Why Design Matters in Digital Higher Education (2013)

Design is having its moment.  Apple’s  Jonathan Ive, Philippe Starck and Michael Graves are among a growing number of designers enjoying rock-star status. Businessweek, Fast Company and other pubs now dedicate entire issues to design. Enrollment in college design programs has spiked.

But what role does - or should - design play in education, specifically digital higher education? A lot, it turns out. As we move from the classroom to the screen, design matters more than ever.

The qualities that create great design are also the qualities needed to create great online learning experiences. 

The relationship of design and higher education is the theme of a series of posts we’re kicking off.  This first post highlights what great design and great educational experiences have in common. The parallels are many.

Next, I’ll explore the forces of competition and change driving the need for design in higher ed. The third installment will review the state of design in higher ed.  I’ll wrap up the series by exploring the parallels between design and learner data.

So, exactly what is design?  There isn’t a single definition; the field is broad and expanding. In the context of this series, think of design more as user experience (UX), than instructional design.

Design in digital higher ed is about how people interact with screens, software, interfaces and information in a holistic, multidisciplinary way.

Similarities between design and education:

  • Great design and great education is user/student-centric.

  • A great designer, like a great educator, takes what is complicated and makes it easy to understand.

  • Well-designed services and systems are elegantly integrated and easy to use; so are the best educational web sites, services and systems.

  • Great design leverages the user's existing knowledge, just as great education builds upon the learner’s prior knowledge.

  • Great design connects users with information and experiences in ways that makes it memorable and "sticky." So does great education.

  • Great design attracts the user by making the experience as compelling as possible. Great education strives to engage learners and increase interaction - a key determinant of learning success.

  • Great design evokes an emotional response, which can alter the user’s cognitive state. Great education can evoke positive emotions that make students more creative and open to new approaches when learning.

  • Great design saves time by focusing the user's attention on the most important information. Great online learning experiences maximize students’ time by focusing their attention on the key learning objectives and outcomes of the course.

  • Great design seeks to transcend passive, one-way communication towards active engagement with the user. Isn’t this the goal of all great educators and institutions?

We know from retention and completion rates that just providing knowledge is not enough. Other sectors and industries have recognized this. Design is a differentiator in the market because it adds real value. It’s a lesson that higher ed is just beginning to learn.