Participatory design as the basis for staff development and course design


Teemu Leinonen has a good post about Participatory Design and Scenarios in Learning. It outlines some norms behind participatory design, explains the use of scenarios and makes connections between participatory designs and other “paradigms” (e.g. social constructivist theory of learning and open source development).


The value I take from the post is that it resonates with the the many ideas that are floating around in my head in connection with the new position I’ll be taking up soon (shh, don’t tell any one). I’ll be the clueless middle manager responsible for the group that supports CQU’s academics design their learning and teaching.

The problem

As one of those academics, I was always a bit critical of the traditional instructional design approach taken at CQU. Well, at least traditional for institutions that were into print-based distance education, like CQU.

This model can be characterised as having

  • SME(s) – subject matter experts
    A single (or small group) of academics in charge of the course. The people who need the advice on how to “package” their content to achieve a goal.
  • ID – instructional designer
    The expert in education that was going to help the SME(s) achieve their goals.

Problems I had with this model (which may say more about me than the model itself) included

  • The IDs having little or no knowledge of the discipline.
  • The IDs having a limited understanding of education and what was possible with
    We all suffer from bounded rationality. So this is no surprise. I, as the SME, also suffered from the same limitation, though my limited circle was different. This was especially problematic during the 90s (when most of my teaching was done) because of the advent of the Internet and the Web and the impact this was having on distance education. The poor print-based IDs didn’t have the knowledge (or support) to fully grasp the implications.

The above is not meant to read as a criticism of the individuals involved. This is not a discussion about the limitations of the individuals. It’s an attempt to get to the limitations of the model and start thinking about a better model.

Some of the points from Teemu’s post help pick out some of what was wrong with the model

  • “Respect of the people – they are the best experts of their own life and activities. They should be supported to have a voice in the design process.”
    Under the old model, the design of course material was goverened by
    a single centralised model. SMEs did not have a voice in the design process.
  • “Knowing that the people are the primary course of innovation. The ideas emerge in collaboration with participants who are representing different stakeholders and backgrounds. ”
    The old model usually only involved two people: the SME and the ID. A very limited set of stakeholders and backgrounds. For example, no students were directly involved.
  • “Focus on systems. Systems are networks of people, their practices, technologies and artifacts embedded to the actions in a particular context.”
    The old model emphasised the individual course as the level of design. Little or no thought was given to the wider systems at CQU and the potential need for it to change. This was especially problematic during the 90s and the “Internet revolution”.


In the past, I’ve been involved in a number of half-hearted attempts to address this and related problems. There was some work on the use of design patterns in online learning (publication 1 and 2)
which then morphed into the REACT idea.

Both these failed, for various reasons but mostly due to my lack of follow through. I’m hoping that we can solve some of those going forward.

In particular, I am interested in taking lessons from participatory design, the REACT process and the patterns work to develop a different model for curriculum design at CQU.

Some initial ideas

  • All curriculum design is done in 1 or 2 day sessions, typically off-campus
  • The sessions include a number of SMEs, IDs and representatives from other related groups. For example, librarians, various technologists and potentially some “important” guests.
  • The sessions would essentially be participatory design sessions where each academic would present their problem and the group would help develop scenarios. The aim being to draw on the diversity of the participants.
  • The scenarios and other outcomes would be developed in some set, shareable, digital format that others can use and benefit from.
  • There might be different stages in the sessions equating to steps in the design process. For example, start with an analysis sessions (emphasis on analysing the current state of the course and figuring out what should be done), design (figure out how to achieve the outcome/address the problem) and evaluation (report back on what was done).
  • The presence of other staff would also aim to enable some level of system design. For example, if there is a trend amongst many of the academics the other representatives could use this as a spur to redesign the entire system (e.g. policies, technology etc.)

One thought on “Participatory design as the basis for staff development and course design

  1. Pingback: Process and product are inextricably linked at David’s WebLog

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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