When Students Design University: An Interview with Alessandra Molinari & Andrea Alessandro Gasparini  

Design thinking can provide students with the opportunity to think like an ‘expert designer,’ which can allow for greater engagement and commitment. It can be especially powerful as an instrument for students to become involved in organizational policies within higher education.  

As part of the topical issue ‘Design Thinking for Education’ in the DeGruyter open access journal ‘Open Education Studies’ Alessandra Molinari and Andrea Alessandro Gasparini discuss a case study of design thinking involving students in higher education and the humanities.    

You are part of the inaugural issue of DeGruyter’s new open access journal ‘Open Education Studies’.  What made you decide to submit to the journal?

Both authors: The first reason was the view of design thinking, and of the role of design thinking in education, as it was presented in the text of the call of the 2019 topical issue edited by Stefanie Panke: “The essence of design thinking in education is to put learners into contexts that made them think and work like an expert designer, and thereby foster civic literacy, empathy, cultural awareness and risk taking.” This is precisely how our experiment with the humanities students at the University of Urbino started: we wanted to teach them to think and act like designers when approaching their personal and student concerns, and how beneficial this can be both in their individual and social life. A second reason has to do with the journal: we share its scientific aims and its open-access mindset. Open Education Studies addresses all present-day topical issues of higher education, and it will surely develop into a great research and dialogue platform. In particular, the focus of the journal on ‘open education’ as a means to democratize and equalize access to education coheres with our view of education as a common good, and of higher education as a collegiate, dialogical learning space that should acknowledge the role of students as full partners. A third reason has to do with Stefanie Panke: one of us (Alessandra) was reading an 2013 article of hers when the call appeared, and she has consulted an educational e-portal (https://www.e-teaching.org/) to design some of her courses in the last years. Stefanie Panke contributed to creating this portal. So we could be sure that Panke’s 2019 topical issue of Open Education Studies would be edited with her great competence, along with excellent technical support from the de Gruyter team.  

What may be some of the implications of Open Access journals on education research and practices?   

Both authors: Open access journals may (and should!) play a major role in fostering a culture of ‘scholarly community’, i.e. in fostering universitas in its true sense: sharing the outcomes of one’s own research so that they can be implemented in other research and educational contexts; being inspired by projects and approaches from other research initiatives in other parts of the world; thinking global while also acknowledging the specific traits of research from other cultural contexts. After all, research is paid by citizens with taxes and access to the output should be free for all.  It is also exciting to contribute to such a world-wide dialogue, especially when the issues at stake are a concrete advancement of knowledge and life of human communities through a creative and thoughtful, human- and environment-centered approach such as design thinking.   

You helped shape the journal launch both as a contributing author and reviewer to the topical issue ‘Design Thinking in Education’.  What were your experiences in both roles?

Alessandra Molinari: It was a true honor to be able to contribute both as an author and as a reviewer. When the paper was accepted, I perceived this as a confirmation that our research is going in the right direction and that it is responding to some main concerns in present-day and future higher education. The 2019 topical issue of Open Education Studies addresses a crucial point: the potentials of design thinking for higher education. These are huge, because it lies in the empathic DNA of design thinking to be flexible to varying contexts and requirements. Design thinking has an open-boundary epistemological core that enables it to build interdisciplinary bridges with other approaches and knowledge fields. All the articles in the topical issue give effective evidence for this. In our case, the challenge was to find out in which specific ways students from the humanities may learn to think and act like designers, how design thinking itself may benefit from the humanities, and how my students’ specific, humanities-driven mindset may incorporate a design thinker’s way to participate in the governance of their university. In my view, promoting student democratic participation in university governance should be recognized as a vital stake for the future of higher education, as it fosters young adults’ trust that they will be able to co-build a cohesive democratic society. Design thinking may substantially contribute to this because it pivots on dialogueand because it places dialogue in a non-hierarchy based setting. For the same reasons, reviewing another article of this topical issue was a great source of inspiration for me. As a reviewer, I had insight into another way of applying design thinking in educational contexts: as a consequence, I am drawing precisely on their results in another article I am writing right now which employs their understanding of ‘inter-organizational design thinking’. To me, it was amazing to read that somewhere else over the Atlantic Ocean, in a totally different learning landscape, someone has committed him/herself to building relational agency through design thinking, as Andrea and I have. This is also evidence of how beneficial open access may be. Last but not least, both as a reviewer and as an author, I truly appreciated the ‘spirit’ of the whole editorial enterprise by Stefanie Panke and the technical team (just to name one: Beata Socha): open, friendly, ready to help, and excited to contribute with their expertise and competence to the success of this issue. 

Andrea Alessandro Gasparini: Getting feedback from other scholars is a revealing experience. The very high skilled reviewers of the journal made writing this article a very positive experience. Furthermore, as we need to reduce the consumption of fossil energy when travelling to conferences, writing to an Open Access journal was a perfect occasion to evolve my own competence and hopefully grow my network in a more sustainable way. 

What first brought you to use design thinking?

Andrea Alessandro Gasparini: My supervisor at the University of Oslo, professor Alma Culén, introduced me to design thinking. I have always been interested in creativity, design and architecture, and design thinking helped me to understand what kind of elaborative forces lies behind. It was easy to make design thinking my own approach to explore what underpins the human act of design.  

Alessandra MolinariIt was Andrea! Before we starting collaborating, I had some faint notion of what design might be, but not the slightest idea of design thinking. The very term was totally unknown to me. Andrea started telling me about it, about his work with it, I noticed how passionate he was about it, and a totally new world opened up to my mind. To me, this has been a revolution, as if I had been searching for this for so long without being even aware of it. While working myself into Andrea’s and other design thinkers’ case-studies, I soon realized that design thinking has a great educational potential for humanities students: that of offering a flexible setting where some humanities properties that I love so much may be expressed and embedded into a practical day-life situation even beyond the traditional enactment boundaries of the humanities. As I argue in one section of our article, three major properties link humanities with design thinking on the level of their epistemology: these are empathy, creativity, and an overarching discourse on the nature of human being, This discourse is being lead as an interplay between utilitarian and non-utilitarian worldviews. My students learn to enact these three properties during my philology courses and, in general, along their humanities curricula. In my view, the most important heritage my students take with them in life from my philology courses as well as from all their humanities studies, besides learning to enact empathy and creativity, is their ability to reflect on what it means to be human. Here lies, in my eyes, the richest contribution that a humanistic mindset may give to a design thinker: the awareness that a human being is much more than a ‘user’ or ‘customer’, and that human lasting, joyful self-fulfillment does not ultimately depend on satisfying external and material needs. As we can experience in our everyday life, often material or organizational problems are perceived as so acute because they are a clue to a deeper, more hidden, existential desire that has not yet found a way to express itself. Here, an ampler view of the nature of human being, and of the deep existential desires lying at the core of human beings, is the decisive factor that will lead a design thinker to contribute to the solution of problems in all their implications and life contexts. This matches wonderfully with the notion of ‘mistake’ in design thinking, which fascinates me so much. In design thinking, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’: a ‘mistake’ shows you the way how to act more effectively to achieve your goal. Here, as a humanist, I see a great educational potential: if I train such a mindset in a design-thinking driven situation to solve a practical wicked problem, I can internalize this mindset and apply it to the bigger picture of my existence. I can become aware that my ‘mistakes’ are a source of growing and development, if I am willing to see them as such. This opens the way to forgiveness: If I am willing to grow out of my ‘mistakes’, then I can learn to forgive myself and forgive others. To put it existentially: I can turn my very ‘wounds’ into gateways to liberation and empowerment. There’s an intrinsic link between practical problems and existential ones. If I learn to solve the former, I can apply my trust and competence to the latter. Now, through design thinking, I have finally found the right setting to help my students valorize their humanistic mindset as proactive contributors in potentially any area of our society. This is why I proposed to Andrea that we organize our experimental interdisciplinary workshop: by learning to think like designers, my students should become aware of the resources they have precisely as humanists to enact their community’s full potentials, now and in their future life. 

How did you come up with the exercise of asking students to write love letter and break-up letters to their institution?

Andrea Alessandro Gasparini: In design thinking empathy is crucial to support divergent thinking in the initial phase of the design process. The love/break-up letters task allow the participants to balance different perspectives in a personal way. We aimed at giving the students an opportunity to “talk” to the University of Urbino, and share with each other the output. For us it was mandatory to build truthfulness in what we wished to accomplish with the design thinking activity and the love/break-up letters should show to the students that we really wish to involve them.   

Alessandra Molinari: Andrea’s proposal that the workshop should begin with the love and break-up letters activity was a brilliant move! After the initial surprise, my students started writing, with commitment and in a personal, authentic tone. From the point of view of our research questions, this activity was very effective: it gave the students the opportunity to become aware that through design thinking their individual concerns (as expressed through the letters) do affect the later stages of the creative process in a way that the final, collective results do really take account of each participant’s voice. This has mattered a lot to my students even long-term, as they wrote in their feedback taken one year after the workshop. 

How did the students perceive that activity?

Both authors: All the students were positive! Both in the written feedback and picture taken, one can understand why! They wish to contribute to the future of University of Urbino, as a place to be understood, grow intellectually, and not a factory of grades to give legitimacy for governments funding. As they wrote and told us in their feedback, the workshop was a novel experience to them in many respects, especially two specific reasons: first, they have felt seriously ‘listened to’ for the first time; second, they have become aware for the first time that they are a community whose single voices are taken seriously so to harmonize into shared values.  

More general, what are the implications of using design thinking workshops in higher education, specifically the humanities?

Andrea Alessandro Gasparini: As Alessandra has mentioned, design thinking is an approach allowing students to participate in designing their own future. I hope other design thinking based activities will give them equal opportunities to do so. Maybe we need a new `68 student revolution, supported by design, to change the path we are into now? 

Alessandra Molinari: Design thinking is very effective for the learning outcome based approach being adopted since the beginning of the ‘Bologna process’ within the European Higher Education Area: design thinking coheres with the constructionist foundations of student-centered learning, so that it is a welcome framework for achieving learning goals in present-day constructivist study programs. Furthermore, in the context of the two visions of higher education that are being colliding against one another within the EHEA – the vision of higher education as a corporatist enterprise with teachers as content-transmitters (or service-providers) and students as consumers of educational services, as advocated by the European Commission, versus the vision of higher education as a common good with teachers as democratic ‘educators’ and students as proactive, democratic full partners, as advocated by the official Communiqués of the EHEA governments – design thinking may support the latter view, because it creates a hierarchy-free problem-solving process where every participant is called to have a voice in the matter and respect the others’ voices. For humanities students, specifically, design thinking can also offer the chance to become aware that the competencies they are best trained in – empathy, creativity, and many others – do really matter in present-day world, and that their presence on the job market does make a difference. Therefore, I also think that the humanities studies are a solid background to become a great professional design thinker. And finally, from the didactic point of view, when I organize my course schedules, design thinking workshops are a welcome counterbalance to lecturing: I organize a part of the course in a lecturing format when I have to introduce a new, general topic in a limited time-window, and use workshops to deepen one specific aspect of the topic or to put the students’ ideas, questions, and concrete projects on the foreground. 

What do you see as the role of creative interdisciplinarity in design thinking practices?

Alessandra Molinari: Rick Szostak proposes an understanding of interdisciplinary research as a creative design process. This makes Szostak’s approach theoretically accurate and practically effective. On the level of the theory, it makes it clear that interdisciplinarity is not just a matter of ‘putting together’ two or more knowledge areas. Pursuing interdisciplinary research means identifiying some epistemological bridging points between two (or more areas) and creating a novel, common ground on the basis of the insights that have arisen from the combinating process. The process itself follows conscious and subconscious paths. The role of latter in creating (interdisciplinary) research has been underestimated and one merit of Szostak’s model is that it puts more the subconscious on the foreground than this usual happens in interdisciplinarity theory. This theoretical acknowledgement of the dynamic, creative factors in interdisciplinary research has beneficial effects in the practical design of interdisciplinary projects such as our workshop, as it allows a designer to identify the milestones of his/her creation process and let enough space to subconscious-driven factors such as surprise, emotional engagement, and the courage to let the process take unexpected directions. Obviously, this makes Szostak’s approach perfectly fit the construction of design thinking practices. 

Andrea Alessandro Gasparini: Dialogical space is an important concept one need to thrive for during a design thinking process. Interdisciplinarity is mandatory to achieve such a goal. Different perspectives also help the design process when divergent thinking is needed.  

What do you think were some of the reasons for the high engagement levels of participants?

Both authors: We both have experienced how important the voice of students is, and especially now, with a new decade in front of us, with so many unprecedented problems to solve, students know they need more and better tailored universities. The participants embraced design thinking as “the” approach to help them toward that path. As they told us in their feedback, they have acknowledged its truly dialogical, non-hierarchical approach. So far away from the power conflict fostering settings of formal governance bodies (were student representatives always sit on the lighter side of the balance) or the quality assurance practices such as anonymous course rating surveys where they have to answer almost exclusively pre-fixed questions, regardless whether they find them relevant or not. 

What are some of your ideas surrounding conducting a longer-term design thinking workshop?

AlessandraTwo longer-term design thinking workshops are planned for my 2019-2020 philology courses (for instance, see one course syllabus in https://www.uniurb.it/syllabi/256478, point D: “Laboratories”). Both workshops will give the participants the chance to internalize the design thinking mindset more deeply, and to achieve more lasting results. One of them (the “Student community lab”) is meant to prosecute the project described in the article. The starting phase will last 18 hours; the subsequent phases will last longer, as they will be taking place after the end of the courseRecently, the director of UNIURB CISDEL, that is, the center for educational services at Uniurb, has proposed me to extend the Student Community Lab to all Uniurb students. My plans are that student representatives from all departments meet in the design thinking-driven Student community lab to address the issues of the Uniurb student community, also by inviting non-representative students and the other stakeholders of Uniurb governance: academics, the administrative staff, the Presidency staff, as well as investors, local and regional lawgivers, and so on. My aim is that, on the long run, this experiment should develop into a permanent collaboratory run by the students themselves, even without my help.  

Andrea Alessandro Gasparini: I must say I am really impressed how Alessandra has really used design thinking in her academic life!   

What are some of the projects that you are currently working on/excited about?

 Alessandra Molinari: Besides going on with the projects initiated with Andrea, there are others more focused on philology and medieval culture. One of them has a strong multi- and interdisciplinary imprinting between philology, manuscript studies, information management, HCI (and UX), and learning sciences, the latter especially as concerns the relationship between handwriting and digital culture. It is Textus invisibilis, a digital fragmentology project that I initiated in 2010-11 to valorize the medieval manuscript fragments which were recycled as bookbinding material for archival volumes in the early Modern Era. We are now a partnership and a research group involving my University, the State Archive of Pesaro-Urbino, several historical libraries and archives in the territory nearby, and the Paris-Sorbonne with their project Books within booksIn this project, student participation is also playing a role: I am about to use an UX approach to valorize student participation and Andrea is giving me some valuable advice on how to employ UX to this aim, also through his feedback on an article I am writing right now on the project for Open Information Studies. Originally, the aim of Textus invisibilis was to set up a multimedia database that should contain a catalogue of the fragments preserved at the Urbino section of our State Archive (as well as of the texts contained in the fragments), the virtually restored images of them, and the images of the virtually reconstructed ‘intact’ codices as they might have looked before they were dismembered into fragments (this should be achieved by putting the fragment images together and processing them to reconstruct ‘puzzle-like’ the original whole). The questions raised by the students recently participating in the project and in labs focused on the fragments (s. the lab description for 2019-20 in the webpage of my course) have urged us to re-design the original project: we would like to develop the database into an open research and educational platform with a section where younger users may pursue some interactive learning activities to foster their handwriting skills and their awareness of the specific benefits that they can gain from handwriting-related literacy as well as from digital literacy. We will be pleased to welcome anyone genuinely interested in our research issues.  

Andrea Alessandro Gasparini: During fall 2019 I was fortunate to teach with a colleague of me, associate professor Suhas Joshi, a master class in Design Thinking and Service design, and  this spring I will start teaching a class of transformative design. Both are part of the Sustainability Design Lab (ref.) effort we have in our research cluster DIGENT: Sustainability and Design. In the lab we have now six new master students working on topic regarding sustainability and life sciences. I will be one of the supervisors for them, and I will do research in the field of empathy in design. More specific how to design for empathy in sustainability using design thinking. Hopefully, the results we be a chapter in the anthology Alessandra and me are planning.  

How did your collaboration relationship start?

Both authors: The beginnings are quite anecdotal… In our youth, we had been pen-friends for around five years, sending us letters between Italy and Norway. Then, during university, we stopped. After 31 years of total no-contact, we met again. To our greatest astonishment (and fun!), we found out that we had both become academics, and that we were both researching on empathy – each of us both within our respective fields! So we started exchanging our views on empathy, and our experiences with it in our work. From there, we told each other about our fields… and the obvious step has been to pursue interdisciplinary research together! Andrea proposed me to publish some results of our research on the nature of empathy jointly in a monograph volume, and I proposed to him the student participation workshop project in Urbino. 

What’s next on your research and publication agenda?

Both authors: We are going on with our multi- and interdisciplinary research project on empathy, a monograph publication that should stimulate dialogue between many fields – not only design thinking and humanities. This is proceeding quite at a slow pace because we are working at it ‘in between other projects’. But we will succeed – keep posted! 

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