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Problem-solving with design thinking

AS the Covid-19 phenomenon swept across the nation last year, higher education institutions changed the way they delivered knowledge and value to society.

The abrupt disruptions not only affected teaching and learning, but also research and community service – activities typically offered by these establishments.

To mitigate the chaos, universities leveraged virtual platforms, offering an unprecedented solution to continue the delivery of higher education. The solution, however, presented a host of challenges.

In view of this, how can design thinking help in tackling the difficulties?

Design thinking is a five-phase solution-based approach which is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined, by reframing problems in human-centric ways and creating various ideas through brainstorming.

The five phases of the non-linear approach are Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.Using the design thinking methodology, a qualitative study comprising in-depth interviews and observations was carried out for two months, involving about 80 students and 40 scholars from the Klang Valley.

The aim was to understand and further define the challenges of virtual teaching and learning, while exploring possible solutions.

Insights into the key challenges faced by both students and academics were gathered by employing the Empathise and Define phases.

These phases attempt to enhance one’s ability to see difficulties through the eyes of those experiencing them.

Through Empathise and Define, the study found that the challenges presented by virtual teaching and learning were: distraction during classes, poor self-management, lack of interaction and communication, technical difficulties, and poor work-life balance.

Although other challenges were present, it is vital to note that the lack of interaction and communication between students and lecturers was the main reason for low morale during virtual sessions.

The study also found that most classes conducted virtually were done with the cameras turned off.

In the Ideate phase, brainstorming sessions using the divergent and convergent thinking methods enable the generation of ideas.

The divergent thinking process enables the generation of a large number of ideas, while the convergent thinking process narrows down the various ideas to the best possible solutions.

This brainstorming process is facilitated in groups, while continuously encouraging creativity and innovation.

In the study, one idea proposed to increase morale was to turn on the cameras during virtual classes.

In the iterative Prototype and Test phases, the generated ideas were presented to the participating students and academics for testing.

These phases are important as they gather feedback for continuous improvement of possible solutions.

This study found that the simple idea of turning on the cameras during the entire class increased interaction and communication between students and academics.

Aside from increasing class morale, there was also a reduction in distractions such as using mobile phones when cameras were turned on.

Students were more attentive, while academics were more motivated to conduct the classes. This simple idea turned out to be a brilliant solution.

What are some of the next steps to be taken in combating the challenges?

Experts have said that virtual teaching and learning is here to stay post-pandemic.

The ability to adapt and remain agile is crucial for all stakeholders of higher education institutions.

Students and academics are encouraged to learn how to manage their time, tasks and expectations in an effective manner.

Colleges and universities can create platforms or applications that can ease communication between students and lecturers, as well as among peers.

Through these platforms or applications, virtual study groups can be created to enhance knowledge sharing.

As Malaysia aims to launch 5G services in major cities by the end of this year, the integration of 5G networks will be revolutionary for the future of higher education, with the ability to significantly improve the quality of the virtual teaching and learning experience.

The launch of 5G will accelerate the adoption of immersive learning, introduce personalised learning experiences, boost on-the-go learning, and improve interaction between students and academics.

I believe that the connected services of 5G networks, together with the design thinking approach, will enable higher education institutions to not only think outside the box, but to also think about what we can do with the box.

Dr Jesrina Ann Xavier is a senior lecturer at Taylor’s University’s Faculty of Business and Law. An active researcher who is passionate about design thinking, she has been in academia for more than 10 years. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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