Behind the scenes of CLT – Education Design

Hearing the word education design for the first time made me smile – after having been involved in education for so many years, I was surprised to realise I didn’t know what education design actually was. So I turned to Google, searching for information about it. Little did I know that we had a whole Education Design department at ANU! Ironically, two months later, I had the opportunity to interview Karlene Dickens, one of the Education Designers in the Education Design team at CLT.

So, what does an Education Designer actually do?

There are many definitions and terms to describe the work on an Education Designer. In the context of ANU, an Education Designer applies research-led best practice to create student-centred learning experiences in collaboration with teaching academics. For Karlene, that means working on a broad range of topics and with many different people, with the goal to enhance students’ learning. For example, she works closely with academics to develop resources and assist them in their teaching.

“We are very much driven then by how we best support the academic. What do they need? What do they want? … It could be trying a new technology and tools; it could be making some changes to their courses.”

Raised at the East coast, Karlene went to school in Canberra and Cooma before moving to Sydney, where she studied Occupational Therapy at Sydney University. She first got involved in education when running group sessions in inpatient psychiatric wards. There, she would teach day-to-day self-care skills to the groups using arts, drama and lots of creativity. 

“I really love groups… it is like playing a game of chess… every group is unique. Nearly every single time, it is a satisfying experience to be involved in.”

In 2017, she joined the ANU Online team, which was later re-structured and is now part of CLT. Working alongside many ex-teachers with pedagogical background, she brings to the table her unique experience from the mental health sector.

“I haven’t done years of training in pedagogy, but I think I am very good at putting myself in the students’ position. Like what do I need as a participant in this course, in this group? How can I be supported? What are the best ways for me to learn?”

Apart from assisting academics on an on-demand basis, Karlene works on various projects with different schools and areas at ANU. Currently, she is working on a big project in collaboration with course conveners that involves rewriting and reviewing the curriculum of five courses in a master’s program in epidemiology.

Her work also involves creating spaces for academics and students to share and develop with each other.

“The most powerful learning experiences are when we are given a chance to share and learn from our peers, because they are the ones who are in the thick of it… They’ve probably got a lot of great ideas already, it is just about validating them and then affirming them and sharing with each other.”

After countless meetings, workshops and projects, Karlene recovers her energy and creativity by connecting to nature and the arts. Mountain biking, hiking or a cultural activity would be the perfect getaway for her. But you are wrong to think that her creativity stops at an art gallery. A day wouldn’t be perfect without an evening of games with her friends fighting creatures or on a quest on another planet.

“For my birthday, I had a sort of a role-playing game where everyone that came had to be part of the role play. You don’t just sit down, you interact and move around the room. We wrote characters for everybody, and they all had to interact with other people, which they didn’t necessarily know, to find out things as part of fulfilling their agenda.”

The pandemic moved the classrooms and her game nights to the online environment. Despite most businesses struggling during this time, education design is increasingly growing as a field. Karlene believes that the decrease of students coming to ANU made us rethink our approach to education.

“It makes us have to review how we teach and what are we teaching. And we need to listen to students’ feedback more. I think that’s where education design comes into play… in some ways it just made people more receptive to what we have to offer.”

“We are not a university unless we have students. So suddenly, students are more valuable than ever before. If you have less of them, we really need to work hard to make sure they come to our uni and not another uni down the road… I think increasing the value of the student therefore can hopefully keep increasing the value of how we teach.”

The pandemic also changed expectations. So even when we are back on campus, students who are unable to attend lectures on campus, anticipate online classes to be as good as the in-person ones. On the other hand, the lockdown has raised the skill set of academics, who now also know they have a team in the background to assist them.

Moving forward, we need to balance out all the ingredients related to education. Most importantly, we need to keep listening to our students to understand what is missing and what they want. We have, more than ever before, a heterogeneous group of people at our university. So courses require a better design to be more inclusive and adapted to this constantly changing world. In other words, ANU needs more Karlenes helping us thrive through this challenging time.

“There are some really incredible support and resources around… and really I do feel like students more than ever are being listened to… and that could only be a good thing.”

“I feel like we’ve gone through a real education transformation from my generation to now. I see how much more student-centred we are. And not only student-centred, we are much more individual-centred.”

September 2021

Gabriel Bartholazzi Lugao De Carvalho is a part-time Educational Technologist at the Centre for Learning and Teaching and a PhD candidate at the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.