Co-design practices in innovative education projects in higher education

‘The purpose of an educational co-design project is to design collaborative solutions, which can include designing new courses, educational tools, student experiences or curricula’.

  • What exactly is co-design and how can it innovate and improve higher education?
  • We did a study on “Developing Project Management Principles by Examining Codesign Practices in Innovative Contexts” using 68 co-design projects
  • Three findings came from the study showing a departure from conventional approaches in higher education
  • Find ways to focus on creativity and generating consensus on new ideas, underpinned by collaborative practices among diverse project stakeholders

In a rapidly evolving educational landscape, higher education institutions are always on the lookout for new ways to innovate and improve. One such avenue that has been gaining traction is the notion of co-design. But what exactly does it mean, and how can it be effectively applied in the context of innovative projects in higher education?

In a recent study, we explored this concept by analysing co-design practices within a series of education innovation projects shaped through new forms of collaborative working. Although these projects, which often began with diverse stakeholders and initially ill-defined goals, may sound like a recipe for chaos, results suggest they are impactful ways of collaborating and working.

What is co-design?

At its core, co-design is about collaborative design. It is a novel methodology that involves active and collaborative participation of all stakeholders (Berger et al., 2005). In the context of higher education, these stakeholders can include, but are not limited to, educators, students, educational developers, media professionals, educational technologists and industry and community partners. The purpose of an educational co-design project is to design collaborative solutions, which can include designing new courses, educational tools, student experiences or curricula. Often, co-design projects cover multiple of these elements simultaneously (Wardak, Wilson & Zeivots, 2023).

Among the key benefits, co-design is believed to improve teaching and learning outcomes in the long term, enhance idea generation, service delivery (Blomkamp, 2018) and lead to more innovative ways to address the needs of the users (Steen et al., 2011). In our recent publication, we state that “codesign is critical in higher education because different perspectives and expertise are essential to design increasingly challenging innovation projects in a rapidly changing world” (Zeivots, Cram & Wardak, 2023, p. 4). This study on co-design has implications not only in the field of  higher education, but also other interdisciplinary fields, in particularly, project management (Salovaara, Savolainen & Ropo, 2020) and leadership (Müller, Drouin & Sankaran, 2021).

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The study’s approach

In our research, we applied a comprehensive analysis using a practitioner inquiry approach (Cochran-Smith & Donnell, 2006). Practice theory, a framework that emphasises the importance of everyday practices in shaping our experiences, was used to dissect data and artifacts from 68 educational co-design projects in a business school at an Australian university. Specifically, a practice theory mindset was applied to capture particular activities (‘doings’), ideas and talk (‘sayings’), and relationships (‘relatings’) that are always intertwined in these co-design projects. This approach aligns with the theory of practice architectures (Kemmis, 2022).

Findings and implications

The study states that co-design in universities signifies a profound departure from more conventional approaches and practices in higher education. In particular, the study contributes these three findings:

First, the inherent adaptability of co-design ensures it adapts to different institutional landscapes, considering policies, cultures and technologies. Co-design approaches have been tailored to the emerging needs of different units and been influenced by the resources available in the project. Co-design projects, for example, course redevelopment, typically involve participants from different backgrounds – students to policy makers – who come together to contribute to, and effect, change tailored to their specific project contexts. These participants participate in distributed practices, which is essential to all co-design projects.

Second, the transformative power of co-design also operates the other direction. While influenced by existing contextual policies, cultures and infrastructure, co-design projects can actively reshape those very university frameworks and practices. We observed this bi-directional influence in many of the 68 co-design projects we studied.

Lastly, beyond immediate innovations, the true impact of co-design lies in its capacity building. Our research revealed that knowledge-sharing during these projects triggered not only pedagogical shifts but also nurtured a fertile ground for continuous learning and innovation among participants.

In essence, co-design is not just a method; it’s a mindset of how to imagine and undertake collaborative projects. Although co-design is not a viable approach for all educational projects, it’s a transformative opportunity to reshape the foundation of higher education.

Full and open-access paper by Sandris Zeivots, Andrew Cram and Dewa Wardak is available here:

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About the author

Dr Sandris Zeivots is a Lecturer - Educational Development with Business Co-Design at the University of Sydney Business School. He investigates how to design and implement innovative learning experiences that are engaging, meaningful and purposeful. With a professional background in experiential learning, Sandris explores how to design impactful educational events to strategically improve the experiences of learners through learning spaces, experiential education and emotional engagement.

Lecturer in Educational Development at the University of Sydney Business School - Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA) - Learning Scientist

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