Let’s Talk About the Next Generation of Learning Systems at MSU

A whiteboard with sketches
By Bill Hart-Davidson, Associate Dean of Research & Graduate Education

This Fall, with the help of colleagues Brendan Guenther & Mark Hodgins from the Hub, I’ve been hosting some structured conversations about learning and the very large systems — “enterprise systems” as they are known in the world of information technology — that we employ to foster learning at the university. If you are reading this, we want you to participate!

The purpose of these conversations is to take a long view and consider what we value most about the most important activity on campus: learning. Unfortunately, it’s a kind of thinking that we do not always do about technology.

The whole university is a place to learn. Our beautiful MSU campus is set up quite explicitly with this in mind, as visitors immediately notice when they see placards on trees in the Oak Opening ‘Sacred Space’ near Beaumont Tower or take a stroll through the Beal Botanical Garden. Our enterprise systems – systems like D2L, our learning management system, or SIS, our Student Information System – might serve us the same way: enabling learning, not just by students enrolled in courses, but by everyone who uses them.

But do these systems live up to this vision now? Do our enterprise systems enable ‘enterprise learning?’ If so, what does it look like? How is this learning represented, and how might these systems represent and enable learning better?

What Do We Talk About? Shared Values, Challenges, & Possibilities

A whiteboard with sketches

A centerpiece of our approach is asking participants to make visual representations of our current systems on campus. During the very first conversation we held in September, one of our participants created a new icon – one we had not thought to provide in our ‘standard’ set of images. It showed a stick figure — a typical user — behind bars or in a cage. The label read “trapped.” The first group used this image to indicate where users felt helpless or powerless, which was by itself a powerful statement. What is more powerful and sobering, though, is that every single group has found a use for that icon that the first group added to the collection! Feeling powerless is a shared challenge across all of our constituent groups and across a number of different enterprise systems we use on campus. Shared values – like putting students in the center of the “transformed” system diagrams – also become evident. As do opportunities to take our systems in new directions.

Our Method: Participatory ‘Design Games’

We seek out members of four key groups on campus to participate in these conversations, putting them in mixed groups whenever we can. Each group–students, faculty, academic staff, and technology professionals–brings an important perspective. To facilitate an exchange of ideas among diverse groups with different levels of experience and expertise, we use a set of activities that, together, comprise what Participatory Design researcher Pelle Ehn (2008) calls a “design game.” Our approach, adapted from one developed by Ehn and his colleagues, ensures that each session amounts to “participative, entangled, meaning-making” events. Entangled, here, means something like “synthetic,” a process not of tearing things apart but of bringing components and ideas together.  Through these conversations, areas of common value and concern are revealed. These, in turn, help to drive decisions about how systems should function, what features are most important, and what expectations we have for their success. The goal is to learn about and consider the needs of the full campus community rather than discover these, too late, once decisions have already been made about the design and/or purchase of a large system.

Students working on whiteboards

The Hub’s Student Innovation team creates a representation of a system that better represents and enables learning.

How Does the ‘Design Game’ Work?

The design game proceeds in two phases or rounds of discussion. In phase one, participants create a representation of an existing enterprise system with a focus on how it represents and enables learning. Participants select from among current campus technologies or systems commercially available from a vendor. In phase two, participants adjust their representations to imagine a future system that does the job of representing and enabling learning better.

After each phase, each small group does a brief report out, talking through their picture and the decisions the group came to. Teams are encouraged to incorporate ideas from other teams/systems phase one presentation in their phase two pictures.

Throughout the process participants construct both pictures using a simplified pattern language consisting of icons provided by the facilitators. The groups build the pictures on a whiteboard, adding labels, lines and arrows, etc. to show connections, movement, and other aspects of the system. The use of pattern language is used to create a common and constrained language, helping to ensure that people with different backgrounds and different levels of technical expertise can communicate on a relatively level playing field.

Where Are We Headed With These Conversations? What are We Learning?

The design games are not meant to be prototyping exercises. We’re not building anything yet. The real purpose of these structured conversations is threefold. We hope to learn about

  • Shared challenges with existing systems;
  • Shared opportunities to improve our systems; and
  • Shared values for these systems.

With just a little prompting, these issues surface in each conversation in an organic, but reliable way. The pictures our groups create provide our strongest clues. As facilitators, we want the groups to talk, to share, to compare experiences, and to learn from one another. We learn along with them and capture what we hear and see.

What Comes Next?

We will continue to hold design game sessions through the beginning of 2018. In the Spring, our sessions will be guided by a report that captures the results of the early design game sessions – presenting shared values, challenges, and opportunities. The draft report will be shared with the campus community, and we will seek more feedback and public comments. We plan to revise the report to produce a whitepaper that advances the university community’s thinking about enterprise-level learning from a grassroots, user-driven perspective. Another outcome will be less tangible, but just as important: an engaged community of stakeholders helping to shape MSU’s vision and decision making about the enterprise learning systems we use, adopt, adapt, and/or create.

We Want to Talk with You!

Would you like to participate in an upcoming design game or comment on a draft of our report? Do you have ideas to share about our enterprise learning systems on campus? Start a conversation by contacting Mark Hodgins (hodgins@msu.edu). We’d love to hear from you.