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NC Educators Create Inclusive Solutions in Open Design Academy

With COVID-19 bringing massive change to numerous industries, educators have struggled not only with pressing safety and operational challenges, but also—like so many others during the pandemic—with professional isolation and stagnation.

In the words of K-8 science teacher Alison Hester, “Covid really messed up professional development for the past couple of years.”

Enter the Open Design Academy, a collaboration between Duke’s Open Design Studio (ODS) and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NC DPI). Run by Aria Chernik (Associate Professor of the Practice in the Social Science Research Institute and core faculty in the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative) and Kevin Hoch (Managing Director for Education at Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative), ODS supports the use of open design, a methodology for innovation based in the principles of active inclusivity, transparency, and collaboration.

With open design, solutions to complex challenges are co-created with input from all stakeholders throughout four iterative phases: understand, create, evaluate, and share. Used in educational settings, open design can help ensure all stakeholders’ perspectives are understood and considered, making education more equitable.

Chernik and Hoch worked previously with Mary Hemphill-Joseph, then NC DPI’s Director of Computer Science & Technology Education, to create computer science curriculum founded in open design principles for students in grades 3-5; they piloted the curriculum at Durham’s E.K. Powe Elementary School. This work led NC DPI to approve the Open Design Academy, an opportunity for teachers and principals throughout the state to learn how open design could inform and evolve their work.

The Open Design Academy course, held over the span of six weeks, was primarily asynchronous, with two synchronous modules held on Zoom. The synchronous session guided participants through the open design process, with pairs of participants teaming up to examine each other’s habits and iterating on ways to bring about positive habit change.

“The ‘hack your habits’ open design sprint is meant to be an experiential introduction to what it means to innovate with empathy,” Chernik explained. “You cannot expect that someone will share their most frustrating, complex, and personal problems unless you create an environment of authentic trust and mutual respect. The more difficult task is translating non-performative empathy into every stakeholder interview. Approaching a stakeholder with authentic empathy is not only humane; it is also necessary for creativity and co-design to flourish.”

Building on this foundation in the open design process, participants worked on challenge statements summarizing opportunities they saw in their schools—avoiding teacher burnout, improving students’ college- and career-readiness, increasing support for beginning teachers, raising awareness of school offerings among community members, driving authentic student engagement—and set out to conduct stakeholder interviews.

“The most valuable experience was stakeholder interviews,” said high school assistant principal Chamekka Williams. “You know in your mind that getting input from stakeholders is always valuable, but that step is often overlooked.”

During the second synchronous session, participants explored how they might address their identified challenges using feedback and stories from stakeholder interviews. “The process took a seemingly overwhelming big problem and broke it down into smaller, more manageable pieces,” said Hester.

Students crowd around a demonstration
Chernik, left, at the 2018 CSbyUs launch event at Duke. Image courtesy of the Social Science Research Institute.

From 30 ideas for potential solutions, educators came up with two concept pitches and then one concept prototype to implement and test. These prototypes ranged from the simple (building community by sharing gratitude notes), to the more complex (developing improved curriculum for writing instruction), to the very ambitious (a pod schooling model where students could join different small learning groups in school and the community based on changing interests).

Participants have continued to engage with Chernik, Hoch, and each other through virtual office hours and the group’s Slack channel. Many are working to implement their solutions in their schools and districts and teaching open design principles to colleagues—such as academic coach Merideth Colville, who facilitated the “hack your habits” activity for a small group of coworkers. Colville said, “One of my goals from this session was to find inspiration and motivation to influence real change in my education community.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic still posing challenges to community-building, participants expressed appreciation for the opportunity to gather, albeit virtually.

“Being able to collaborate with other teachers from all over the state was a wonderful, eye-opening experience,” said elementary media specialist Meredith Rodrigues.

“The support of the team and the cohort was amazing,” said Rebecca Seeber, an elementary literacy coach.

With education undergoing dramatic changes, educators also expressed the importance of viewing challenges as opportunities.

“This course gave me confidence in the value of my ideas and the possibility for them to be realized,” said middle school language arts teacher Lisa Gurthie.

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