My good friend and colleague, Sean hobson, agreed to share his thoughts on his role at ASU, the Ph.D. he’s working on, and university life after the pandemic.
Question 1: What does a design director at a university do all day?
Well, this is interesting because first you have to start by understanding what we mean by “design”. When most people think of the word design, they imagine what something looks like. They can imagine a logo, or a website, or a building, or a piece of furniture. I see design as an intentional problem-solving process that can be applied to the tangible (visuals and objects) and the intangible (interactions and systems), as a tool for exploring possible futures. The output of our creations can be material objects; verbal or visual communications; organized activities or services; or complex systems or environments. I am perhaps the only person in higher education to have the title of “Chief Design Officer”, and it is a natural fit at ASU. Our president, Michael Crow, has written a book entitled: “Design the new american universitySo design is certainly at the forefront at ASU.
My work ends up being different depending on the day, the project and the initiative. Much of our work falls under the special initiatives category and often comes back to the office of the president or provost. We also have a handful of core projects that we know will help us achieve the university charter. I have found that taking a backward design approach leads to the best innovations and solutions. I spend a lot of time trying to understand and define the “problem”. By identifying the problem of the day (or the week), I ask myself the question: “What does success look like?” several times a day because often there is no clear answer to this most basic question. And there is seldom a harmony between the stakeholders – and I have to talk to a lot, and so a lot of my work is devoted to strategy, communications and consensus building.
I really have one of the best jobs at ASU. One day I might work with a biology professor to design virtual reality experiences for online students, and the next day I might work with companies outside of college like Uber or YouTube to imagine how new learning partnerships and collaborations can adapt to underserved learners. . For example, a few years ago we were fortunate to create a new kind of Masters in WWII Studies with the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. We worked with their historians and content, our teachers and designers, and we were able to create a one-of-a-kind degree that has now enrolled hundreds of learners from across the country. Innovations like this, at speed and scale, are what excites me about the future of higher education.
Question 2: Not only do you have a big job at ASU, you are also working on your PhD. Tell us about your thesis research and why you decided to do a doctorate. at this stage of your career?
First of all, I recognize that I take a non-traditional path to get a PhD. Most of my peers got their doctorates. degrees earlier in their career. But ASU is one of those unique academic places where you can have “a big job” without having a terminal research degree. I see this as a benefit for the institution, because culture brings researchers and practitioners together – at the highest levels – to solve problems. I have always been grateful to work in an institution that measures success by results. It has been really enriching.
Having said that, a doctorate has always been one of my personal goals. My father got his doctorate. at the age of 50, and this gave him flexibility and stability in his role as an engineering professor and department head, which he would never have had without the degree. I was a C student throughout high school, interested in people more than academics, and did not perform well on standardized tests. But I was still curious and finally found my love for learning. As a professional, I took executive programs at Stanford in design and artificial intelligence. I loved being a student again and these experiences boosted my interest in a PhD. program. Although I graduated from college, I was still concerned with a doctorate. was out of reach due to the hurdles surrounding getting the GRE, years of schooling while raising a young family, and big questions of how would I pay the tuition, and is it worth it at this somewhat advanced stage of my career. I realize now, 14 months after starting the program, that these thoughts had created artificial barriers that kept me from starting much earlier. When COVID hit and I turned 40, the opportunity to research remotely pushed me to finally pursue that goal, and it has been a very empowering but enjoyable experience so far.
And so true to my non-traditional path, I decided to continue studying at Dublin City University in Ireland. ASU has a terrific transatlantic partnership with DCU, which has helped me overcome many of the aforementioned obstacles. And I work with two great advisers Mark Brown and Mairéad Nic Giolla Mhichil. Thanks to COVID, it’s a totally remote experience, but I regularly meet with my committee through Zoom, and really enjoyed being able to delve into the topics of design, change, and learning innovation. A real advantage of working in higher education!
For my research topic, I am focusing on a phenomenon that I believe is one of the most critical and pressing issues facing any college or university today, especially in light of the pandemic. . And this is it: How do learning organizations understand, adapt and change? I’m looking at how innovation in design and learning plays a role in this change, and how we need to design organizations to enable higher education institutions to keep pace with the changing world around them. The aim of this study is to explain and understand how learning from innovation departments function as transformative change agents in higher education institutions. The aim is to combine research and practice and to offer ideas to institutions that want to change, that need to change according to the evolving needs of society and that need to design innovative departments in response.
To achieve my goal, I focused my research on a university and learning innovation department that I know very well, in part because I was instrumental in its creation, and that is EdPlus at Arizona State University. EdPlus is not only a unique department within ASU, but also represents the type of department that is growing in higher education, as you and Eddie so terribly attracted attention in your first book, Learning innovation and the future of higher education. More information on EdPlus in a minute.
I started my career at ASU as an Instructional Designer (ID) and in my biased opinion IDs have become the secret agents of change within their universities. Fifteen years ago, there were only a handful of instructional designers at ASU who helped faculty design, develop, implement and support digital teaching and learning courses and programs. Since then, the growth in instructional design has been significant, and not just at ASU. The Instructional Design position is one of the most in-demand jobs in higher education.
EdPlus represents a unique and growing type of department that is appearing in universities around the world. It functions both as a service organization and as an R&D laboratory. It advances learning design and new business ventures. He has a start-up culture but fits well within the university business. It has its history in teaching and learning centers, but takes an exterior-interior approach in its decision-making. More importantly, it helps the parent institution evolve on the fringes, but often sits at the heart. New projects, new tests, new research, new partnerships, new design models, experiments, failures and successes all in all lead to a culture that has changed over time.
Question 3: You are one of the co-founders of HAIL storm network, and have been a leader in the broader learning innovation community. From your perspective, what do you expect among the lasting changes for higher education from the COVID-19 pandemic?
That’s a great question, but I answer with the warning I make for a poor futurist and aspiring optimist. Basically, while I agree that the world has changed forever, I think we will bounce back to common standards and traditions. I think the impact of COVID on higher education will take time to materialize. I know everyone has been forced to use digital tools and technologies, all at the same time, which brings parts of the digital divide closer together. We were also forced to work and learn from home. For some, isolation and the self-directed model might prove to be a better option. For others, it might be completely counter-intuitive to their personalities and learning preferences.
It will be difficult to paint broad strokes, but I think we have an expanded set of experiences that can be helpful when designing for student success. I miss the relationships I have with people outside of the work assignment, meeting, or conference. I think as a social species we all miss parts of this whether we know it or not. That said, and one of the great ironies of Zoom, is that in some ways we are more connected than ever. Raise your hand if you’ve had a 5-7 with a long-lost aunt!
HAIL is an incredible group of higher education leaders who all face the same challenges regarding how to innovate through the design of learning within complex academic organizations, and the personal connections I have with HAIL are no different. This week I was able to reconnect with two dear friends, colleagues and HAIL co-conspirators Matthew Rascoff and James DeVaney. We had an exhilarating and thought-provoking conversation about this exact issue and how our work plays into the solutions. My only regret is that we couldn’t extend the discussion for hours and days like we would in a normal HAIL gathering. Hope we return to an in person or joint meeting this year. When we do, I am sure your question will be the center of the discussion.