International Journal of Technology and Design Education

, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 749–765

Embedded creativity: teaching design thinking via distance education


    • Faculty of Maths, Computing, and TechnologyThe Open University

DOI: 10.1007/s10798-012-9214-8

Cite this article as:
Lloyd, P. Int J Technol Des Educ (2013) 23: 749. doi:10.1007/s10798-012-9214-8


This paper shows how the design thinking skills of students learning at a distance can be consciously developed, and deliberately applied outside of the creative industries in what are termed ‘embedded’ contexts. The distance learning model of education pioneered by The Open University is briefly described before the technological innovations—which feature a fully integrated web 2.0 learning environment and design studio—and concepts behind a new course in Design Thinking are explained in detail. In teaching the more generic skills of design and developing experiential knowledge in students, the paper also explores the changing role of designers in becoming less problem-focussed and more socially engaged through the construction of design process. The paper ends by presenting the results of an extensive student and tutor survey as part of an ongoing longitudinal study which indicate that this new approach to teaching design has been successful.


Design thinkingEmbedded creativityVirtual design studioDistance educationReflective practiceIntegrated learning environment


One of the main findings of a 2008 National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts report on the UK creative economy was that: “more people work outside the creative industries than inside them” (Higgs et al. 2008). Based on census data collected in 2001 the report identified 1.9 million people (7.1 % of the UK population) in ‘creative employment’. This figure breaks down to the number of people in the creative industries being 552,170, the number indirectly employed by the creative industries—for example in accountancy or business—690,641, and the number outside of the creative industries, ‘embedded’ in other industries being 645,067.

This general picture provides an interesting context for UK design education. The UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which provides data about subject areas and students in UK universities, shows that in the academic year 2009–2010 there were 173,825 students studying ‘Creative Arts and Design’ subjects, with 63,325 classified under ‘Design Studies’. Of these 2,570 (4 %) obtained a higher degree that year.

Where might these 2,570 graduates find employment? As the first paragraph indicated, the need for ‘embedded’ creativity outside of the creative industries is as big as the need for specialists within the creative industries so it seems plausible to think that an equal proportion would go on to work in this ‘embedded’ mode. This, however, raises the question as to why we primarily educate designers in specialist areas—product design, graphic design, architectural design, interactive design—when it appears many will not go on to practice professionally in those areas.

The argument for the productive application of design and creativity methods to a wider range of work-based situations has recently found traction in business schools and some design schools through the area of ‘design thinking’. This wider application of design is not a new development. The educational theories and philosophy of practice of Donald Schön, for example, have long considered the design studio as a teaching environment paradigmatic for many other areas of education and particularly professional education (Waks 2001). Waks notes Schön’s hypothesis that: “all professions are ‘designlike’ in some relevant aspects” (p. 41) meaning that all professional work involves the integrated and coherent resolution of problematic situations in parallel with a learning process. Brandt et al. (2011) summarise this well:

Managing the complexity of ill-structured, open-ended problems is key to design work where the work of a designer involves working with uncertain parameters in particular settings that evoke meta-knowledge, a sense of how to go about building an understanding of the problem at hand. (p. 3)

The hypothesis of Schön is that designers, specifically equipped to resolve complex problems in their work, and taught to do so in discursive studio-based contexts, provide a model for education in other professional practices.

The transferability of more generic design skills under the heading of design thinking, however, tends not to emphasise educational theory, instead focussing on the practical benefits that can be obtained. Recent approaches to design thinking can be classified in two ways. The first approach shows how methods of design can be used generically to add value to a business (Brown 2008, 2009; Lockwood 2009; Martin 2009). The second more pedagogical approach advocates designing as a way of empowering ‘non-designing’ people in resolving complex problems that go beyond business (Ambrose and Harris 2009). The latter is the approach that The Open University has taken in a new course titled ‘Design Thinking: Creativity for the 21st Century’ (course code: U1011).

How can design thinking be taught by distance? Central to any education in design has been the design studio as a place where practice is learned. The precise nature of that practice, and the way it has changed in recent years as the internet has grown, has been the locus of considerable research (Kvan 2001; Sagun and Demirkan 2009; Chiu 2010; Smith 2011; Ham and Schnabel 2011; Brandt et al. 2011). Brandt et al. (2011) describe three aspects of design studios: surface structures, the material conditions of the studio; pedagogical activities, how design problems are orchestrated; and epistemological understandings, the types of knowledge that are acquired in the studio. Of the latter they quote Brocato (2009) who writes:

central to studio based learning is the positioning of work in a critique space that renders the work never complete, always on a pathway toward better iterations (p. 142).

Kvan (2001) considers the pedagogical aspects of virtual design studios when compared to conventional design studios in architecture. There is an ‘essential compact’ between teacher and student that does not change with remote teaching, Kvan asserts, yet there are additional obligations for the tutor, particularly the need to facilitate and manage discussion online. With regards to peer-learning in an online design studio Kvan highlights the delicate process of building trust between remote peers in a group problem-based learning setting, something that needs less consideration in a face to face environment.

In a more recent study, looking at social networking and other types of interaction in virtual design studios—that perhaps go some way to overcoming the ‘problem’ of trust, especially as online behaviour has become more codified—Ham and Schnabel (2011) explore different types of new media and their appropriation for use in an online design studio concluding that:

media-rich platforms allow us to reframe our problems and subsequently the ways in which these problems can be explored in learning activities, thus enriching our current praxis of problem-based learning. (p. 115)

Both Kvan (2001) and Ham and Schnabel (2011), as do many other researchers looking at online design studios, use problem-based learning as the means by which students collaborate online in learning how to design, and indeed how we as teachers understand the contextual basis of that learning. This approach allows a certain flexibility for students to define and influence the outcomes of their projects, yet it is highly dependent on the particular dynamics of student groups, even with the recent developments in Web 2.0 that Ham and Schnabel note. Indeed, learning about group dynamics is a significant element of problem-based learning.

While resonating with many of the points above, this paper describes a slightly different approach to students studying design online using a virtual design studio. It is an approach that is less focused on problem-based learning, and more on the development of the thinking processes and knowledge of individual students in the context of a peer community. The distinctions Brandt et al. (2011) make above are useful here as the material conditions of the online environment have been carefully structured, through the use of learning outcomes, to create a range of epistemological understandings for students. Along with acquiring knowledge about design and designing through theory and example, students acquire knowledge in two other significant ways. The first is acquired through the social practices that the environment is structured to encourage, whereby students construct relativist understandings through discussion with their peer group. The second is the acquisition of experiential knowledge, often through a form of self-revelation, where students, in completing activities or assignments, learn something significant about themselves, others, or the task in hand.

As with all design students, but particularly students learning at a distance, a key way in which knowledge is acquired is through a process of induction; iterating through structures that slowly become intuitive. The distinction that was made at the beginning of the paper, between the specialist skills of designing and the more generic abilities that transfer across to areas generally considered to be outside of design should be noted here. The approach taken is to develop in students a number of key skills that, added together, form a design process. The sense in which the course produces designers, then, is the extent to which students gain epistemological understandings of the design process in allowing and encouraging them to construct new design processes.

The following section gives a brief overview of the unique way in which The Open University teaches its courses. The paper then goes on to describe how the distance learning model has been adapted to teach the practice of design thinking, following recent developments in the internet. Pedagogical concepts underpinning the course are then introduced, before a consideration is made about the impact that the course has had on staff and students.

The Open University educational model

The Open University in the UK came into existence in 1969 as the ‘University of the Air’, using radio, television, and printed materials to deliver course material to students studying at a distance. Over the decades the University, based on a campus in Milton Keynes, just north of London, has grown to over 250,000 students. Around 1,200 central academic staff produce learning material while over 8,000 regional academic staff deliver those materials and manage students directly.

The model of distance learning adopted by the Open University, and still in current practice, has two major features. The first is that the collection of course material provided to students is sufficient for ‘self-study’. That is to say that the student is able to learn simply by following the learning materials. Significantly, this means that, although every student is allocated to a regional tutor, the role of the tutor is to support the student in their study, not teach the course material.

The second feature is that the production of all course materials—for example audio, video, printed materials, timetables, assignments, marking guides, multi-media, online material, etc.—is completed before any students study the course. There is thus a production process, typically lasting 3 years, during which a course team made up of academics and support staff produce the course materials. This is followed by a presentation process, typically lasting 8 years, where the students study the course materials in regular cohorts. During this 8 years changes to the course materials are minimal.

Although this process is analogous to any product development process the closest analogy is perhaps to that of film, with a clear division between production—where the narrative of the film is crafted and fixed—and viewing—where an audience is able to watch, experience, and criticise the film.

Two aspects of higher education at The Open University deserve further mention. The first is that there is open access to everyone, regardless of prior qualification, for entry to first year (‘level 1’) courses. This means that course materials have to be crafted for a very wide range of student abilities and over the years the university has built up considerable expertise in pedagogy. The second is that the diversity of students is matched by the diversity of the regionally-based, part-time tutors the university employs. Sometimes tutors are already teaching in other universities or educational establishments, a few come from business, sometimes they are retired academics, and often they are people who have completed Open University degrees themselves.

Teaching design at a distance

Design as a subject area has long been taught at The Open University. The first course—Man-Made Futures: Design and Technology—appeared in 1975 and has been followed by many other courses leading up to the present day. Many significant design academics have been involved with these courses, including Nigel Cross, John Chris Jones, Robin Roy, and Lionel March. In contrast to how design is taught elsewhere, as a practice-based education, Open University design courses have concentrated on teaching that considers design as a general phenomenon; for example about how design takes place across different disciplines, or the impact and influence that design can have at, say, policy level. So rather than teaching students to design, as design education tends to do, Open University design courses have tended to teach students about design, producing students knowledgeable about design and the design process, but not necessarily accomplished as designers.

Three recent developments, all dependent on the ubiquity of the internet and increased broadband speeds, have made a different kind of design course possible, allowing the Open University orthodoxy of simply teaching students about design to be challenged. The first development is of a more social creativity. Web 2.0 has brought together people in ways amenable to demonstrating creativity through ‘usable’, configurable and media-rich websites. For example, the photo-sharing website Flickr reveals a huge range of approaches to photography, from the amateur to the professional, that combine and influence each other in a creative social network.

The second development is that the distinct disciplines of design have become more ambiguous, blurring boundaries that were once distinct. Presenting product portfolios online, for example, now means that an understanding of graphic and interaction design is necessary. This means that design has become more oriented towards communicating design possibilities rather than producing objects that fit into well-defined categories, be they buildings, vehicles, products, sounds, or fonts.

The third development is that conventional design education has become more ‘distanced’. Students are spending more time working at home, sending in their work electronically, and communicating online with fellow students and staff. The studio-based educational model of the past is slowly being eroded as design education progressively becomes more of a virtual activity.

These developments present challenges for a design education premised, as Kvan (2001) notes, on the transmission of expertise through face-to-face discussion between teacher and student over a progressing design—an approach described in Schön’s seminal book The Reflective Practitioner (1983). At the heart of reflective practice, Schön suggests, and arguably at the heart of creative practice, is the process of framing and re-framing; being able to see one thing as another. An expert practitioner is able to ‘re-frame’ a problem so a student can both move forwards in the process of reaching a solution and understand the importance of framing and reframing itself. How can these two forms of learning still take place in education when the amount of face-to-face discussion time is severely limited?

A possible answer to the question, and one that builds on the three developments outlined above, comes with the course in Design Thinking offered by the Open University. Rather than adopting a reflective practitioner model of design education, whereby a mentor and student work through a problem or solution—in effect a one-to-one transmission of expertise or knowledge—the course adopts something more like a many-to-many practitioner model, where expertise comes from a diverse peer-group of students working in online environments. Any design school provides a mix of one-to-one and many-to-many transfers of design knowledge, but one-to-one tends to be formalised in the curriculum, while many-to-many tends to occur informally. In contrast, the many-to-many model of knowledge transfer is formalised explicitly for the Design Thinking course, through the structure of teaching materials and assignments and the nature of the online design studio itself.

The word ‘diverse’ is important to note in the paragraph above in that it suggests a wide range of expertise and experience that can be drawn on and exploited in a design process—particularly in processes of framing and re-framing. Table 1 shows the diversity in student age for the first cohort of Design Thinking students, which is significantly different from other institutions. Furthermore, 52 % of students were in full-time employment, there was a 50/50 gender split, 8 % of students had a registered disability, and 10 % where from an ethnic background.
Table 1

Age profile of students completing U101

Age range

Number of students


Under 25


















Over 65






The many-to-many model thus has the potential, in this context, to bring in other people’s expertise in framing problems and thinking about solutions. For example a design problem involving disability will be made much more meaningful through the active participation of students with a disability. Similarly, students studying while working in the armed forces, on oil rigs, or held in prison, can provide a unique insight into realities unknown to other students. This aspect of the course, combined with the traditional features of an Open University education—self-study course materials and support from a regional tutor—provide the basis for a different kind of practice-based design education.

U101 design thinking: creativity for the 21st century


In February 2010 The Open University launched ‘Design Thinking: Creativity for the 21st Century’ (U101), a 60 credit first-level course.2 During the first presentation, 355 students, 18 based outside the UK, studied part-time for 36 weeks, sending in a portfolio of their design work for their final grading. These students were supported by 16 regional tutors. For the second and third presentations in 2011 the number of students had increased to over 1,200, with an additional 27 further tutors recruited.

At the beginning of the course students receive a creative welcome pack through the post (Fig. 1). This is designed both to provoke creativity, by asking students to play creatively with familiar objects, and to promote early engagement with other students doing the course by uploading photos of their creative explorations for others to see and build on.
Fig. 1

The U101 creative welcome pack consisting of a number of different prompts for creativity

The educational environment of U101 consists of three tailored elements; online self-study materials, an online design studio called OpenDesignStudio, and software for completing design assignments called CompendiumDS. These elements, described below, are closely integrated to provide a coherent and complete learning experience for the student.

Self-study materials

The online self-study materials are presented within the Open University’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) which brings together different kinds of learning material for students to study on a week by week basis, for example academic concepts, practical skill development, commentary from expert designers, activities for students to do, and course assignments. Figure 2 shows a screenshot of the course home page where the course content is structured in a prescribed order. This roughly equates to 15 hours of study per week for students.
Fig. 2

Screenshot giving an overview of the U101 virtual learning environment. The environment is structured for self-study, with course materials being completed in a prescribed order

There are four key concepts underpinning design thinking that are taught to students, both in theory and in practice, as they complete the course:
  1. 1.

    Problem-framing. This is the concept that problems have to be defined at the correct ‘level’, independent of design discipline, before appropriate means of solving the problem can be identified. This is perhaps equivalent to saying that the solution to a product design problem isn’t necessarily a product or that a solution might involve removing something that exists rather than ‘designing’ something new. The idea of problem-framing at different scales is reinforced by the four-block structure of the course which looks at themes of self, others, society, and world.

  2. 2.

    Productive dialogue. Perhaps the most important aspect of design thinking is engaging in a productive dialogue as a way of progressing towards a design proposal (‘proposal’ is used here very deliberately in place of ‘solution’, as it suggests something incomplete, and open to further dialogue and development—see the quotation from Brocato (2009) above). Productive dialogues, for example over sketches and prototypes, are essentially a way of learning through doing. They naturally take place between people, but one can also think of a dialogue occurring with the self or, as Schön (1983) terms it in ‘a reflective conversation with the materials of the situation’. A further aspect of a productive dialogue is the idea of ‘play’; proposing something simply for the sake of finding out where it will lead. A productive dialogue thus leads to the self-revelation described in Sect. 1.

  3. 3.

    Quiet design. It is continually emphasised to students that design thinking is something that is all around them, in the many objects, environments, and organisations that Gold refers to as ‘the plenitude’ (2007). Quiet design refers to the tangible and intangible things that don’t stand out as being ‘designed’ at all. Indeed, it also suggests that design can be about taking away things, rather than producing more things.

  4. 4.

    Using expertise. The collaborative aspects of design thinking are emphasised by considering the overall role of a designer as someone who can effectively utilise the expertise of others in solving problems; someone who can marshal and manage resources, not necessarily someone who has a wide range of particular technical abilities or familiarity with a certain piece of software.


All four concepts focus on the more general aspects of designing, drawing on a number of different design disciplines for examples.3


The second key element of U101 is an environment within which students can upload and discuss their work. OpenDesignStudio combines elements of Flickr and Facebook in a social networking environment structured in a way that students can follow a sequence of practical activities to produce an individual portfolio. Figure 3 shows a typical student’s homepage while Fig. 4 shows part of an example portfolio.
Fig. 3

A typical OpenDesignStudio student homepage with a pinboard area (centre) and areas for an archive (bottom), profile information (top left), course progress bar (top right) and comments given and received (right)
Fig. 4

Part of a typical OpenDesignStudio portfolio page with thumbnail images and standard titles. Each completed tile adds a light to the progress bar (top right)

OpenDesignStudio embodies the social nature of creativity by allowing the sharing of expertise through discussion about particular things. These ‘things’ can be sketches, prototypes, or examples uploaded via photos, video, or other embedded web-objects. During the course this uploading and discussion becomes second nature to the students, and is often extremely sophisticated. The social glue for OpenDesignStudio, however, comes from the diversity in the student cohort (described in Sect. 3) allied with the expertise of their tutor.

As students study part-time they are able to contribute their experience from their everyday and working lives to many areas of design activity. For example, one student, working on a problem that they’d framed as ‘book storage and retrieval’, produced a working 3D prototype and uploaded an animation of that prototype to OpenDesignStudio. On coming across this prototype, another student, who worked as a librarian, was able to provide detailed information about her experience in helping to develop the prototype. That discussion, available for all to see and typical of many other discussions, has valuable consequences: it provides an opportunity for the tutor to emphasise a learning point, it provides an opportunity for other students to contribute, and it provides an opportunity for the first student to develop their design prototype.

OpenDesignStudio also provides an opportunity for students to use other students’ work as inspiration. Indeed, students are actively encouraged to build on the work and ideas of others as this is considered to be another essential aspect to design thinking. This results in pathways of connected creativity, where students have taken on an idea, developed it, and that development, in turn, has been taken on by someone else.

The OpenDesignStudio environment can also be used to illustrate more academic learning points. Figure 5 shows how different students responded to the challenge of sketching a ‘hair dryer’ in 30 s. The results visually illustrate the idea of design fixation; how framing a problem in a particular way can lead to having a pre-conceived idea about a solution.
Fig. 5

Students’ responses when asked to sketch a ‘hair dryer’. All images apart from one (bottom right) show a variation of the typical ‘gun’ shaped hairdryer. The other image shows a person drying their hair by putting their head out of a car window

What Fig. 5 illustrates is that, consonant with running this exercise in a classroom, about 5 % of people identify the sun, a towel, or physical motion as a means of drying hair. This change of frame is an important learning experience for students wedded to the idea of a hair dryer as basically a pistol-shaped object. OpenDesignStudio provides an excellent way of illustrating how many people have similar fixations.

OpenDesignStudio is an asynchronous communication environment but students and tutors also converse synchronously using the commercial online conferencing application Elluminate Live!4 A full description of student engagement with Elluminate Live! is beyond the scope of the paper, however it is sufficient to note that it can be used to present and discuss examples of work through its whiteboard facility and to hold creative sessions—again drawing significantly on the experience of students. Sessions can also be recorded for later playback.

Compendium design studio

In seeking to teach a general ability like design thinking one of the most difficult issues is how to assess a thinking process rather than the product or outcome of that process. How can one see evidence that a thinking process is improving over the 36 weeks of the course? The third key element of U101 is an application called CompendiumDS, a basic and easy-to-use knowledge mapping environment developed from the widely used Compendium software.5 CompendiumDS allows different types of ‘nodes’ to be linked together. Each node has resources associated with it, for example notes, images, documents, or web-links. A design process is constructed by linking nodes that contain the reasoning for making decisions at regular points in designing. A tutor, then, is easily able to access and assess the individual ‘moves’ that a student has made in their designing. The CompendiumDS environment is tailored for U101 in that the different nodes form a vocabulary of the design process. For example there are nodes for ‘ideas’, ‘questions’, ‘decision points’, ‘links’, and a ‘diary’ node. Figure 6 shows a screenshot of the CompendiumDS interface, with an example node structure.
Fig. 6

The CompendiumDS Interface. The menu on the left of the window contains different types of nodes that can be connected together to form linked structures

One of the major learning outcomes for students completing the course is to understand the components of the design process and how design processes might themselves be ‘designed’. For its assignments the course gives students a number of design process templates to follow. For the first assignment this just requires information and images to be added, but progressively, over four assignments, more flexibility is given for students to design and construct their own design processes. Figure 7 shows the template for the second course assignment.
Fig. 7

Design process template for assignment 2. The assignment involves a group of students individually ‘finding’ problems, which are then discussed online, before one of those problems is chosen for all students to work on individually through brainstorming and prototyping work

The assignments themselves are general enough to complete in a range of ways, and without specialist knowledge. The first assignment is to produce a T-shirt by designing and then transferring a graphic layout, themed around an exploration of the student’s hand. The second assignment involves first, the identification of a design problem local to the student, second, discussion about how to frame that problem in a group, and then third, the production, by each student, of a proposal to address the re-framed problem (Fig. 7 shows the template design process for this assignment). The third assignment is to design a game based on the simulation of a local service that the student has a good knowledge of. This illustrates to students how complex processes with competing and chance elements can be represented through design. The fourth and final assignment involves students responding to a widely defined theme, for example ‘food’, ‘healthy environments’, and ‘mobility’, in demonstrating all the design thinking skills they’ve learned through the course to first develop a design prototype, and then communicate that prototype through a storyboard.

As mentioned earlier, the three key elements of U101 are closely integrated. The course materials require regular uploads to OpenDesignStudio as do key pieces of work during the design assignments. There is thus an intentional overlapping between theory, practice, and discussion, with a strong emphasis on using social expertise to help in the generation of individual design proposals.

Staff and student survey findings

Following the first presentation of U101 189 students were surveyed about their experience of the course. 64 (33.9 %) students responded and the results are shown in Table 2.
Table 2

Student satisfaction survey: % of students answering that they definitely or mostly agreed with the relevant statement

Statement responded to

U101 (OU average)

Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course

70.7 (90.0)

Overall, I am satisfied with my study experience

72.4 (89.0)

The course provided good value for moneya

63.2 (79.1)

I was satisfied with the support provided by my tutor on this course.

82.1 (85.5)

Overall, I was satisfied with the teaching materials provided on the course

69.0 (89.6)

The workload on this course was higher than I expected

37.9 (34.1)

The course met its stated learning outcomes

80.7 (90.2)

I would recommend this course to other students

69.0 (84.4)

The course met my expectations

65.5 (83.8)

I enjoyed studying this course

79.3 (86.1)

The ‘OU average’ figure combines the results from 45 level one courses (a total of 4,083 students), which includes U101

aThe cost of studying U101 in 2010 was £635

Additionally, the tutors that taught on U101 were surveyed about the quality of various aspects of the course. Of the 16 tutors invited to respond, 11 (69 %) did. The results are shown in Table 3.
Table 3

Tutor course-content survey. Responses were on a 10 point scale with 1 = poor, 10 = outstanding

How would you rate the following aspects of U101?


Overall structure of the course


Academic content of the course


Practical content of the course


Video and multi-media content of the course






Online self-study materials


Course assignments


The results of the student survey show satisfaction with U101 generally slightly lower than satisfaction on other Open University level one courses. Issues relating to the delivery of the course could explain a lower than average result for student satisfaction. There were some technical problems with CompendiumDS that proved frustrating for many students, but which were rectified during the course. Some of the students found the group work difficult to organise and contribute to, which also resulted in dissatisfaction. The fact that U101 was delivered entirely online was a new departure for the Open University where traditionally students work from printed materials and books. Of those 229 students (65 %) having already studied other Open University courses—what are termed ‘continuing students’—many seemed to have expected printed materials for the course and were disappointed not to receive any. There were several robust forum threads discussing this subject with students contributing to both sides of the argument. Some missed having the ‘study anywhere’ feeling of a book, while others found the difference refreshing and engaging.

Many dialogues about the course content and other aspects of the course took place on the U101 discussion forums, often at an extremely sophisticated level. For example the secondary school teachers completing the course, a consistent element of Open University design student cohorts, were able to put coherent and knowledgeable arguments about pedagogy. Certainly the U101 forums were far more actively used than on other Open University courses and provided a great deal of feedback about the students’ experience of completing the course. The subtlety of that feedback, and the level of engagement that an active forum demands may also go some way to explaining lower than average survey results. Forums open up a critical space where extreme positions can be put and this in itself has an effect on the feelings of more moderate students about their own experiences and their evaluation of the course. The forum for all U101 students also sometimes became dominated by local issues effecting only a small group of students. For example the late return of marked work was a cause for intense local dissatisfaction for 20 twenty students, but which was vocalised at the national level, effecting all students’ perception of the course.

The results of the tutor survey in Table 3 indicate that, in general, the tutors supporting the students were very positive about the various features of the course. Of note particularly are high responses for the course structure, academic content and practical content, indicating that the course is both coherent and balanced. The lowest rating was given to CompendiumDS. This is the environment that the tutors had to engage with most, as all design assignments were completed using the software. Several found the assessment process both different from what they were used to, as existing Open University tutors, and difficult to manage in terms of collecting, marking, and returning assignments through a centralised assignment handling system.

Of the sixteen regional tutors employed to tutor U101, ten (63 %) were entirely new to the Open University. What is remarkable is that eight of the top ten tutors, measured in terms of student retention, were all tutors new to the university. Table 4 shows the average retention rate6 achieved by new tutors when compared with existing tutors with previous experience of tutoring Open University courses. It should be noted that, with part-time study, no prior qualification required, and significant numbers of financially-assisted students, retention on first level courses at The Open University is low when compared to other Universities. U101 achieved an overall retention rate of 65 % (230 students), which is about average.
Table 4

Average student retention rate by tutor experience

Tutor experience

Retention rate (%)

New OU tutor


Existing OU tutor


Table 4 suggests that existing OU tutors tended to find adapting to the needs of a quite different course more difficult than those starting afresh. Table 4 also reveals an underlying link with design expertise. Seven of the ten new tutors were practising designers, from a range of disciplines, and this seems to have played a factor in keeping students interested in the course. Many of the new tutors, unencumbered by the idea that distance learning is a simply a one-to-one transfer of knowledge, embraced the different modes of online discussion—in forums, in the virtual design studio, and through conferencing software—in discussing the practice of design. Those tutors that did this (both new and existing) were generally rewarded by higher student retention figures.

Both the student and tutor surveys are snapshots of the first presentation of the course and are skewed by a number of factors. Students choosing new course presentations generally tend to be more vocal and critical than students in subsequent presentations of the course. Invariably there are problems with technology, of course content, and organisation for the course team to address, which makes for the much smoother running of later presentations. The survey results presented in this paper are thus part of an ongoing longitudinal study tracking student and tutor experiences across different presentations of the course and which will be reported in a subsequent paper.

Discussion and conclusions

In the introduction we discussed two approaches to making the subject area of design more widely applicable to areas outside the creative industries. The first was to adopt more of a business focus to the design curriculum, emphasising, for example, how design can be used to solve management and organisational problems, as well as improving product and service delivery. The paper also outlined a second approach, which was to give a more diverse group of people the tools to think creatively, developing their confidence, and helping them to engage with the world around them in a more productive, solution-oriented way.

The Open University course in Design Thinking described in this paper has followed the second approach, drawing out the natural creativity of a diverse range of individuals in help them to shape and sharpen their ideas in the world around them. This approach exploits the unique diversity of the Open University student population, mainly in terms of the age range and professional background of students, but also in terms of demographics with students being regionally based. With most students studying part-time and many already employed in the workplace, the design thinking skills that they learn in doing the course can be directly applied to a business context.

This model of design education is perhaps not suitable for many academic schools of design, with more homogenous cohorts of students, but it could point the way for possible change. Accepting students from a wider range of backgrounds and, importantly, drawing on those backgrounds directly in teaching that exploits emerging social technologies takes both vision and resources. However, it is an important step if design is to have a larger impact on society outside the creative industries. When everyday problems are understood as design problems, many possibilities open up in engaging people in areas where design is often desperately needed and can really help to improve the quality of people’s lives. That is not to say that the creative industries themselves do not produce products and services of value and impact, they clearly do. The difference is that the benefits of offering the design process itself as a kind of product, in terms of the range of possible application areas—and along with the deep understanding of design that designing brings—are huge.

There is a paradox in design education however. While most education is conservative in nature, quite rightly slow to change teaching methods and practices, design education as a subject explicitly teaches the value of doing things differently, fostering and demanding creativity and innovation from students. Design education, however, is resistant to applying those values to itself. Design courses are still mainly discipline-based—in graphics, products, textiles, etc.—with a focus on learning practical and technical skills. Any radical deviation from this, especially one that moves towards more general understandings of design, are paradoxically viewed as a debasement of design values, not of providing increased value.

Design education is largely still the final stage in a development process whereby creativity is encouraged in young children, repressed in teenage years, and then professionalised in higher education, a process made explicit by Robinson (2001). There is a natural conservatism at play here which protects the value that is seen to be provided by having atomised design disciplines. The changes occurring in society and globally, particularly with respect to the insights that having increased information brings, mean that problems are beginning to be seen as more complex and interlinked. These problems, in turn, demand a different type of designing and a different way of thinking. The course described in this paper has attempted to address this demand in both theory and in practice.


In contrast with other institutions where ‘courses’ means degree qualifications, The Open University, until very recently, referred to the modules that form a degree qualification as courses. ‘Courses’, in this sense, were what students paid for when they studied with The Open University. Recently however nomenclature has been brought in line with other UK universities, and Open University courses are now referred to as ‘modules’. The word ‘course’, however, has been preserved for this paper as U101 was developed as a ‘course’.


See footnote 1.


Samples of U101 course material can be viewed at: (accessed May 2012).


For further details see:!/?id=418 (accessed March 2012).


The full Compendium software has been used by businesses and universities in projects worldwide. For further details see: (accessed March 2012).


For the purposes of this comparison the retention rate is, for each tutor, the number of students submitting their final assignment as a proportion to those starting the course. Student retention rates are one of the key ways in which Open University courses are evaluated through what are termed ‘Z-scores’. Essentially a Z-score is formulated by comparing the actual number of students passing the course to a prediction of the likely number of students that will pass the course, calculated from a number of factors including, for example, location, age, previous study, and social and economic background. A high positive or negative Z-score indicates to the university possible areas of good practice or possible problems respectively.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012