By Elizabeth Santiago, PhD
I have two passions: learning design and storytelling. For a time, I thought they were distinct, separate areas of interest, but I have come to realize they are foundationally similar even if the output is different.
As a fiction writer, I draw inspiration from everyday occurrences, my own personal experiences and, sometimes, from stories I hear from others. I tend to feel a spark – a little jolt that reverberates through my body letting me know there’s something I want to explore. Once I acknowledge that I’m intrigued by an idea, I allow my creativity to flow and I build a basic premise. That premise may be a one line description of what the story can be. For example, “A person travels to Puerto Rico and discovers ancestors they never knew they had.”
I then start to build upon that basic idea and ask myself questions like, who are the characters in the story? What are all the settings? What happens to the characters to change them for the better or the worse? Once I answer all these type of questions, I write a first draft. I enlist beta readers to read that first draft then I revise and finalize.
That process closely mirrors a design thinking process. The below image from the Interaction Design Foundation closely aligns with how I approach a new work of fiction and a learning design endeavor.
As a learning designer, I often get asked to design learning to solve problems. Here is an example of a recent request I received: How can we make research more accessible to undergraduate students? Students have expressed the desire to do more research, but they are not sure where to begin. They have shared that they would take a short course that provides an overview of the process. Can you help?
This real scenario started from a place of empathy – empathy for the student and their desire to learn and grow. I liken this empathy to the spark I initially feel in the creative writing process, which is from connecting to my surroundings and other people.
From that premise, I began to outline and define what a solution might look like. This is a similar process as writing a basic one line premise for a story concept. Once I get approval on the concept, I begin to ideate and ask questions like, what do I want students to be able to know and do after engaging with this course? What are the existing resources, materials and assets I have to work with and what needs to be created to fill gaps? How will I know that students have acquired knowledge?
Once all these type of questions are answered, I create a prototype that has enough of a feel of the learning experience to get feedback on the approach. I test it with the target audience to determine if it has met the originally stated needs and goals then I revise and finalize.
While writing fiction and designing learning is much more involved than this high-level overview implies, aligning the design thinking process employed in both is eye-opening. Design thinking is creative, yet provides a method for solving problems and gathering input from those who will interact with the myriad of experiences you are developing.
Elizabeth Santiago, PhD is the chair of the Learning Experience Design program at Brandeis University. Her debut young adult novel, The Moonlit Vine, will be published in January 2023 by Lee and Low.