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Experience Design

…audience…co-creators…collaborators…consumers…customers…guests…participants…

How you describe and refer to the people who take part in an experience is an important part within experience design – and it is in education -, because what you consider them, and (even more crucially) what you expect from them, changes both your design and their experience.

Walt Disney’s approach might be the most famous: he insisted to consider visitors to his theme parks as ‘guests’ rather than ‘customers’, and the staff as ‘cast members’ (no doubt based on his experience of the movie industry). Yes, the guests pay to be there, but when they are in the parks, they ideally forget about the price tag and just enjoy the experience. Linked to that is the principle to pay once for entry, but when you are inside, you don’t have to pay for the individual attractions.

Considering students as customers, although they technically are, is problematic because the term (and its roots in business) suggests that they are a relatively passive part of a straight forward interaction, where they exchange money for some sort of good or service. In a way this is what they are doing, but of course they are not buying knowledge, skills or expertise directly, they are buying the access to learning opportunities. The learning they will still need to do themselves.

And it is the design of these learning opportunities that really is at the heart of education, it is designing experiences that students can choose to engage with, but that go beyond the simple notion of the student as customer. Their roles and agency is much more layered than that, and this is what needs to be considered when designing our teaching formats.

While the ‘traditional’ (and some would consider outmoded) model might be the ‘sage-on-the-stage’ lecture, a lecture isn’t the only way to frame a teaching and learning experience. In a lecture format, students are usually seen as making up the ‘audience’. But what does this mean for their role in the proceedings? In the most basic form they are viewers and listeners. Are these considered ‘passive’ participants? Is this what we want as part of this learning experience, or do we want something more? Apart from looking and listening, do we want them to take notes? to ask questions? to talk to each other?

Of course the answer to all these is “it depends”, because the L&T of learning and teaching is not a formula like the G&T you might want to partake in at the end of the day. If you always take this much gin and this much tonic, add some ice and maybe (if you are feeling fancy) a slice of lime, you will always have very similar outcomes. But in education we need to have different ways of challenging different minds, and we are dealing with different kinds of knowledge and different kinds of content.

I would say that teaching a referencing system is, in the first instance, content that is appropriate for a lecture. Here, I want the students to listen and look at the slides. They need to understand the principles (some of them somewhat random), before they can learn them. And learning them isn’t memorizing the examples, it comes from trying to put the principles into practice. And that is not a lecture-style content. Here the students need to move from listeners and watchers to do-ers, become writers themselves – writers who reference. So between these two very related contents, the role and agency of the students changes – they go from almost passive recipients of a principle to being in charge of their own work. And this switch is the main reason why the L&T activity needs to change!

This means that when planning L&T activities need to consider

  • the content – what sort of knowledge is it? Theoretical? Practical? Somewhere in between?
  • the role we want students to take in this context – listeners, watchers/viewers, do-ers, note-takers, thinkers, researchers, investigators?
  • the agency we want students to have in this context – are they relatively passive in this context, or are they (should they be) active? Are they interacting with the lecturer or with other students? Are they following instructions or are they independently in charge?

Don’t just see students as customers, they can be audience and collaborators, investigators and listeners, readers and speakers!

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This is a preamble to a forthcoming occasional series of posts on whether and what educators can learn from experience design, explaining how I got here…

I have been fascinated with Experience Design ever since I studied the related discipline of Theatre Design as an undergrad and I went on to do my Masters thesis on what museums can learn from Theme Park Design. My PhD ended up on the role of writing in design education (although that is not quite how it started out… as is so often the case with research), so it seems that I got a bit distracted for a while. However, when I was looking for a new direction for my research, this interest came back to me and I thought it would be worth exploring for a few months to see where it could take me and whether it would be worth pursuing.

Starting at the beginning of the year I delved into an exploratory research project, taking the starting point of my previous work on genre and regenring and the importance of storytelling that comes with it. I presented a related paper in February and in rather fast succession found a collaborator in Dr Jenny Kidd, we worked on and submitted a book proposal, had it accepted and wrote a book over the summer. This book, Critical Encounters with Immersive Storytelling, has just gone to typesetting and will hopefully be available in all good bookshops soon, even the online ones. I have also just come back from a week at the College of Extraordinary Experiences, a five-day event that is hard to explain to people who weren’t there, let’s say it combined the principles of a conference, symposium and course in an immersive and playful way. So, it has been a whirlwind few months – and I have realised (and of course with hindsight this is obvious), that I have not just (re-)found a research subject that I want to pursue further, but also that here is a discipline that is really worth knowing a bit about if you are an educator.

Experience Design is a relatively new discipline and it overlaps and draws on a number of other disciplines. One of them, of course, is Event Design, which when we think about it, is something that we do as teachers. When people ask me why I am not a designer anymore, I usually reply that I still am, that I currently design learning opportunities. While somebody else usually organises in what time slot I teach and where, it is mainly me who decides what happens within these slots. I design these teaching events, the experiences I want my students to have. Some of my colleagues design educational escape rooms (and I have dabbled in that), but even if you do not prepare anything as elaborate, thinking of the student experience when we design can surely help us clarify our strategies.

Funnily enough what started me out on my road to becoming a National Teaching Fellow was a workshop by NTF Dr Colin Beard that was about Experiential Learning (and his and John P Wilson’s book Experiential Learning is definitely one I would recommend). Experiential Learning and Experience Design again are disciplines that overlap – and this overlap I think is fascinating and that I am hoping to consider in a bit more detail over the next few months. Should educators learn from Experience Design? I think most definitely and I will share my musings here on WHAT I think we can learn from this discipline and hope that you will find them useful.