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The Benefits of Community-Based Co-Design Projects in Curriculum

Post by 2020–2021 BCcampus Research Fellow Caylee Raber, director of the Health Design Lab at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and Lisa Boulton, research associate, BCIT and Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Read the authors’ first post.

Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECUAD) offers a series of courses that engage equity-seeking groups in community through co-design. These courses teach students how to facilitate co-design by working with underserved people while learning technical design skills. The goal of this research fellowship was to evaluate the impact of these courses on student learning. When asked how these courses differed or what was novel about them, participating faculty and students described a deepening in the value brought by the academic experience though the authentic inclusion of underserved people. In total, 48 students and alumni contributed their opinions via a survey that allowed for both ranking and long-form answers. Three faculty members and three community partners also participated in interviews. 

Students come to learn design at ECUAD with the promise of learning “theory and practice, exploring cultural, historical, technical, and ecological issues related to the field of visual design”. Students, faculty, and community partners shared through interviews and surveys that having the opportunity to work with underserved populations while learning the fundamentals of design created additional benefits as summarized below.

Motivation

Developing relationships with equity-seeking people and learning from their experiences created more intrinsic evaluation metrics. Instead of focusing on their own self-interest or to please a teacher, students worked to impress their co-designer in the community. Students describe having more motivation to work diligently on outcomes created for these courses. 

Power of Vulnerability

Students needed to learn how to empathize to learn from and understand the experience of a person who has had a very different life path from theirs. The students’ co-designers’ courage to share and be open about their experience was an education in the value of vulnerability in making authentic connections.

Presence

Students described they learned the value of listening, taking time, and making space for their co-designers.

Manage Ambiguity

Working with people who have additional challenges as a result of not being centred in society and working outside the controls of the classroom required flexibility and adaptability from faculty, students, and community partners alike. Stepping into the complexity of lived experience called students to confront their fear of failure and build trust in themselves and others to step out of their comfort zones.

Big-Picture Thinking

In applying their skills to a real-world context, students had the opportunity to consider how their work operates outside an academic context and where they might see themselves fitting into the workforce.

Professionalism

Working with an external partner called students to professionalize their manner, approach, and outputs.

Community-based curriculum requires extra work from all who participate. Online Zoom-based interactions brought on by the pandemic made sessions more accessible for some co-designers and reduced the administrative burden on faculty but created barriers for other community members. Ultimately, engaging people outside academia and creating a supportive space for students to engage with difference creates a sense of meaning to theory and skill development and the space for authentic inclusion of diverse perspectives in an academic setting. I, along with student, faculty, and community respondents, hope this research will encourage ECUAD to continue to invest resources in community-based co-design curricula. Further, I hope other schools consider doing the same. 

This research is supported by the BCcampus Research Fellows Program, which provides B.C. post-secondary educators and students with funding to conduct small-scale research on teaching and learning and to explore evidence-based teaching practices that focus on student success and learning.

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