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Experience Design

Usually when I develop new sessions it is to address a specific need in my practice, but today I want to tell you about what happened when I came across an idea I immediately wanted to try out, but initially couldn’t really fit into what I do…

The Virtual Escape Room Idea

Experience Design is one of the things I am interested in and do research on. I now realise it was a large part of my Masters thesis, although back then I didn’t know that’s that what it was called. And creating learning opportunities, which is my job, is in a way creating experiences for students/learners/participants/add-your-own-preferred-term-here. No wonder I am fascinated by Escape Rooms and have played a few. I have analysed what works and what doesn’t. So when I came across a tweet by Emma Thirkell offering guidance on how to build a virtual escape room via Microsoft One Note, I was immediately intrigued and messaged her to get my hands on this. (You can find her write-ups of her work on this here and here. And if you follow her on Twitter @EmmaThirkell and ask nicely, she’ll probably send you the guidance she wrote, too.)

Added to my own fascination was the fact that we were in lockdown and there was no telling to what extent we would be able to teach on campus for the foreseeable future, so developing my own virtual escape room would be a fun little CPD project for me to do, which could be used for the students once they came back.

There were really only two issues with this: I don’t get on with Microsoft One Note – which is a problem if this is the infrastructure you are building this on. However, I do really like the Class Notebook function in MS Teams, and that is basically One Note linked in, so doing a bit of work on this was probably a good idea and would help me develop my skills in this area. However, the second issue was more problematic – it seemed to me that the most basic form of a virtual escape room (and I did play some of the ones that are around for free as research) is based on a multiple choice test. I don’t really have anything to test that way… I currently teach Animation Studies. My classes don’t end in exams, they end in students making an argument in form of an essay or other genre of their choice. Could I make them memorise dates and similar? Sure, but I don’t think that is the point. I’d much rather they start thinking about the issues within animation, and then they will hopefully have the skills to let those thinking skills develop their animation practice. Now there probably is a way to develop a virtual escape room based on Animation Studies, but I was looking for something straight forward, because I was trying to learn how to design one by doing. So I needed a subject area/collection of topics that a) were somewhat related to my teaching, so I could actually use this for my students; and b) I knew at least something about, so asking technical details about animation processes and the pipeline, for example, were out.

I thought back to one of my areas of expertise, study skills, and wondered whether maybe the library might be able to provide a solution.

Enter the Library

My students need to use the library, and, to be honest, this is a weak point for most of them. (Imagine my shock when a student recently asked me what I meant by telling her to do a search on “the library page” – I meant the Staffordshire University Library Website… but maybe I need to be clearer in spelling things out!) So a fun way that reminds them of the stuff we covered in class would be great. I got in touch with some of the nice folk I know in my library to check whether they already had a virtual escape room, and if not, whether they would be up for helping me put one together. Turns out there hadn’t and yes, they were indeed up for it, so off we went on our little adventure.

Starting Points

Just as with any experience design, it is important that you figure out your audience and objectives before you start designing in earnest.

  • My initial idea had been to do something that would introduce students to library skills and the library itself, but after some thinking about this, we decided to focus on the online library (also considering the current context, this would be most useful in the next few months as access to the physical library is restricted. Staffordshire University is also in the process of constructing a new building to house the library holdings, and we didn’t want to make something that would have a very limited usefulness).
  • An audience of returning students, they should be somewhat familiar with library services already. This would mean 2nd and 3rd year undergraduates. (Post-grads could use it as a basic refresher, but wouldn’t be the main target audience.)
  • Possibly also a way of familiarising students with some of the features of Teams and the OneNote Class Notebook within it as this might become a way of delivering teaching.
  • Focus on the online library, rather than the physical one.
  • It should be possible to use this as a stand-alone activity, i.e. link it to the library website so students could take it on their own, although it would be possible to play it within a class and/or as a group.
  • There should be as little need for updating it as possible, i.e. puzzles should be written so that all the information used would be likely to remain the same, as we didn’t want to spend time on future maintenance.
  • There should be the possibility for subject specialists to customise the experience for their subject somehow, but this should be aimed at academics wanting to include this into their teaching, rather than at library staff.

Starting with these objectives we set out to brainstorm the different areas we wanted to include. By that we were guided on information we wished the students had retained from our teaching, as well as frequently asked questions and frequently made mistakes.

The first prototype (a terrible first draft)

We wanted to come up with about 10 different topics to make 10 sections or ‘rooms’ within the Virtual Escape Room, the last of which we wanted to be subject specific. As Animation is my subject area, we used this as the subject to construct the example room.

Then we broke these down into possible questions we could ask, or started with the information we wanted to test for, for example, do the students know the best way to search for a physical book is different than searching a database?

Our first version of the Escape Room was very basic and very cumbersome for a number of reasons:

  • It was very obvious the questions had been written by different people in the way the player was addressed.
  • The different passwords were complicated codes that sometimes (but not always) combined letter and number combinations of different lengths.
  • It seemed very long.

Test playing this through by ourselves, i.e. looking at the sections each of us hadn’t written themselves and giving each other feedback on this, really helped to identify these sticking points, and we decided to simplify it before going public with it.

  • We split the whole thing in half, sort of a basic version that focused on searching and referencing, and a more advanced version that considered outside services the university has access to and included the subject specific section. Then we focused on the basic version with the more advanced one something to tweak in the future, if people wanted to actually play a second one.
  • We also decided to change the format of the passwords from random to making up words, so that if people were almost there, they could take a guess as to what the right answer was. In the end this meant cutting some questions, but overall it made the playing of the rooms more enjoyable. We also decided that the basic Escape Room should feel easier than the second one, and therefore made those passwords all the same length, whereas the second one might have passwords of different length, and possibly anagrams that need to be unscrambled.

Theming

What I was particularly concerned with was a story to frame this. I didn’t want this to be a random exercise that asked library related questions, because in that case, you might as well just write a multiple choice test. I thought we should try to come up with a compelling story that would provide some sort of motivation for the players and an (albeit made up) reason for why they are being asked all these questions. With the focus of the online library, I came up with some vaguely cyber-security related framing, i.e. the library has been hacked/invaded by a mutant algorithm and the players are asked to reset it step-by-step to make it usable again for themselves and other students. My team liked the idea, so I wrote little introductions to each room that try to keep this theme alive, although they are basically just techno-babble. At some point we were wondering whether we could make it look like this is a conversation that uses the live chat function of the library page, but that seemed to much detail to get into. Maybe once we have good feedback on the whole thing this is something to do to pretty it up a bit.

Testing the refined prototype

The next step was to put this out there, and ask people from outside of the team to test it. We invited some library professionals, as well as lecturer colleagues, one of my experience design friends, and I also tried to get some students on board as testers. We had some feedback, but not as much as I would have liked, and simplified instructions a bit more based on that feedback. (I can recommend having somebody screenshare with you while they are playing and talking you through their thinking, that was a very valuable exercise for me!)

And this is the stage we are currently at. We have decided to make it available to the wider university now, but make it clear it is still in the testing phase. Keep your fingers crossed!

(and yes, I will update you about this at some stage ;-))

With less than 2 weeks to go until the inaugural Academic Afternoon Tea, I thought I would share the preparatory (but also completely optional) task I set the people who have signed up, maybe one of you out there who won’t be able to join us would like to join in with this?

(One of the principles of Experience Design as taught by the College of Extraordinary Experiences is Co-Creation, the idea that ‘the group’ contributes to a shared knowledge base and design. This is, of course, also something that has become more and more important in Learning and Teaching, the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, for example, as well as inviting the Student Voice into the classroom by making students co-creators.)

As we are meeting for afternoon tea, I have asked participants to think about what aspects ‘lubricate’ our teaching and learning?

In the best regenring tradition, let us try and explain and share these concepts as ‘tasting notes’ of tea blends – the brief descriptions of what a tea tastes like, what its properties are and even how to prepare it.

This probably makes more sense when looking at some examples, so here are two that I came up with:

Whimsicalitea

An often unexpected taste, this is best served in small portions (especially at the beginning, after which it might develop into an acquired taste by the drinkers and could therefore be used more frequently and in larger doses). Very useful to introduce a sense of wonder and playfulness into sessions, it can open up the imagination and the exploring of opportunities.

Insanitea

A strong blend that is related in taste profile to Whimsicalitea, but much more intense. As this is almost hallucination inducing it is imperative to use this in only small doses. However, it is sometimes needed to get people’s thinking off the beaten track.

As you can see, the link to ‘tea’ works quite well if you get hold of a term that in conventional spelling ends in -ty, but you could equally make up a more fancy name for your tea blends, maybe inspired by blends that are out there. Really, I think the most important thing is to reflect on some aspects of teaching and learning that make it special – and have a bit of fun with this.

AAC tea menu photo

The ‘menu’ I made for the Academic Afternoon Tea – including some of the submitted tea tasting notes

Here are some that were suggested by participants:

Jovialitea

A fresh taste of cheerfulness that tempts the taste buds and lifts the spirits. (Kath Houston)

Acceptabilitea

An essential, everyday brew that shows willingness to work inclusively and to recognise worth in all students. Best served with an open mind, a kind eye, and a pinch of salt! (Christy Anna Evans)

Joie-de-vivre-tea

A lively brew, made with an attitude that combines passion for your subject, love of your work and a joyous approach to life! (Christy Anna Evans)

Creativitea

Our blending muses know that whilst mood and motivation change throughout the day, a bold wake up cuppa can put the first bounce into the creative leaps and bounds we make later in the day. Whatever blend of creativitea you choose, the taste can be adjusted to creative state with the addition of milk and/or sugar. In need of a creative hit first thing, then go easy on the milk but sprinkle that sugar liberally. Feel your creative juices flow as you drink a cup of liquid toast and honey. Feel sweet enough already? Then forgo the sugar and milk and enjoy an unadulterated cup of warming inspiration. Creativitea: the best start to your day. (Sandie Donnelly)

Pragmatisane

For those moments when it just isn’t happening for you, turn to pragmatisane. Step away from the computer, let the battle go, and fill your cup with zesty lemon, sharp enough to zap any lethargy, blended with warming spicy ginger to comfort and ease any emerging anxiety. Find a chair with a view, put your feet up and sip on pragmatisane. As the ginger relaxes you, the sharp lemon cuts a path through any blockages. You’ll be rested and refreshed in no time. Pragmatisane, because paralysing creative blocks aren’t worth it … (Sandie Donnelly) 

My aim is to collect a whole menu full of teaching inspired ‘teas’ and to share this at the Academic Afternoon Tea (and also here on the blog).

If this sounds like fun, please add your own as a comment!

…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!

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.