Agile Learning Design Opinion

Understand the Constraints

Previously I’ve described design as problem solving within a set of constraints. It’s a definition I believe works across the various media and disciplines we might apply design to – web, graphics and yes learning.

In my early career I was a graphic designer. I’ll admit that I was never the flashy kind, my work was always more functional than beautiful. What I was good at was working with a client to establish a good brief. A good brief was a clear articulation of the problem the client required you to solve and along side that was the constraints – what was the turnaround time, budget and resources available. Other key constraints that were often overlooked, which would result in poor briefs, were things like who the audience was, what was the broader context of the design, who were their competitors, what kind of designs did they like, what was their source of inspiration. To get a good brief from a client often required creative questioning and interrogation. There is a skill to getting to the heart of things, you need to listen and probe on particular points. You need to quickly empathise with the client, but also their audience. What I often came away with was more often than not simple problems, but complex constraints. I started to see that it was those constraints that were the most important to understand. You could create the greatest design in the world, but the client wouldn’t pay if you went outside their constraints.

When I started to work in education my ability to meet and talk with academics in order to get a good brief was my strong point. I was often used as a translator, able to speak fluent Academic and Nerd mixed with my native Everyman tongue. What I found again was that the constraints were the real difference and point that needed to be understood. I watched too often as teams and projects set out to solve problems without bothering to understand the actual constraints they were operating in. I watched as they floundered and failed, and occasionally flaked a win only by chance. By why leave it to chance?That’s why it’s one of the Principles of Agile Learning Design.

Start the process off by understanding the constraints you are operating in – what’s the timeline for development, what’s the duration of the course, what’s the expected study time, what are the outcomes and how do we evidence that. Know your audience – their motivations, desires and skills and learn about their intents.

This principle is really a call to action to spend time working not on the problem, but on defining the constraints because understanding them is the key to good design.

If you’ve ever sat down be “creative”, say to write or draw, and just stared at a blank page, then you’ll understand the effect no constraints has on creativity. It’s a hurdle, a barrier, a block to actually getting anything out there. Despite our desire to be creative the reality is that creativity doesn’t come from the realm of endless possibilities, but instead creativity comes from us working within boundaries, finding the edges and pushing against them. Most art didn’t come from divine inspiration, it came from challenging the constraints of the medium, of what’s culturally acceptable or the contemporary perception of what art itself is. Constraints help us to be creative because they challenge us to go beyond the limits on what considered possible, which can actually be a good thing and reflects the finite nature of our world.

Great creative works come from finding the edges and pushing their limits. Think of projects like the movies of Dogma 95, the games created in under 13kb of data for JS13k, or the art that’s possible with CSS and justA Single Div – all of them have incredibly limited constraints and yet they produce incredibly creative solutions.

Learning design can, and should, be like that. It should empower us to be creative with how we teach and the experiences we design for students. Constraints shouldn’t be thought of as defining what we can’t do, but rather what we can and must do.

Most of us working in higher education have incredibly finite resources and we seem to want to use that as an excuse not to do things. But when I look across the sector it’s often the lack of resources that drive innovation and pushes the accepted boundaries of technology, practice and pedagogy. Listening to Martin Weller’s 25 Yeas of Edtech  and it was the lo-fi bootstrapped solutions that really led to innovation in the sector. It’s the Mark Brown’s of the world teaching online using just email, the work of the Alan Levine’s cobbling together amazing solutions using WordPress, the Wayne Mackintosh’s with their amazing open source technologies that come together to create the OERu or self-proclaimed non-programmer Tom Woodward hacking together some nifty concoction via the ACF plugin, social media APIs and some javascript to redefine how and what an online course looks like.

Understanding constraints is not about setting limits on what’s possible, but a way for us to instead focus our energies, to not be so scattered in our approach. Knowing what we can and can’t throw at a course means we’re not wasting our time on big dreams and “what ifs”, but real and tangible wins. Having an edge to push against is empowering and key to working in an Agile way.


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

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