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T217/8 module briefing

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Even though I’m based in the Computing and Communications department, I have to confess that I do a bit of moonlighting in the Engineering and Innovation department.  I don’t feel too guilty about doing this since there is a lot of cross over between some of the subjects.  One of the cross over subjects is design: computer systems need effective and efficient interfaces, and software systems need (obviously) to be designed (or engineered).  An important question is how we might set about creating different designs.  There are, of course, strong connections between the subjects of design and engineering too.

This blog post is from a set of notes that I made during a module briefing that I attended on 28 September.  Module briefings are events that happen whenever a new Open University module starts.  It’s an opportunity for the module team to meet all the associate lecturers who have been recruited and an opportunity for them to ask questions about how things are going to run.

The event on the 12 September introduced two new design modules: T217 Design Essentials and T218 Design for Engineers.   These two second level modules follow on from a first level introductory module, U101 Design Thinking.  Whereas U101 (as far as I understand things) helps students to start to think like a designer though engendering a playful and reflective approach, T217 and T218 begin to focus on more practical and detailed issues that relate to products and how they might be manufactured.  The forthcoming T317 module, Innovation: Designing for Change, will move things along a bit further by considering wider issues, such as how design connects with and interacts with society.  (I’ve only heard snippets about this new module, so I had better not go on and say something that patently isn’t true!)

The briefing wasn’t held in the university but in a nearby conference centre.  Without having done a head count, I estimate that there were about thirty people in total.  This includes T217 and T218 tutors and their line managers (staff tutors) who will be helping within things behind the scenes.  We were, of course, joined by members of the T217/8 module team (Theo Zamenopoulos, Georgy Holden and Jeff Johnson) and our curriculum manager (Hannah Juma).

Module structure

Much of the following information is available on the module description, but I’m also including it here too (since it was explicitly covered during the briefing).  T217 comprises of five blocks.  These are: exploring designs and designing, designing for people, creative designs, embodying designs and design for making.  The module comprises of a set of printed books as well as a modelling workbook, which helps students to get to grips with sketching (an invaluable skill for communicating the designs of products).

There is, of course, a module website which leads everyone through the module materials a week at a time.  During the module, there are a set of skills development activities.  There are three types: design activities, assessment activities (which help to prepare students for the assignments), and workbook activities (which are all about building skills and confidence).

T217 is assessed by four tutor marked assignments and an end of module exam.  T218, on the other hand, is slightly different – it has three tutor marked assignments and is examined by a substantial piece of work, which is known as an end of module assessment.

Block summary

The first block is all about big ideas in design and how it relates to engineering, human and cultural perspectives.  It contains some ideas from the history of design and tries to get students sketching.  (The design of chairs features heavily in this first block, since they permit different aspects or perspectives on design to be exposed).  The message for the second block is that it is essential to consider the end user.  This second block also takes some first steps towards thinking about environmental issues.  

The third block is a bit different.  This block addresses theories of creativity and invention and how these are reflected in the practices of creative designers and engineers.  It exposes students to different techniques about how to help designers to become more creative.

Block four is about how to move from a broad concept design into a more detailed design that could be eventually manufactured.  It also continues to help students to think spatially and visually.  In this block there is also an emphasis on style and branding and how it relates to design.

The final block moves into even more detail.  It covers issues such as the choice of materials for prototyping and manufacturing, encouraging students to analyse existing artefacts.  I made a note of the terms, ‘materials, methods and emotions’ during the briefing.  The block also makes connections with open source projects and introduces students to maker and hacker communities.

Software

Although you might argue that the designer’s most powerful tool is a pencil, developments in information technology has led to the emergence of new and exciting design and illustration tools.  Software and information technology can also take us towards new ways of working.  One of the challenges with learning design at a distance is that students don’t have the opportunity to work within a studio space (where students might have an opportunity to wander around to look at the work that other designers are working on, allowing students to gain not only motivation but also inspiration).  Building on the experience gained in U101, the T217 module team are using some on-line social software called OpenDesignStudio.  This is a web application that allows students to share aspects of their work to other students.  Sharing is done through the use of images.  Students might take photographs of sketches or rough physical models.

Students are also encouraged to use of 3D drawing software, such as SketchUp (Wikipedia).  They can also use other (but different) 3D drawing software, allowing students to gain an appreciation of the differences between tools.  Other software includes a database about different materials and manufacturing methods (which students can used to inform their assignments), and a tool that can be used to create mind maps.  (Students who studied U101 will remember a software package called Compendium).

On-line and face to face tutorials

A part of the day was also spent discussing on-line and face to face tutorials.  Although most of the teaching (and learning) is performed through the module materials and the guidance that associate lecturers offer in response to tutor marked assignments, students can also attend a number of interactive tutorials.

The face to face tutorials (or day schools) are arranged by the regional centre that a tutor is affiliated with.  The on-line tutorials, on the other hand, are held in an ‘on-line OU live’ room.  This is a virtual space where tutors can speak to students through their computer.  During the briefing, tutors were briefly shown how to use and access these on-line rooms.  Towards the end of the day, there was an activity where different groups of tutors got together to plan a day school (which is OU parlance for a bigger multi-group event that is held usually on a Saturday) to help students become familiar with a module.

Reflections

I always enjoy going along to module briefings; they’re always fun and useful events, and this was no exception.  A couple of weeks after this event both T217 and T218 began their first presentations.  For me, three things stood out during this day.  The first is the extent to which the design team are building on the work that they carried out in the earlier first level module: U101 Design Thinking.  The second is that the T217 module (as well as T218) has a very clear and compelling structure which relate to very explicit themes within design.  The third is the way that software and technology has been embedded within the module.

A final thought was that I was easily able to connect aspects of T217 and T218 to the module that I’ve been a tutor on for a number of years: M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  I could clearly see links between areas such as user centred design, accessibility and the importance of skills such as sketching (as a way to rapidly communicate aspects of a design to others).  This, to me, underlined the importance and the need for connections between different subjects and disciplines.

Although I started this blog post by confessing that I have been moonlighting in another department, this term shouldn’t be used in a derogatory or negative sense.  When it comes to sharing perspectives and gaining insight into what happens in a slightly different (but connected) subject, moonlighting should be positively encouraged.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Theo Zamenopoulos (T217 module chair), Georgy Holden, Jeff Johnson (T218 module chair) and Hannah Juma (curriculum manager for T217 and T218) for running the briefing.

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