I see an interesting parallel between the syllabus, which I recently wrote of as a problem-artifact, and the work of interaction designers. An interaction designer informs how people will feel when they have an experience; they work with a variety of levers to define how people will interact with a product, service, or a system. A big part of interaction design work is the creation of a story, or a narrative, and good designers go out of their way to imagine what a user will feel when they experience a given product.
For example, when we designed the MyEdu profile, our designers thought about the journey a student would have with the product. We were able to select capabilities, language, colors, and composition to support the type of things we wanted students to feel as they interacted with our product, and we tried hard to help students feel in control and confident. A big part of the emotional journey we were trying to encourage with MyEdu focused on empowerment. The academic journey is full of anxiety, and we wanted MyEdu to encourage empowering experiences.
A professor who plans a course is an interaction designer. A course exists in an emotional context for a student. This context isn’t objective, but there are some heuristics for it. There is a bulk of research on the transition to college, for example, that indicates students experience an emotional roller-coaster during their first year of school, and encouraging optimism can have a significant impact on classroom performance. When faculty are aware of and consider this emotional context, they can leverage it to build empathy with students and to structure more rich learning moments. These are moments that educational theorist John Dewey describes as fundamental to successful learning:
“The word ‘interaction,’ which has just been used, expresses the second chief principle for interpreting an experience in its educational function and force. It assigns equal rights to both factors in experience-objective and internal conditions. Any normal experience is an interplay of these two sets of conditions… The trouble with traditional education was not that it emphasized the external conditions that enter into the control of the experiences but that it paid so little attention to the internal factors which also decide what kind of experience is had.” (Experience & Education)
Interaction designers think about a dialogue between a person and a situation; the word implies a back-and-forth, an exchange, and while that exchange can be modulated, it isn’t controlled. A class is the same. An instructor creates the boundaries around learning, and establishes several experiential pillars. They can alter content, pacing, teaching style, and have several main ways to better structure the dynamic of the course. But once the course begins, learning demands personal experience, and so education must acknowledge the emotional state of the learner.
I run a school in Austin, and we try to acknowledge this emotional context of the learner by making it overt. This diagram hangs on the wall, and we refer to it frequently as a way of recognizing how un-centering learning can feel:
I’ve found that students value and benefit from my recognition of their likely anxiety. They see the diagram, and think about how they feel compared to how they are “supposed to feel.” This point of reference helps them self-modulate; even though the curriculum is hard and stressful, it seems to be helpful to know it’s supposed to be hard and stressful at the particular point in the journey.
The only way I’ve found to relate to their emotional journey is to try to empathize with students, role-play across time, and sketch the whole thing in a visual form. When I think about a syllabus, it’s such a rudimentary artifact; it tries to realize this empathy, but without any visual sense of time. It seems like there is an obvious opportunity to increase the quality of education by providing teachers with tools that help them visualize their course, over time. Interaction designers create journey maps and service blueprints to visualize how people will feel, and what they will do, as they encounter a product or service. These seem like artifacts that can be easily appropriated in educational settings, to help teachers better empathize with their students, visualize the narrative arc of their course, and create supportive contexts for learning.