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Designing for Change – DPL reflections and resources

I spent the few weeks leading up to my Design for Change track at the Digital Pedagogy Lab (DPL) conference wondering what in the world I had signed myself up for. How exactly does one lead a 4-day workshop on Design for Change? What does that even mean? Aside from my usual impostor syndrome, I felt completely overwhelmed when I tried to define what I wanted and hoped for from my workshop track.

Again and again, I returned to the Design for Change track description and the blog post I wrote earlier this year:

“It is within this context [an erosion of trust, an influx of external polarizing voices and influences, and a growing backlash against academic and public institutions and their part in the public sphere] that many of us are trying to reframe our work, with the goal of making positive change in education and the world. We don’t have a choice. Education can never be thought of as apolitical or divorced from social and political contexts. Paulo Freire, in many of his writings, argues that any beliefs we have about the role of education in students’ lives, any hopes we have for students and our world, make education a political activity. That notion is to be embraced, not obscured or denied. As educators, as designers, as technologists—as people whose work is intended to support the transformative role of education in students’ lives and in civil society—we can no longer ignore the call to action.”

Given the state of our country and of higher education, I wanted to call into focus a need for the work of education to be political. Not political in a right/left conservative/liberal way, but in a way that acknowledges that educational choices and opportunities are driven by a desire for some kind of future state. That desire, that vision for a future for our students or for education, is a political act. Robert Jensen, in his excellent book, Arguing for our Lives, makes the argument that education may look apolitical when our vision for students or for education is aligned with the status quo. That form of education isn’t apolitical—it just embodies a vision for the future that reinforces the status quo.

Rather than shy away from our ideologies, how do we acknowledge them and make them transparent as we do our design work? How do we use our visions of the future to connect with our students? How do we do design for change—whether is change at a national level, or change within our classrooms—with a deep connection to the humanity of those with and for whom we are making the change?

With those questions in mind, I decided to start my track with a focus on change—why it’s needed, how change is a political act, how we connect deeply to those for/with whom we are seeking change.

Here are three things we focused on:

Listening –  I have been inspired by thoughtful academics like Sherri Spelic and Maha Bali to foreground listening in the work of designing for change. This might seem like an obvious inclusion, but I think it’s one we don’t often make space for, especially at conferences. To make space for listening in our track, we did a listening activity in groups of 4 where each person spoke for 1 minute in response to a prompt. The listeners were told to just listen—no verbal responses and minimal physical responses. The prompts were: 1) Tell about a time when you received a gift that warmed your heart, and 2) If you could do “one last job” before you retire, what would it be? I have to say, walking around and listening to people sharing their stories, I was in tears by the end of the activity. It was truly beautiful.

Writing – Taking a page (literally) from Undoing the Silence, a book that Netta Avineri introduced me to when we taught together last spring, the track made space for free writing as a tool for change. We did several free writing exercises, some with prompts and some without, and were blown away by how powerfully freeing those brief activities were. I walked away with a goal to add more free writing opportunities into my daily schedule.

Exploring emergent design processes – I tend to move away from rigid design processes, like ADDIE or Design Thinking (ugh), because of how narrowly focused they can become. In the track, we asked broader questions about for whom and for what we are designing change, and we made explicit what principles/values guide our approach to designing for change. A design principle that emerged for participants in our track was one I heard from Naomi de la Tour in her one-day Applied Imagination track (oh I need to write a separate post about that lovely experience!). Naomi mentioned that it was part of her personal teaching philosophy to help students feel indispensable to her classes. I thought that was a beautiful idea and, as a Design track, we talked about how to design for students to feel indispensable.

During the week, we also dived deeper into higher education areas where digital pedagogues should be leading change—namely, information environmentalism and student privacy. Those deep dives were fun and helpful—just enough of a dive to help us identify ideas, conversations, tools, and strategies to take back to our campuses.

But, with all of the things we did and discussed in the Design for Change track, here is the most important thing I took away from this week: We need each other. Track participants connected meaningfully with each other as we wrestled with our roles in designing for change. By the end of the week, we were discussing ways to stay connected year-round, through a creative “calendar of holidays” that we will celebrate together. I feel so lucky to have added the Design for Change participants to my professional network and I know that I will lean on them to support the work we must do to bring about the change we hope to see with our students.

So I am wondering, how do we start to build that kind of community at Middlebury? How can we lean more on each other to bring about the changes we hope to see at Middlebury?

Big digital hugs going out to this amazing Design Team (Design for Change track participants)!

Additional resources from the week:

Two excellent keynotes from Jade Davis and Anya Kamenetz

Rebecca Solnit on Breaking Silence as Our Mightiest Weapon Against Oppression

Open Pedagogy Notebook

Links from the DPL Privacy track

Featured image by Ju On

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