March 26, 2011

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Expanding Solutions for the Digital Classroom

What happens when a group of designers lead a brainstorming session with teams of school administrators, MBA students and educational policy makers? The future of the digital classroom…

On Friday my classmates Clint and Derek and I took the morning train to New Haven, CT to join the Yale Education Leadership Conference. We joined a panel session about the Digital Classroom hosted by Larry Berger, CEO of Wireless Generation.

Larry invited us to work with his team of designers to lead a workshop with the group of administrators, management students, and education innovators at the conference. We stayed for the day to iterate on the solutions that came out of the workshop session.

The Brief

After watching a short panel presentation from four leaders in classroom software development, each designer led a workshop with a group of 4-7 participants.

Each group addressed a common problem:

It may be too time consuming for many teachers to keep track of all of this student data, to locate patterns in the data, and to understand how to prioritize certain information about their students in order to design lessons and small-group activities.

And worked on a single task:

With your group, design an interface that would allow a teacher to visualize data collected regarding students’ progress toward the common core math standard below. Ideally, this interface would allow the teacher to see student mastery of specific sub-skills in order to create differentiated small-group lessons.

The Workshop Experience

All of the designers agreed beforehand on a common framework for the workshop.

  1. Lead a discussion about the problem space to establish a common language among participants. Since the groups would be assembled of a variety of people with different backgrounds and ideas, this step is important to beginning a productive conversation.
  2. Define a unique problem statement to solve during the session. What does our group care about? Choosing a specific angle helps all group members be more invested in the session.
  3. Discuss what we already know about the problem. The 45 minutes allotted for the workshop isn’t enough time to do research. A quick and dirty research method is to leverage the knowledge of each group member to define the problems and opportunities in the space.
  4. Rapid sketching and solution generation. The more ideas we can produce, the more likely we are to come up with a great solution.

In my group we began with a healthy discussion about the problem of real-time data collection and visualization, which I captured on Post-It notes for everyone to refer to as the conversation progressed.

We reached a hurdle in the middle. Everyone was content to politely discuss existing solutions, but there was very little movement toward ideas for new solutions.

The tone changed when I reframed the conversation with a new question that directed the group’s thoughts back to our users. “Think of a teacher in a classroom with 25 students. What is the most important piece of data the teacher needs to see?” Suddenly one woman announced she had an idea. She began describing her idea to the table. I handed a marker to her and asked if she would be able to sketch the concept she had just described. She gladly accepted the challenge and started drawing on the communal poster paper in the middle of the table.

Once the first person started sketching it broke the barrier between group observation and collaborative generation. Instantly everyone at the table was able to talk about the new idea, adding on improvements and creating new sketches for similar concepts. The energy was tangible as my group of quiet talkers suddenly came alive.

The Design Studio

After the workshop all six designers gathered to share and discuss the outcomes of our separate groups. Across our many ideas we saw a clear solution for how a real-time data visualization system might be built. We decided to pursue three parts of the system: student input on a mobile device, teacher dashboard, and a group display visible to students and teachers in real time.

We spent the next few hours brainstorming around the three different touch points and sketched a few detailed drawings for how the solutions might work.

Teacher Facing

May and Jeremy worked out a web app and iPad app design based off the rubric used for standards-based grading. Jeremy had the idea to include social features allowing for peer review with other teachers and among students.

Student Facing

Clint, Takao and Courtney envisioned a system of dynamic mobile devices that would allow students to collaborate by subject matter and assignment within a classroom.

Group Facing

Derek, Mo and I started with the idea that we could use games and a highly visible “leaderboard” to give students the sense that they’re all contributing toward the common goal of learning. We designed a game that would reflect each student’s progress in a lesson.

A Day Well Spent

I headed into the workshop with an understanding of how to move a group of high school students in the direction of a solution. It was much different working with my group of educated adults whose heads are already full of optimized solutions. I quickly saw the value of throwing out wacky ideas and adding or removing brainstorming constraints to get them to think outside of what is normally expected.

Spending the day with a group of talented folks was enlightening and enriching for me. As is often the case, I learned as much from the workshop participants and other designers as they might have learned from me.

Sharing in the mutual exchange of knowledge and awareness was refreshing and delightful. I look forward to many more workshop opportunities to come!