Using Design-Thinking to Engineer Competency-Based Education

Apr 14, 2015 · 3 min read

By Joann Kozyrev, Director of Competency-Based Program Design

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

Access, Success, and Affordability are persistent problems in higher education and at The University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning (ITL), we are passionate about our mission to address all three.

This fall, we launch our first competency-based programs in which we have pursued solutions utilizing technology, scale, and design-thinking. Among these, design-thinking may get the least attention. We have found, however, that faculty design teams can utilize design thinking to create powerful programs that will to serve student audiences from high school through professional and continuing education.

Applying Four Rules of Design-Thinking

Our design process addresses the four rules of Design Thinking outlined by Larry Leifer from Stanford and Christoph Meinel from Universitat Potsdam.

  • The Human Rule: Our designs and processes are inherently social. Faculty design teams are the engine behind the process. The students and the professions, industries, and human endeavors to which they will ultimately contribute are always at the center.
  • The Ambiguity Rule: We welcome ambiguity and develop techniques to help others grapple with it. The problems we are addressing are complex, systemic, and often ill-defined. (In fact, some would call them Wicked Problems). Early oversimplification of the problems may result in quicker answers, but rarely lead to elegant, persistent, implementable solutions.
  • The Re-design Rule: The process must respect the design that came before. As all design is essentially re-design, we take into account the wisdom of existing programs, outside standards, and take care to learn from cross-institutional and interdisciplinary educational designs.
  • The Tangibility Rule: Process outputs must be Tangible, Beautiful, and Functional. Documentation of the process and visualizations of the resulting design are vital to transparency, communication, and in fact, to future iterations.

The two vital elements are a solutions-oriented faculty design team and a carefully designed and facilitated process. With those in place, exciting innovative program and course designs emerge.

Our Process

Design thinking can be defined in many ways, but it always embraces both analysis and synthesis and it is determinedly, tenaciously iterative. Beginning with the end in mind, we start with the student. Moving quickly to competencies and objectives, faculty design teams are led through a process of brainstorming, reviewing and analyzing the existing program and outside standards to iterate, create, make changes, edit, and adjust.

The ambiguity rule can be a difficult one and not all team members are initially comfortable with it. Knowing that the barriers to access, success, and affordability are intricate, systemic, and sometimes contradictory, our workshop tools and activities help the design team to focus on analysis and synthesis activities separately. To support them in their work, we encourage a focus on iteration and reliance on the process to view the problems and issues from all sides rather than “playing devil’s advocate,” which can sometimes cause an ideation stage to break down.

In certain ways, the ITL facilitators are midwives to the faculty process. To address the crushing constraints on most faculty members’ time, the ITL facilitators bring drafts of each deliverable to the faculty, collect their feedback, and then document their iterative process. This allows faculty to focus on ideas, content, objectives and pedagogy rather than paperwork and it utilizes their expertise efficiently and effectively. And at the end of the process, we provide them with a beautiful, fully documented design, which communicates their vision for their program.

As we solve for competency-based education at the programmatic, curricular, and even activity level, we are also innovating around this faculty-driven design process. We believe it holds real promise to be a catalyst for next generation programming models, high-impact pedagogies, implementation of tools like data analytics and educational technology.

What do you think? We would love to share the journey into the future of education with you!


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Driving student success and access through the innovative use of technology. Part of the UT System's Institute for Transformational Learning.

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