should be provided, the higher education institutions’ needs, their gaps and what they’re experiencing in the wake of the pandemic.

“Overall, as part of this design research project, we had more than 500 touchpoints with stakeholders from every corner of higher education in the State of Texas. Learning from such a diverse array of stakeholders helped us develop confidence in what educators need relative to digital learning in higher education, rather than guessing that we had it right,” said Schell.

The full outcome that they are expecting will be having a well-designed, highly utilized clearinghouse, creating a central hub where people can find their digital community and find strength in the work that their community has already done.

The team has identified three key focus areas for the DLTX: curated content, community development and engagement, and professional development opportunities for certification in digital learning.

“The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board truly understands that design research in particular can help really hone in on creating experiences for people that are going to be transformative, rather than just giving them things that are going to sit on the side and not be used,” Schell said.

“Think of the domino effect. If you're a student in a class being taught by a professor who's had access to digital resources to really help ensure that learning is effective, and they've had opportunities to draw on that resource for training for collaboration through interdisciplinary pedagogy, then the student is going to have a stronger digital learning experience than someone who hadn't had those opportunities,” Schell said. “That's the impact we’re trying to create for those 1.5 million students and the millions that will follow them.”  

Using design thinking to boost teacher retention Waco ISD

After attending a design thinking for education workshop about three years ago, Waco ISD superintendent Dr. Susan Kincannon reached out to Schell and Associate Professor in Design Tamie Glass to help with teacher retention in her school district.

SDCT created a three-day studio to use design thinking to discover solutions to retain teachers in Waco. Waco ISD serves 15,000 students, 88% who are African American or Hispanic.

“We started out by scaffolding introductory design tools for the district, and the audience was a cross-section across 15 elementary schools, four middle schools, and three high schools,” Glass said. “There were administrators, principals, staff, teachers—even students present, as well as a few folks from within the community that Dr. Kincannon considered to be thought leaders or folks who could think strategically about the problem of teacher retention.”

Tamie Glass, Susan Kincannon and Julie Schell

To understand the problem of teacher retention, participants went out onto campuses and observed classes for their research to try to see the problem of teacher retention on the ground. One of the insights that teams came up with was people who went to Waco ISD had a particular affinity for staying in Waco.

“One of the things that we heard was that our teachers who stayed with us were teachers who predominantly grew up in the area,” Kincannon said. “Versus the people from the outside, they tended to leave more often.”

The participants at the studio developed an idea for a new early college program that could create opportunities for Waco ISD students to become teachers in the district. The participants prototyped a concept to develop a P-Tech academy model for high school students interested in teaching. A P-Tech academy is an early college high school program with an industry partner to prepare students for the workforce and obtain an associate’s degree coming out of high school.

“The ultimate goal is to grow our own teachers,” Kincannon said. “We hope that we can produce 50 to 100 teachers per year who can come back and teach for Waco ISD.”

Drawing of P-Tech academy

The P-Tech academy in Waco ISD is set to launch in fall 2022.

“Tamie and I are extremely excited to see that an idea generated from this design studio was selected and is being executed to help address teacher retention in Waco,” said Schell.  

Other projects created from Glass and Schell’s studio were also executed, including a toolkit for teachers of English learners. Grace Benson, director of ESL and Bilingual Education in Waco ISD, e-mailed Schell about having built an Emergent Bilingual Schoolhouse, which was a mash-up from a prototype that she had pulled together at one of their design studios over the summer.

Emergency Bilingual Toolbox prototype created by Grace Benson

Emergency Bilingual Toolbox prototype created by Grace Benson

“You and Tamie have taught me so much and inspired me in ways that go beyond the classroom,” Benson said in her e-mail. “I am so thankful that Dr. Kincannon brought you into our lives.”

Kincannon has also expressed her gratitude to Schell and Glass for their help in Waco ISD.

“They made a difference with our culture. Our leaders have been able to design some things intentionally to create better work environments for their teachers.”

Read more about Schell and Glass' work with Waco ISD here.

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