3 Questions Sean Hobson, Chief Design Officer for EdPlus at ASU
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3 Questions Sean Hobson, Chief Design Officer for EdPlus at ASU

My good friend and colleague, Sean Hobson, agreed to share his thoughts on his role at ASU, the Ph.D. that he is working on, and academic life after the pandemic.

Question 1: What does a Chief Design Officer at a university do all day long?

Well, it’s interesting because you have to first begin with understanding what we mean by “design.” When most people think of the word design, they imagine how something looks or feels. They might imagine a logo, or a website, or a building, or a piece of furniture. I think of design as an intentional problem-solving process that can be applied to the tangible (visuals and objects) and intangible (interactions and systems), as a tool for exploring possible futures. The output of our designs may be material objects; verbal or visual communications; organized activities or services; or complex systems or environments. I might be the only person in Higher Ed with the title of “Chief Design Officer”, and it's a natural fit at ASU. Our president, Michael Crow, wrote a book titled, “Designing the New American University,” so design is certainly at the forefront at ASU.

My work ends up looking different depending on the day, project, and initiative. A lot of our work fits into the special initiatives category and oftentimes comes down from the President’s or Provost’s office. We also have a handful of grassroots projects that we know will help us achieve the charter of the university. I have found that taking a backward-design approach leads to the best innovations and solutions. I spend a lot of time trying to understand and define the “problem.” Pinpointing the day’s (or week’s) problem, I find myself asking the question, “What does success look like?” several times a day because oftentimes there isn’t a clear answer to this most basic question. And there is rarely harmony amongst stakeholders - and I must confer with many, and so a lot of my work is strategy, communications, and consensus-building.

I really do have one of the best jobs at ASU. One day I might be working with a biology professor to design virtual reality experiences for online students, and the next day I might be working with companies outside of the university like Uber or YouTube to imagine how new partnerships and learning collaborations can scale to underserved learners. For example, a few years back we got the chance to build a new kind of Master’s degree in World War II studies with the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. We worked with their historians and content, our professors and designers, and we were able to create a first-of-its-kind degree that now has enrolled hundreds of learners from across the country. Innovations like this, at speed and scale, are what excites me about the future of higher education.

Question 2: You not only have a big job at ASU, you are also working on your Ph.D. Tell us about your dissertation research, and why you decided to work towards a Ph.D. at this point in your career?

First off, I recognize that I’m taking a non-traditional route for earning a Ph.D. Most of my peers earned their Ph.D. degrees earlier in their careers. But ASU is one of those unique academic places where you can have “a big job” without having a terminal research degree. I do see this as a benefit to the institution as the culture brings researchers and practitioners - at the highest levels - together to problem solve. I have always been thankful that I work at an institution that measures success based on outcomes. It’s been truly rewarding.

That said, a Ph.D. has always been a personal goal of mine. My father got his Ph.D. at the young age of 50, and it set him up with flexibility and stability in his role as an engineering professor and department chair, something he never would have had without the degree. I was a C-student all the way through high school, interested in people more than academics, and didn’t perform well on standardized tests. But I was always curious and eventually found my love for learning. As a professional, I took executive programs at Stanford in design and Artificial Intelligence. I loved being a student again and these experiences reinforced my interest in a Ph.D. program. Although I graduated from college, I was still concerned a Ph.D. was out of reach because of barriers around taking the GRE, multiple years of coursework while raising a young family, and the big questions of how would I pay for tuition, and is it all worth it at this somewhat advances stage of my career. I realize now, 14 months into the program, that these thoughts had created artificial barriers that had kept me from starting much earlier. When COVID hit, and I turned 40, the opportunity to research remotely pushed me to finally pursue this goal, and it has been a very challenging yet enjoyable experience so far.

And so sticking with my non-traditional path, I decided to pursue a degree at Dublin City University in Ireland.  ASU has a terrific transatlantic partnership with DCU, which has helped me overcome many of the aforementioned barriers. And I work with two terrific advisors Mark Brown and Mairéad Nic Giolla Mhichil. Because of COVID, this is a fully remote experience, but I meet regularly with my committee by Zoom, and have really enjoyed being able to go deep on the topics of design, change, and learning innovation. A true benefit of working in higher education!

For my research topic, I’m focusing on a phenomenon that I think is one of the most critical and urgent issues that any college or university faces today, especially in light of the pandemic. And that is this: How do learning organizations understand, adapt, and change? I’m looking at how Design and Learning Innovation plays a role in that change, and how we need to design organizations to enable institutions of higher education to keep up with the changing world around them. The aim of this study is the explanation and understanding of how learning innovation departments function as transformation change agents in higher education institutions. The goal is to combine research plus practice and offer insights for those institutions who want to change, who need to change based on societal evolutionary needs, and who must design innovative departments in response.

To accomplish my goal, I’ve focused my research on a university and learning innovation department I am very familiar with, partly because I helped create it, and that is EdPlus at Arizona State University. EdPlus is not only a unique department within ASU, but also represents the type of department that is growing across higher education, as you and Eddie so terrifically brought attention to in your first book, Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education. More on EdPlus in a minute.

I started my career at ASU as an instructional designer (ID) and, in my biased opinion, IDs have become the secret change agents within their universities. Fifteen years ago, there were just a handful of instructional designers at ASU who were supporting faculty to design, develop, implement and support digital teaching and learning courses and programs. From then to now, the growth in instructional design has been significant, and not just at ASU. The instructional design position is one of the highest in-demand jobs in higher education.

EdPlus represents a unique and growing kind of department which is popping up in Universities around the world. It operates as both a service organization and an R&D lab. It advances learning design and new business ventures. It has a startup culture but integrates well within the academic enterprise. It has its history in Centers for Teaching and Learning, but takes an outside-in approach to its decision-making. Most importantly, it helps the parent institution evolve at the fringes but is oftentimes situated at the core.  New projects, new testing, new research, new partnerships, new design models, experiments, failures, and successes in sum lead to a changed culture over time.

Question 3:  You are one of the co-founders of the HAIL Storm Network, and have been a leader in the broader learning innovation community. From your perspective, what do you expect will be some of the lasting changes for higher education of the COVID-19 pandemic?

This is a great question, but I answer with the disclaimer that I make for a poor futurist and aspiring optimist. Fundamentally, while I agree that the world has changed forever, I do think we will bounce back to common norms and traditions. I think the impact of COVID on higher education will take some time to play out. I do know that everyone was forced to use digital tools and technologies, all at the same time, which brings parts of the digital divide closer together. We were also forced to do work and learn from home. For some, the isolation and self-directed model might turn out to be a better option. For others, it could be completely counterintuitive to their personality and learning preferences.

It will be tough to paint broad strokes, but I do think we have an expanded set of experiences that can be helpful when designing for student success. I deeply miss the relationships I have with people outside of the work assignment, or meeting, or conference. I think as a social species we all miss parts of that, whether we know it or not. That said, and one of the great ironies of Zoom, is that in some respects we are more connected now than we ever were. Raise your hand if you had a happy hour with a long-lost aunt!

HAIL is an amazing group of leaders across higher education who are all dealing with the same challenges around how to innovate through learning design within complex university organizations, and the personal connections I have with HAIL are no different. Just this week I was able to reconnect with two dear friends, colleagues, and HAIL co-conspirators Matthew Rascoff and James DeVaney. We had an exhilarating and stimulating conversation about this exact question, and how our work plays into the solutions. My only regret is that we couldn’t extend the discussion for hours and days as we might during a normal HAIL gathering. I’m hopeful we will get back to an in-person or blended gathering this year. When we do, I have no doubt that your question will be a focus of the discussion.

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