Open Design at Duke University

Online teaching doesn’t work. At least, that’s what the latest reports say. 

But what we started doing in March was not online teaching. In fact, online education needs to be transformed in exactly the same way in-person brick and mortar education needs to be transformed, and it simply hasn’t happened yet. We cannot continue to just digitize teaching and put it online. We need a new way of thinking.

Dr. Aria Chernik, Associate Professor of the Practice at Duke University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about open design and why design thinking at large is such a critical 21st-century skill to teach our students.

What Is Design Thinking?

In human-centered design, we consider understanding, empathy, and the ability to co-design solutions to create, ideate, and prototype. That means using both divergent and convergent thinking. 

Divergent thinking

How do we defer judgment and create a collaborative space where ideas are authentically welcomed and valued? 

Convergent thinking

How do we evaluate large amounts of research and data, including ideas, to find commonalities and to surface the most pressing needs and desires of users? 

Human-centered design thinking blends divergent with convergent thinking. 

Still, it’s hard to create a prototype that’s robust enough to tell a compelling story but lean enough to pivot in new directions. Consequently, we often think of this as what’s called failing forward. That phrase simply means learning and creating, which is deeply iterative. Failing forward is a communal process. Design thinking assumes that we need to emphasize creating knowledge and solutions that are deeply communal.

The open source framework that Duke has developed offers a way to integrate the values, the ethics, the principles that the institution values — radical collaboration, transparency, democratization of knowledge, open access to information, diversity and inclusion, adaptability, and resilience. 

Open design is really a process of co-designing solutions, and the mindsets and skills and competencies that students learn in this process are the same ones they need to demonstrate a new way of leading and creating. It puts the learner at the center of the process, is deeply experiential, engages the community, and includes traditionally underrepresented voices in solving problems throughout the process.

How Could Design Thinking Help Solve our Emergency Remote Teaching Crisis?

We cannot continue to simply digitize teaching and put it online. That’s not transformed learning. 

There’s quite a difference between open educational resources and open pedagogy. Open educational resources are similar to open content, something we don’t pay money for. That’s critical to open pedagogy, but that alone is not open pedagogy. When we talk about open pedagogy, we’re talking about teaching practices that elevate the learning experience and hold the potential to change trajectories of students’ lives. 

Those are the kinds of practices that we need to be able to design for, whether they’re online or in person.

What Is Design Thinking’s Endgame?

What could a successful endgame look like if more of the higher ed community started to grasp the power of design thinking? Would we adopt new portions of curriculum within design-centric or UX-specific majors? Or would design thinking end up as a critical part of a broader higher education experience?

In short, the answer is both. Students thinking about pursuing careers in UX fields certainly need a deeper dive into design, but open design is broader than that. It provides skills and competencies that are critical for every major, and we need to look at the problems that we’re seeing emerge now as a result of creating technology without thinking about design.

There are so many questions that strike at the root of justice and power structures — our very democracy — that are getting coded into technology, whether done consciously by the designer or not. 

Students need to understand how design deeply impacts the way we live our lives today. After all, technology is embedded into our lives from morning until night. We must realize how these technologies are designed because their design carries a value system, whether we acknowledge it or not. We’re trying to get students to understand that no technology is ethically neutral.

Next Steps to Think About Open Design and Design Thinking

Start with the key questions: How do we want people to be able to be in the world? What kind of life do people want to live, and how can we create contexts that allow them to achieve that? And that’s about everything, not just career, but how do they participate in their own lives?

Always start with listening radically, designing collectively, and collaborating generously. No single institution can solve the problems we have faced for many years and continue to face today. 

Listen Radically

Local institutional context can drive features of what we create together, but it shouldn’t be the driving force of the primary infrastructure. We need cross-sector collaboration and coordination. 

Design Collectively

We’ve acknowledged for a long time in higher education that our pace simply does not keep up with the world around us, and we’re doing students a disservice not to take a deep look at that world around us. We need to figure out how we can work together with students to create educational contexts that allow them to thrive in the world. 

Collaborate Generously

We can no longer waver about including underrepresented voices in the design of education. The purpose of education can be to liberate, and creativity and leadership for today and tomorrow thrive in the open. 

Those are the kinds of frameworks that institutions need to think about if they are to think differently and thrive in the new world of higher education. 


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Aria Chernik from Duke University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.