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Melles Procedia2010


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Design research

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Melles Procedia2010

  1. 1. Available online at Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 2 (2010) xxx–xxx 757–761 WCES-2010 Design research and training: views of educators in a university of technology in Australia Gavin Mellesa * a Faculty of Design, Swinburne University of Technology, Prahran VIC3181, Australia Received October 7, 2009; revised December 16, 2009; accepted January 5, 2010 Abstract The restructuring of Australian (and UK) higher education in the nineties brought design fields from a primarily vocational post- compulsory sector into a new university sector aiming to combine traditional notions of scholarship and research with applied industry concerns. This balancing act has proved challenging for many fields, and in particular for art and design fields. In design fields, debate continues about the balance of vocational, practice and academic concerns in higher education and challenges to educators formed in an era of more overt vocationalism. Design schools have adopted multiple strategies to meet the requirement for a design research culture, including recruiting research credentialed staff and credentialing staff through research degrees. While these strategies are having an effect, some design educators remain doubtful of the value of a research culture to design and hopeful that alternative measures, including practice-based degrees, will accommodate existing practices and values of design practice. Unless some consensus is achieved faculties and schools of design risk creating antagonistic tribes or communities of practice, and little is currently known about how such schools are faring. No previous empirical studies have examined the perception of design educators regarding the new values and demands of design research. In this qualitative interview-based study, I examine the perspectives of a cohort (n=50) of full-time and part-time design educators in an Australian university regarding design research and research training. Conclusions draw implications for the emerging field of design and the characteristics of academic design research. © 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. Keywords: Design research; practice-based; industry; educators; Australia. 1. Restructuring vocational fields and design research in Australia In response to a range of agendas, the late 1980s and 1990s saw the binary higher education system in Australia (and the UK) restructured with institutes of technology and colleges of advanced education (CAE) joining the university sector. This change brought with it pessimistic predictions, and varied outcomes, particularly for educators in the former CAEs and vocational fields who now had to compete with established universities (e.g. Adams 1998; Bazeley1994; Moses & Ramsden, 1992). The policy motivated restructuring of the post-compulsory education sector challenged the identities of educators (Henkel, 2000), including the cultural ambivalence of the * Gavin Melles. Tel.: +61414374360 E-mail address: 1877-0428 © 2010 Published by Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.03.097
  2. 2. 758 Gavin Melles / Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 2 (2010) 757–761 dual commitment to professional and scholarly values (Harman 1989) and acculturation of industry experienced staff to ‘new’ academic practices (Rosch & Reich, 1996). Another key change for faculty and institution alike was the development of research cultures in new universities and vocational fields, with consequent effects on staff (see Bazeley, 1994; Beverland & Breverton1998). Prior to the reorganization of HE sector in Australia, as Davis & Broadbent (1987) show, design was mainly taught in Training and Further Education (TAFE) with Institutes of Technology and Colleges of Advanced Education making up the other providers, in a sector postgraduate degrees and academic research were virtually unknown. There are three broad meanings for the admittedly ambiguous term ‘design research’ (see Roth, 1999). The first refers to industry-based practices or inquiry (‘research’), which aims to develop client briefs into products, spaces and so forth (see Laurel 2003). Second, is the tradition of academic scholarship apparent in mainstream academic disciplines and tribes (Becher 1989). When Durling (2002) observes ‘that deep understanding of the nature of research is limited’ (p.80) in design schools he is referring to this second category. Third, there is an ever increasing call for the development of creative and practice-based paradigms of ‘research’. Including through the introduction of professional, practice-based and studio based doctorates. However, the academic credibility of such degrees is debated in the academy (During 2002). As a result of these conflicting forces, it is not surprising that design educators also have an eclectic knowledge base (Cliff & Woodward 2004). Studies in the related built environment fields in the UK, for example, have found that faculties are transcended by different understandings of practice, consultancy and research (Durning & Jenkins, 2005; Griffiths, 2004), which has led some to suggest that schools and faculties house different academic and practice-oriented tribes or communities of practice (Durning 2004; see Wenger 1999). In as study site close to the concerns of this study, Hazlekorn (2008) highlights the malaise of vocational faculty in an applied arts department of a new university, hired originally to teaching only positions, coping with some difficulty with a new institutional agenda for research: ‘As a consequence, many faculty lack the requisite research background or experience and have limited capacity to compete for funding or produce the required outcomes … Moreover, many were appointed initially to a teaching-only role in an institution which did not prioritize research or scholarship’ (Hazlekorn 2008, p.158). 2. Institutional context and study setting The site of this study became a dual-sector university in 1992, following its history as a Technical School and CAE. In the so- dual-sector (TAFE/HE) institutions articulation pathways for students between the two sectors are encouraged, and this is true for the site of this study (e.g. Doughney, 2000); the two sectors differ with the emphasis on workplace skills and competencies in TAFE and research having contested place in TAFE (see Elliott, 1996). Following the development of undergraduate degrees in several design fields, in 2003 a separate department for postgraduate research offering research degrees was established (Barron, Anderson, & Jackson, 2005). Academic credentialing of staff, increasing recruitment of students into research degrees, and recruitment of doctorally credentialed staff, from fields outside design, including psychology, education, and art history have aimed to consolidate an emerging academic research culture. The extent to which these ‘imports’ form other fields have been beneficial was the subject of some comment by interviewees. In this study fifty design educators in both continuing and sessional positions were recruited between 2006 and 2007. Participants had various levels of seniority from associate lecturers to associate professor and backgrounds in communication design, industrial design, interior design, film and multimedia design, art and design history and education. All interviewees responded to three broad prompts on their background, understanding of design research, and views on the nature, value and practices of academic design research. Interviews ranged in length from ten minutes to over an hour. All the interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed by the author. After repeated on-line and offline analysis of transcripts a setoff issues emerged. Selected interview quotes illustrate more general themes in the data. 3. Study analysis and results 3.1. Eclectic practitioner and academic background The knowledge and experience base of design educators is eclectic and the biographic notes interviewees supplied confirmed this. Many design educators began their careers in industry following three year diplomas and
  3. 3. Gavin Melles / Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 2 (2010) 757–761 759 degrees in a variety of institutions. Teaching often began with experiences in TAFE followed by transition into higher education. For sessional staff with commitments in industry, teaching practices and understanding of research were strongly linked to these industry understandings. The consequence lack of exposure to academic research among the majority of participants meant that they were at a loss to articulate any coherent meaning for academic design research. The fact that many had also only been exposed to so-called practice-based honours and masters programs meant that mainstream academic practices such as reviewing the literature, ethics, and a culture of analysis was absent for the majority. The minority of staff with conventional humanities (e.g. art and design history) and social sciences backgrounds (e.g. psychology, education) who had been ‘imported’ to improve the overall research capacity of the faculty provided mainstream definitions of research while pointing to the challenges and possibilities for the design fields to build their own definitions and practices. A cohort of younger staff working on PhDs (scholarship funded) and with limited teaching and work experience also offered clear definitions of research. 3.2. Industry inquiry, design practice and academic scholarship The disjunct between industry inquiry and academic research in design fields is particularly evident in design as opposed to art fields as the vocational mandate of design is weighted towards work in industry. A younger multimedia design, who could offer no other description of the term, described design research as, ‘the fundamentals that you're taught at - university and TAFE about uh assessing a brief and then going on to research the - and come up with a concept and then research visual styles and reference for starting work on that’. This vocational orientation remains strong, as one senior academic (PhD) noted, ‘And it’s a vocational industry and that tends to hijack a lot of things like what even just the terminology of research’. In areas such as graphic design and film and multimedia, where practice-based ‘artistic’ concerns are important (see Collinson 2005; Dallow 2003), such practitioner research concerns were evoked but, as noted above, are contested in higher education. All interviewees were capable of providing a practice-oriented and industry related definitions of design methods but only those with exposure to academic traditions talked about traditional qualitative and quantitative methods and processes, e.g. ethics. A clear consensus was evident on the irrelevance of academic concerns to design careers in industry. Such a poor appreciation for the values of academic scholarship were further encouraged by the overt commitment of the faculty and the university of technology to vocational industry ready training rather than fundamental research as its raison d’être. 3.3. Humanities, engineering and science conventions f research There have been some specific attempts to identify the disciplinary specifics of design knowledge but these attempts remain confined to academics or inevitably biased towards some specific subfield such as industrial design (e.g. Cross 2006) or architecture (Lawson 2006), and therefore, never candidates for the kind of universal consensus their authors seems to aim for. Comparisons with other broad fields such as the humanities and sciences were evoked by interviewees or explained under prompting. Implicit and explicit references to other academic practices by participants depend in many cases on the natural affiliations some design fields have with other disciplines, e.g. industrial design and engineering, graphic design and fine arts, etc. There was some antagonism to the idea of ‘imported’ disciplinary principles, e.g. from psychology, swamping the uniqueness of design fields. As one experienced communication designer suggested, ‘I think a lot of the stuff that's design research is models of something else - is modeled on something else. So it's um cognitive psychology or it's sociology or it's business or it's um - I think they're the big ones here’. In other cases the stability and quality of conventional science and humanities principles were commended as models. 3.4. Questioning the values and relevance of academic design Interviewees generally agreed that the current state of the design industry in Australia put little emphasis and value on academic design research. As one sessional with an industrial design background and consultancy put it, ‘But in Australia if you go I might be wrong but if you from what I gather if you go to Australia you got a PhD and get a job it ain’t going to give you any more money than anyone else really’ . Design schools, therefore, find themselves in a triple bind of having moved into a higher education sector demanding ‘academization’ and
  4. 4. 760 Gavin Melles / Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 2 (2010) 757–761 simultaneously industry vocational skills in an environment where only the latter are of significance to industry. Those able to articulate definitions and practices and those who struggled to do so also questioned the value of academic design and research to the training of designers. These varied, depending on discipline from educators seeing an academic approach as inhibiting the essential practice orientation of design fields to those claiming such considerations were obstacles to profitable industry practice. 3.5. Creative practice-based alternatives The ‘romantic’ myth of the creative genius still has a powerful pull for many design fields (Fisher 1997). The emergence of practice-based research degrees in design have been one strategy to simultaneously harness this creative discourse and meet the pressures of design in higher education; one such program was offered in the study site in addition to the conventional PhD. Whether such degrees and a broader creative and practitioner agenda for doctoral and research degrees was appropriate for design research was explored by the author with some interviewees. One senior academic with a background in education (PhD), noted that the practice-based doctorate still required refining, ‘I think our current batch ...have probably received some poor direction in the past. In good faith that people think this product this artefact is going to be the be all and end all. I think there was a huge lack of consideration into what is examinable ... So I think that students have been allowed to spend a lot of time in designing an artefact with no research foundation’. In fact, given the uncertain value of such degrees, most staff in the study cohort preferred the conventional PhD pathway as the way forward. 3.6. Invisibility and ideological barriers of academic design research? There was some opposition, particularly from those with some history at the institution to the ‘parachuting’ of academics from outside design into the faculty bringing agendas of contentious value to the field, and ultimately ‘methodological intimidation’ (Seago & Dunne 1999) to more familiar art and design research practices. However, as one industrial designer noted the outsiders were not providing good advice ‘and I think there are people from various fields who supervise students and they are neither designers nor practicing engineers …So it’s a bit paradoxical because we are trying to educate or help new PhD students to complete their study and we have supervisors who come from different fields and they haven’t done that themselves’. Another concern for some interviewees was the fact that the research agenda in the institution appeared to be unclear to them and reserved to a minority. Those who felt somewhat excluded also suggested that the discourses of research, emanating from fields outside design, such as psychology, art history, and education (the author’s field) created barriers. 3.7. Nature and characteristics of research training Debates about research training in design centre on the need for traditional skills training or some modification to accommodate the creative arts and industries (e.g. Newbury 2002). As I noted in my recent study (Melles 2009), the emergence of alternative practice-based and professional doctorates in design has introduced the need for doctorates to be seen as advanced professional training with coursework now included to cover the gaps in design skills for non-designers being recruited into such programs and for designers with an evident lack of traditional academic skills needing such training. When questioned about their preferences, and where able to articulate these, many participants signalled the need for training in the conventional academic skills of reviewing the literature, getting ethics consent, training for conference presentations, and following other academic norms. A significant minority, who had limited or no exposure to academic scholarship offered, often under prompting, descriptions of research training which equated with greater technical expertise, e.g. in software use, or more vaguely referred to other forms of personal and professional development which differed from academic canons. 4. Discussion The existing vocational and practice-based orientations of design educators has come under pressure to conform to traditions of academic scholarship in higher education that HE restructuring introduced. As previous studies have shown, the transition to research and a shift from vocational to academic ends have proved challenging for the
  5. 5. Gavin Melles / Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 2 (2010) 757–761 761 newer institutions. The practice logics and qualities of design fields have been accommodated to some extent by the provision of alternative practice-based degrees fitting the creative arts and industry rhetoric. These degrees, however, are challenged by academic traditions, and are not the degree of choice by many design educators themselves. The inability of many participants in this study to articulate what academic research might be and their antagonism to it seem significant. The new university sector, including universities of technology, has attempted to develop research cultures appropriate to the dual demands of such scholarship and the applied vocational fields it tends to privilege. This wave of academization has not been uniformly embraced by practitioner educators or the industries to which design and other fields pay homage. 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