A learner-centered approach to teaching

Learning is a process of discovery – the best teachers facilitate that process by laying out a learning roadmap and helping students to travel it. At Ball State University, I taught a number of in-person and online classes and honed my approach to experience design by crafting hands-on and remote courses. In 2015, I was invited by Ball State's Office of Educational Excellence to propose a grant-funded course redesign. My proposal was accepted and I taught the course in Spring 2016.

The Challenge: Redesign a course to foster engaged learning

I was invited by Ball State's Office of Educational Excellence to submit a proposal for a course redesign that would explore answers to the How Might We Statement:

How might we foster engaged learning at Ball State?

"This type of 'learning community'-centered education will help prepare graduates to live and work in a world that requires collaboration and problem solving … the purpose is to move away from the traditional lecture based course to an engaged learning course. In this environment, the course focus will move from content to application and support the implementation of engaged learning methodologies.

Office of Educational Excellence Request for Proposals

Strategy: Leverage Design Thinking

Most of the courses I designed and taught at Ball State already leveraged learner-centric approaches including:

  • Design Thinking
  • Just-in-time learning
  • Constructivism
However, I was teaching a course for the Public Relations sequence in the Department of Journalism that had been unchanged for years and was in need of a change. The course – Journalism 368: Public Relations Publications Design and Development - had been created in the early 2000s. While the course has been updated over the years to include new and emerging technologies, its approach of the instructor demonstrating design and production skills which students then copied was not adequately teaching students to wrestle with the upheavals in PR publishing that social media and networks has and continues to cause.

The course description was:

  • Institutional and industrial publications as an important means of internal and external communications. Design and production techniques, includes lab time.

And its objectives were:

  • Students will use professional file management and online collaboration practices.
  • Students will understand graphic design concepts and appropriate visual communication theories as demonstrated through the design and presentation of images and information in four creative projects.
  • Students will understand web design concepts and web communication techniques and theories as demonstrated through the design and publication of images and information online.
  • Students will employ a variety of publication production techniques and options in the design and production of a client website and public relations materials.
  • Students will evaluate their work against professional best practices for content and design strategies.

While student feedback from previous versions of the course was positive, it revealed a disconnect between the skills learned in the course (web design, graphic design, etc.) and the larger strategy of design that would help students learn not just how to use design tools but also how to know what to design. For example, students learned to create custom Wordpress sites in the course, but did not learn the unique advantages of using web content as part of a larger PR and advertising strategy.

To close the gap and facilitate engaged learning, I approached the redesign by centering its central "How might We" statement around how students could learn both strategies for understanding the changing PR publishing landscape and tactical skills for executing on those strategies:

How might we teach a design approach that includes both strategy and tactics in a quickly changing media environment?

Design: PR Maker Lab Proposal

As an approach to problem-solving, Design Thinking is uniquely positioned to meet the challenge of creating engaged learning AND connecting strategy to tactics in the PR publishing space because it can:

  • Begin with research to help students understand the current state of publishing for PR and advertising
  • Put students in contact with consumers of PR publications to understand their problems, needs and behaviors
  • Require students to learn creative tools in pursuit of creating and co-creating with users
  • Get students comfortable with defining problems and exploring solutions
  • Put students in the driver's seat of a learning and creative process by centering their assignments around carrying out steps in a process rather than simply following instructions

Based on this strategy, I created and delivered the following presentation as part of the proposal process:

The proposal was selected and I taught the course in Spring 2016.

View Syllabus


Although course eval scores were not significantly higher than previous versions of the course, end of semester evals indicated students had a positive experience:

“This was my favorite class of the semester and I have never left a class feeling like I had grown and learned so much. There was a lot of work, but I got great and constructive feedback on everything I turned in and found it helpful.

Course Eval

“I’ve talked about this class in two job interviews, which I normally don’t ever mention class work. That just shows how much I feel this class has helped my professional persona.

Course Eval

Redesigning this course was one of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career. If I taught it again, I would do more practicing what I preach and invite students in the previous semester to do a SWOT Analysis and Ideation session to improve the course. I would spend the first week of the course doing participatory research exercises with students to make sense of where they stand in their knowledge of the course material and to better understand their learning needs, preferred learning styles and interestes. I would at least four times throughout the semester perform a retrospective to assess the effectiveness of the course while it was running.