Articulating the context in the learning design studio

This post discusses the steps to articulating the context for a designing a learning activity to engage users at local history site mediated by mobile or social technologies. It reflects on an activity at the ‘Investigate’ stage of the learning design process and depends on the completion of the personas (see previous blog post).

Description of the activity

The aim of the activity was to identify the forces that define the context, which required an understanding of the factors (any noticeable characteristics of the situation) and the concerns (the factors of interest to the actors in this situation, the things they want to achieve or avoid).

Forces are, therefore, the factors and concerns that define the challenge, with the challenge being the description of the change needed to the context to be brought by the design.

Reflection on the activity

The group was charged with a three-step activity that involved:

  1. List all the factors and concerns you can identify in the personas you and your team mates have described.
  2. Distil the forces that are relevant to your proposed innovation.
  3. Map the relationships between these forces.

(Module instructions)

While I was working through this, I realised that one of the problems was that while I could list the factors and concerns in the persona identities, it was  instruction about distilling the ‘forces that are relevant to your proposed innovation’ that proved problematic. In the context of our design, we hadn’t gone to the stage of really deciding what the innovation was going to be, and therefore it wasn’t obvious at this stage what would be relevant. For example, we hadn’t decided if the solution was a mobile only or a blended solution that involved mobiles with other tools (such as a website). It was therefore difficult to decide which factors were relevant (or irrelevant).

In the end, we took a practical approach, working with what we had. The factors were classed under ‘material’, ‘social’ and intentional. So for example, material factors for the persons might be the ready availability of mobile devices and/or other equipment while social factors might be hours of work while intentional factors relate to a attitudes. In our case, we tended to choose factors that were related to technological availability of mobile devices, degree of receptivity to using them while even the weather in the outdoors would always be a factor.

I found this element was probably one of the most difficult to work together as a group. Each persona had a number of different concerns and factors. It was difficult to see what level of granularity a factor should go down to. However, we did – through a process of discussion and constantly referring to the personas – agree on a set of factors that we felt at least went some way to defining the context. I produced this list, which the group broadly agreed with:

1. Mobile device availability
2. Attitudes to mobile phone use
3. Current level of provision of information
4. Mobile data service availability
5. Parents would like children to engage on school trips
6. Weather may affect where and how visitors access information

Forces_snapshot

Snapshot of some of the forces established

I think we covered some of the main forces defining the challenge, but it is possible that we may have missed some. For example, we didn’t really look at teachers and schools’ needs specifically, not did we align the content to the curriculum.  However, on reflection, if we had tried to do this, we might have become bogged down in developing a formal learning  activity wheras the requirement was to ‘engage’ learners while at a site using mobile and social tools, which pointed us toward a more informal learning approach.

One of the outputs was to establish tensions and that resolving these is defining the design challenge. The main tension was the availability of the mobile devices and/or the desire or capacity to use them and on the other side the practicalities such as the cost of data, roaming charges, attitudes about mobiles in an outdoors learning activity. I am not sure if we resolved these issues at the time we did the force map (although we acknowledged them), but I can see that as the design developed, especially supplemented by research, we made some design decisions that built in flexibility about type of device, a ‘paper’ brochure option, the app design itself allowed a number of options to engage and eventual storyboard had the activity spanning classroom work, a site visit and then consolidation in the classroom or at home. Mobility therefore rested more with the learner than with the device.

Articulating the context was a difficult process, due to time pressures and group work, which requires discussion and waiting for responses. The terminology around factors, concerns and forces is not immediately intuitive, which meant that learning to become comfortable with the language around context development was an additional cognitive load. The Force mapping stage was therefore rushed as deadlines loomed. I think this could be a valuable activity to make the forces surrounding context explicit, but in this situation it probably needed more time to account for the iterative nature of the activity.

 

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2 thoughts on “Articulating the context in the learning design studio

  1. Sukaina – I agree this activity was one of the most difficult to do as a group. It did appear to be a time issue, we had some very interesting discussions about the forces and design tensions but time overtook us . When I was looking at a case study I found a very good description (video lecture – http://37signals.com/svn/posts/2294-designing-with-forces-how-to-apply-christopher-alexander-in-everyday-work#all_comments) by Ryan Singer describing how points of friction can help focus the design process.

    Also as I was looking for the link I found this description he gave of design patterns that may be useful for the TMA 🙂

    http://feltpresence.com/articles/15-understanding-design-patterns-in-your-everyday-work

    Thanks for another insightful post

  2. Pingback: Researching the design challenge | littlegreycellsblog

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