Why Do We Need Community (Preview)

How to design more powerful learning experiences

Colored pencils

Photo by Unsplash

By Josh Kery and Mimi Shalf

High schools, research labs, and tech companies all define community differently. Who gets included in this definition often determines who gives input in the design of educational experiences. To what degree designers in education listen to their community of users and peers can change learners’ engagement and empowerment.

Focusing on the end product in education may disconnect your practice from pedagogy. Consider gamification, which has promised a fun way for educators and designers to engage and motivate learners. The trend popularized design elements like points, badges, and leaderboards before there was research evidence indicating whether or not they improved learning outcomes.

As common as gamified elements are in classrooms and in education technology (EdTech) today, education research is still unclear about which elements are impactful to student learning. This ambiguity, among others, should lead educators and designers to look more closely at how they choose and use learning theories and design patterns like those used to gamify classrooms.
Educators and designers might first con-sider who they are involving in their design process and how they are involving them. The community of users and designers is a powerful medium for crafting engaging educational experiences, and can lead to more informed, powerful, and inclusive learning environments. In this article, we will explore what it means to create a community through design and education by exploring a few instances where community and education have played off of each other to create a rich and full learning experience.


Design-Based Research (DBR) could be a valuable touchpoint for those looking to rethink their designs’ connections to pedagogy and how to engage in the community of educational research that runs parallel to classroom education. It’s a methodology for conducting research in education, used by labs like the Embodied Design Research Laboratory at UC Berkeley. In DBR, designers iteratively create a design and test its impact on learners. These tests serve to evaluate and complexify the designers’ assumptions about how the design affects learners.

Dor Abrahamson, Director of the Embodied Design Research Laboratory, writes that the DBR process produces:

  • a design artifact, with documentation of its starting context;
  • new or changed learning theories that researchers use to explain their observations;
  • and guidelines for other designers to create similar artifacts (also called a design framework or design heuristics) which “cohere,” according to Dor, with the above learning theories and design artifact.

These three results act as vehicles to pass information to the greater research community, so that others can separately consider the different aspects of a study, build off of its findings, and discover something new.


Bridging Research and Design Practice
While this describes how designer-re-searchers tap into their community of users and peers, it might seem distant from how designers in schools and companies can do the same.

We have come up with a pair of questions to prompt people to engage their own communities of peers and users in their design practice.

  • How is knowledge shared in your community?
  • How do you involve your community in the design process?

We will look at these questions through the lens of the community design center Cambridge D-Lab and the EdTech industry as practical examples of community engagement in design for education, with a focus on the lab’s signature participatory design structure.


Engaging Community in Other Design Practices
Cambridge Design Lab is a participatory design lab where students, families, educators, and school leaders can learn about design and work on self-identified challenges. Design coach and educator Angie UyHam founded the D-Lab in 2016 and continues to run it today with Khari Milner, Co-Director at the Cambridge Agenda for Children.

The D-Lab seeks to add design as another tool for its participants to utilize. Before identifying a challenge they’d like to design for, participants work together in groups to define a “design framework” for their project. Each group uses three images to represent the goals and qualities that will guide them during the process. We will be using the D-Lab as a model to help us think through our guiding questions…


Cover of the Education Issue

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 019