During this course, a series of tools were researched and designed to support students engaging in learning to innovation while solving challenges with the Concordia Innovation Lab. The tools created include a syllabus and discussion guide for students and a brief document for mentors.
The Innovation Lab invites registered Concordia University students from all faculties to spend a term (8 or 13 weeks) working together in a group to address a challenge as contextualized by external partners or other Concordia instances. Participation is extra-curricular (i.e., students receive no credits), but they do receive an award payment. This means that the lab has to appeal to students of all disciplines, and the challenge-based experience is new to almost all student applicants and participants.
Numerous issues were prioritized:
- An initial version of the syllabus, which focused on IDEO's Design Thinking approach and was created by Dr. Ann-Louise Davidson, was the starting point for this work. The Design Thinking approach did not align with the challenge-based pedagogy or the values of the lab.
- There was minimal supporting documentation for students to develop teams or practice design research methods
- The application process produces student responses which were sometimes difficult to compare or differentiate. The questions were not always aligned with the selection criteria.
- Subsequent iterations focused primarily on providing students with guidance on using design research methods
At the onset of the course, the objectives I set for myself were:
- Primarily to find a comprehensive design approach that might be better suited to the varied nature of the challenges explored at the Innovation Lab and better aligned with its values. Thereafter, to adapt the syllabus (and instructional materials) around this alternate approach.
- Continue improving the diversity of formats of the learning materials (i.e., readings, audio and video) as per Universal Design for Learning guidelines.
- Include a wider variety of design approaches and perspectives in the learning materials.
- Add information to support students in better planning their work and balancing their workload.
Redesigning the syllabus (in Notion) and selecting a more holistic design process
At first, I transferred the document from MS Word into Notion in January 2021 (before the reading course commenced) to create a live version of the document with a calendar view. The content and layout were essentially preserved in the transfer.
Various design approaches were explored, including Human-Centred Design, Pluriversal Design, Equity-Centred Community Design, Design Justice, and The Double Diamond. Ultimately, the chosen design approach was A Systemic Design Approach (British Design Council, 2021) for its inclusion of a system-thinking, inclusion of nature as a stakeholder in design, perspective on design as a catalyst for change rather than as a process for creating ends, the inclusion of storytelling and leadership as enabling activities for design, and explicitly included enabling activities in alignment with the skills the Innovation Lab intends to teach to students.
While updating the syllabus, the content was reorganized into the following format for each week, and this was included to guide students in reading through the syllabus.
Example week # from–till
Design phase, which will be the focus of this week
These topics will be covered in the meeting, resources or your tasks.
List of Innovation Lab meetings for you to attend
Readings and multimedia
- A list of content to support you in working on this week, usually about 1 hour. The content should be reviewed before the weekly Tuesday meeting (except for the first week).
- Additional, optional content will be highlighted in gray.
- Suggestions of tools that may help you in this phase.
Incremental drafting for the final presentation
This new format was intended to support students in developing greater autonomy to progress through the challenges. It also greatly reduced the number of questions about the deliverables, tasks, schedule and design methods.
Although it is certainly not solely attributed to the syllabus, 100% of Winter 2021 Innovation Lab Challenge students reported in the final feedback survey that the experience was overwhelmingly positive and felt heard and included (83% of students responded to the optional, anonymous survey).
Continued improvements to the syllabus
After completing the above objectives, the Syllabus & Schedule was used with a cohort of challenge students during the summer of 2021. This time, results from the anonymous feedback survey were mostly positive (but not overwhelmingly so).
Taken together with (undocumented) discussions with several students, it seems quite likely that some of this critical feedback relates less to the syllabus and more to a misalignment between the scope of the challenges carried out by mentors and the initial Innovation Lab framing of these challenges. Specifically, some of the challenges seemed to be led by mentors to solve technical problems rather than as exploratory, student-led challenges. Addressing these issues relate more to partnership development, framing of the challenge, and the invitation – some of which are addressed further below.
Student feedback about the syllabus:
8 weeks is a really short time and constrained us only to explore one possible solution.
[During this challenge, what would really help my learning is] probably some more workshops specific to the task.
[During this challenge, what would really help my learning is to] have entrance packages with more specific instructions of what my team was asked to do.
[During this challenge, what would really help my learning is to have] very clear deliverables and understanding of how and what tangible skills will be learnt.
After reviewing more student feedback and in preparation for the fall 2021 iteration, I designed the following improvements to the syllabus:
- Adding a visual representation of the schedule to orient students visually;
- Adapt the schedule for an experience of longer duration (from 8 weeks to 13 weeks); and
- Combine multiple sections (weeks) when the content covers the same design activities (and deliverables).
Designing a guide for mentors to help them work with students
Most students had a positive experience participating in the Innovation Lab Challenges. However, it was clear in both the winter and summer 2021 challenges that students needed extra support when the mentors were not regularly engaging with them or when there were tensions between mentors and students. My reading of these situations (based largely on speaking with students in confidence, interacting with mentors, and reviewing student learning logs) was that better orientating mentors might address this as to the expectations and process of the lab.
Consequently, a summary and mentorship guide was prepared for sharing with prospective challenge partners who might mentor students and collaborate with the lab. Along with the mentorship guide, it may be helpful to add a visual overview of the syllabus (see the Syllabus & Schedule in the appendix). Although some exploratory research was carried out, the materials I discovered predominantly were about career mentorship and were not that helpful. Therefore, the guide was written from personal learning experiences (including conversations and feedback from students in past challenges and my own experience leading teams).
The mentorship guide outline:
- Understanding the Innovation Lab, its values, and challenge criteria
- Expectations of mentors concerning knowledge, attitudes and actions
- Who are the students?
- Benefits of being a mentor
The mentorship guide is available for download:
Designing a team-forming guide for students
During the course of the winter and summer 2021 challenges, several students reported that workloads across their teams felt very unevenly distributed.
I identified this as an opportunity to create an additional tool, a team-forming discussion guide, assembled with the support of brainstorming and initial contributions from Concordia Innovation Lab alumni. As the alumni also supported student teams, I facilitated an ideation session with them to elicit multiple perspectives on the issues, solutions, and activity formats. The students strongly preferred a tip-sheet format, and six issues emerged, so each leader was tasked with writing some tips for two issues.
However, I was concerned that a tip sheet would not be an ideal learning tool for these interpersonal issues and did not reflect the hands-on and experimental praxis of the Innovation Lab. Therefore, I produced a discussion guide by reassembling the tips and adding 3 issues which emerged during my research. The guide scaffolds a group discussion through 9 topics relating to team collaboration, thus granting each team the trust to learn and figure it out together. Additionally, the guide creates accountability among the team (and to the lab) by requesting that students document their agreements, sign them, and share them with the Innovation Lab. The hope is that the agreements students document may further improve how the lab supports students in forming healthy team dynamics.
The team-forming discussion guide is available for download:
Student feedback about the teamwork experience:
I [felt] like teamwork was hard, and maybe having workshops on this would help.
If my teammates put in more work. The problem with this challenge that made it difficult and at times, impossible to have fun was that a big portion of the work fell just to me.
Collective collaboration of my teammates, which sadly didn't happen, not even in the last stages of the challenge, made the whole teamwork chaos for myself and [another student.] … I would recommend fewer team members, like 4 people, for upcoming innovation lab challenges, it would make it much easier to reach out to people.
I, unfortunately, found this challenge not what I was expecting at all. It ended up being very stressful with regard to group dynamics.
Design and development of guides for research design methods
The Systemic Design Approach report by the British Design Council includes many helpful prompting questions and descriptions and diagrams of the approach. However, for students who are unfamiliar with design research, it is not always clear how to begin. To this end, I designed, researched and developed guides on various design research methods.
At the beginning of the challenges, students are simultaneously forming a new team, adjusting to challenge-based learning, learning about design research, and trying to understand what is happening in their challenge topic. Therefore, I focused the guides on the most critical methods for understanding and exploring their challenging topic.
The exploration methods guide is available for download:
Possible next steps: towards a more student-centred approach
After interacting with students and mentors during the first iteration, I began advocating for an approach in which we let students bring their own challenge topic, develop a network of collaborators with whom to learn and ultimately address the challenge.
As part of a course assignment, I developed a research prospectus for a design-based research study that “focuses on important research gaps within the increasingly popular and highly relevant approaches to authentic learning in higher education.”
Subsequently, I carried out a critical literature review to “examine what the literature says about supporting higher education students learning to address complex problems by developing their own knowledge networks.”
Finally, in one of the student application forms, I included some optional questions to gauge student interest in working on their own challenge topics (85% interested) and working on a challenge over two terms (75% interested). These results align with what I heard anecdotally from students and what I found in the literature.
An iterative approach was used to produce tools to support students' learning experience in the Concordia Innovation Lab Challenges.
Improving the student learning experience involved:
- Selecting a new design approach with which to align the learning process and supporting materials, the Systemic Design Approach;
- Addressing areas of critical feedback from students by:
- Clarifying the work expected of students throughout the challenge;
- Empowering students to shape healthier team dynamics from the beginning explicitly; and
- Clarifying the expectations of mentors who will support the students.
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Syllabus & Schedule
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Team-forming discussion guide alumni notes
Edmond, E. (2021). Meeting Habits. [Unpublished notes]. https://miro.com/app/board/o9J_l52Vu8o=/
Ledo, J. (2021). Vibes. [Unpublished notes]. https://miro.com/app/board/o9J_l52Vu8o=/
Park, H. (2021). Tipsheet. [Unpublished notes]. https://miro.com/app/board/o9J_l52Vu8o=/