On your marks, get set, sprint
This Blog post for Take5, (edited by Sandra Sinfield) is on Nottingham Trent University’s (NTU) design sprints – in particular on how educational developers support the disciplines’ design teams in working on emergent course (programme) design. It has been kindly written by Ellie Kennedy, NTU.
NTU design sprints: making course design more developmental
Design sprints at NTU take a supportive, developmental approach to course (programme) design. Whereas course design was often previously “hidden” work done by the course team outside core hours, the sprint model – developed and organised by the Centre for Academic Development and Quality – foregrounds and protects time for the team to develop core aspects of learning, assessment and student experience.
Following a facilitated four-part structure, the sprint supports the course team to collaborate with selected peers and specialists to embed key strategic priorities into the course from the outset. Decisions are recorded and key documentation is completed as the sprint progresses, obviating the need for a separate approval process. This approach shifts the focus away from documentation and approval gateways, and offers the course team opportunities to consider innovation, develop their USP, embed inclusive strategies rather than “bolt-on” support, and deliver the strategic initiatives that support student success and make NTU courses great. This year, NTU is running over 50 Design Sprints: as a Senior Educational Developer, I will take on the role of facilitator and/or educational developer in a number of these.
Drawing on intensive design models at other institutions (such as Carpe Diem, CAIeRO, and Curriculum Design Studio), colleagues at NTU originally envisaged these sprints as a 2-day intensive process. However, a sprint I recently facilitated took place during the pandemic, when the model shifted to a 4 x half-day online workshop structure (see diagram).
The half-day sessions offer plenty of time for collaborative activities and discussion, and the 4-part structure allows the team time to progress their design activities in between sessions, and to incorporate input from the workshops. The pacing of the overall process is agreed in a preliminary meeting to take account of the team’s availability and the time-frame in which the course needs to become operational. The four-part structure is flexible enough to accommodate a sprint or a marathon as relevant.
The image shows a flow chart delineating: portfolio planning, preliminary meeting, getting ready activities, sprint part A, design work, sprint part B, design work and viability check, Sprint part C, design work, Sprint part D and final approval.
Key to successful course design is the strategic selection of the wider design team. The course leader and selected module leads form the core of the design team, and do the bulk of the design work. They are supported in this by a number of individuals, as agreed with the relevant course team before the sprint. These usually include an academic peer from a different School (faculty), with expertise in course design or key aspects of learning, teaching and assessment, as well as a student and/or alumni representative. The choice of further team members is dependent on the course needs, and may include colleagues from Professional Services such as Flex NTU (online learning team); Employability; Apprenticeships; academic colleagues such as a Learning and Teaching Manager; and external colleagues representing, for example, relevant employers or a professional body. In a recent sprint I facilitated, a student representative provided some very useful insights into her academic and placement experiences, which helped shape the design of the top-up degree under consideration.
Vital to the process are also a Facilitator, an Educational Developer, and a member of the NTU’s Quality Management (QM) team: together they form an organising team to run workshop activities, contribute expertise to discussions, and work together behind the scenes to ensure the design process runs smoothly. The Educational Developer and QM colleague are provided by the Centre for Academic Development and Quality, while trained Facilitators come from across the institution. In my experience as a sprint Facilitator, I have found it useful to catch up with the QM professional and the Educational Developer in between sessions in order to recap, reflect, and jointly plan the facilitation of the next part.
Workshops and activities
Sprint activities are highly flexible and will follow a pattern bespoke to the relevant course and the needs of the team. The outline here gives a general overview, but no two sprints are the same due to the diversity of subjects and the breadth of award types.
Prior to the first workshop session, the course team is supported to carry out preparatory tasks which include creating a set of personas. These involve both graduate personas (how students might “look” on completion of the course) and student personas, i.e. what students might bring with them to the course. Each student persona includes distinct background qualifications and experience as well as demographic factors such as age and ethnicity. The graduate personas help shape the course Learning Outcomes, while the student personas can be used throughout the workshop activities in a “storyboarding” approach to simulate student experience of different elements of the course.
Workshop activities are designed to create a course which incorporates NTU’s strategic approaches to closing disparities and supporting success for all students. The Educational Developer provides online interactive tools (see example below) which help the course team to: embed NTU priorities such as Active Collaborative Learning and assessed Work-Based Learning; create Learning Outcomes and discuss relevant assessment types; consider other useful practices such as mentoring; and build all of these into a timeline of the course. In this collaborative and supportive process, members of the wider design team make suggestions and offer examples from their own practice. The Educational Developer also brings expertise in inclusive learning, teaching and assessment, and promotes the embedding of NTU’s priority approaches.
Image description: The image shows a Design Sprint online whiteboard. Team members can select key learning experiences, assessment types and course features, and arrange them according to priority and preference.
This image shows colleagues engaged in a design activity using post-its to represent and arrange key course features.
Between workshops the course team progress their design further, incorporating key points from the workshop activities and discussions. An MS-Teams is provided, where the design team can access resources and outputs from discussions and activities. As relevant, the Educational Developer can also work with the course team between sessions to support contextualisation of the less familiar concepts and approaches. For example, in a recent sprint, the course team expressed interest in inclusive and anti-racist curriculum, so I organised a separate workshop to create space for bespoke reflection on this topic.
The penultimate stage of the sprint involves a stakeholder meeting, in which the whole design team are joined by selected stakeholders from elsewhere. These may include local employers/placement partners, representatives of professional bodies, a subject expert from a different institution, additional student/alumni representatives, and others. The course team talk through their design plans so far, and the Educational Developer provides online tools to elicit questions and feedback from all stakeholders present. A shorter final meeting provides an opportunity for the course team to demonstrate how they have incorporated stakeholder feedback into the design. For example, in the Sports Science design sprint, a colleague from a different academic School shared an example of an assessment from a research module: the course team thought this would be a great fit for their students, so they went away and adapted their assessment plans for that module.
The business case for a new course is approved prior to a sprint: this helps ensure that the resource-intensive sprint process is used only for courses that will be able to proceed. Academic approval, meanwhile, is built into the sprint itself. The Quality professional on the organising team ensures that the course aligns with NTU academic policy. Throughout the sprint workshops, they enter decisions and information into a spreadsheet (a more sophisticated database is currently in development), which generates information for Timetabling, Marketing, Student Services and other relevant services to enable the course to be realised in a practical sense. Central to the approval element, the Quality professional also writes a report, which is peer-reviewed by a colleague, to record key outcomes from the sprint process and ways in which the course team have addressed any issues. Rather than involving a separate approval phase, what used to be “scrutiny” is now embedded during the developmental workshops, so that by the end of the 4-step process, the design work is complete and thorough.
Design sprints were piloted in Summer 2020: and in 2020/21, half the new courses at NTU were designed using the sprint model. The majority of new courses designed in 2021/22 will go through a sprint or will involve some of the participatory, collaborative elements of sprint design. Feedback from participants has been encouraging:
The design sprint was a very positive experience. The course team gained a lot from the discussions and were able to incorporate some valuable contributions from colleagues across NTU. The course design is definitely enhanced as a result of the process (Sport Science course leader).
Ellie is a Senior Educational Developer at NTU. She is committed to inclusive education and proud to contribute to NTU’s strategic initiatives to close disparities for disadvantaged groups. She has been instrumental in Design Sprints initially through research into developmental course design models in the sector, and now as a facilitator and an educational developer on various sprint teams. She is also currently leading on learning, teaching and assessment support for course teams at NTU’s Mansfield hub – an initiative to promote social and economic regeneration in a deprived area of Nottinghamshire.