Co-design as professional learning in universities

I’ve recently published a paper with my colleagues Claire Brophy, Lisa Scharoun, Melanie Finger, and Deanna Meth. The aim of the paper is to suggest that when universities are designing professional development for their staff (whether about policy, learning and teaching, research, compliance or anything else) there are three recognisable approaches:

  1. Help-yourself portals, like a website or set of videos where you access the learning yourself.
  2. Drive-by workshops, where you attend a one hour-ish talk from someone about what you need to know (from an implicit transmission of knowledge standpoint).
  3. Co-design of knowledge with staff, where staff are actively involved in creating the knowledge and bring their own experiences into the learning.

Each has its place but co-design is often neglected.

The paper concludes with these guidelines for how to use co-design for professional develoment:

Guidance for professional learning through co-design

Professional learning in universities here is conceived of as existing in a broad range of circumstances, from new policies to new processes to new paradigms and across the scope of academic, professional, and executive staff. A case study in the context of (staff) learning about designing for transdisciplinary learning experiences (for students) has provided an example of co-design for professional learning in practice. This final section aims to share heuristics about the use of co-design within professional learning and can be considered as partial responses to the questions: Should I use co-design here? How do I use co-design? Is it really co-design? (Moll et al., 2020).

These heuristics are:

  1. For co-design to be authentic it requires that the problems being addressed are of significance to those taking part in the co-design. In our example the academics involved had expressed interest in addressing the challenge of creating new transdisciplinary learning experiences for the institution-wide development.
  2. Those facilitating co-design need to be experienced design facilitators to overcome common pitfalls, such as overcoming participant reticence to engage and the need for time management. The professionalism of design facilitation is poorly understood by those who lack these skills (Evans et al., 2021; Mosely et al., 2021).
  3. There are circumstances where other approaches of help-yourself platforms or drive-by workshops are more appropriate. The benefit of using co-design over these approaches is that learning happens whilst simultaneously meeting the basic needs of staff: valuing their competency, permitting their autonomy, and creating connections through authentic, shared problem solving.
  4. Co-design is only authentic (rather than performative) if the power to co-generate knowledge is shared within the space and has meaning to the organisation outside of that space.
  5. Co-design takes time. Knowledge that could be disseminated through a drive-by workshop would (by our estimate, based on experience) take at least three times as long to share through an authentic co-design process.
  6. Co-design is situational. There is no cookie-cutter template for how to run a co-design session. Extant kits for running design thinking workshops are no substitute for planning a co-design session to suit the specific learning circumstances. The idea of designing a co-design session through consideration of set design, social design, epistemic design, and design for co-configuration can be a useful way to approach a particular situation.

Professional identity and trust as significant factors in designing PD

This suggestion for co-design as PD fits well with recent analysis of the types of PD that staff at a regional university consider to be successful (Herbert et al., 2023). The authors found that PD was more likely to be successful when it considered the professional identity of the staff involved and when it involved placing trust in those staff.

This fits well with the case for an increase in the amount of co-design for professional learning in universities. I do wish that our university leaders would read this kind of research and use approaches that involve trust and recognition of staff expertise more frequently!

Obviously only when appropriate as it does take more time and resources but too often such approaches are not even on the radar.


  • Herbert, K., van der Laan, L. & Danaher, P. A. (2023) Towards an Australian regional university professional development typology: a qualitative exploration of the academic voice, International Journal for Academic Development, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2023.2242816
  • Kelly, N., Brophy, C., Scharoun, L., Finger, M., & Meth, D. (2023). Co-design for staff professional learning within universities: a case study. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education.
  • Moll, S., Wyndham-West, M., Mulvale, G., Park, S., Buettgen, A., Phoenix, M., Fleisig, R. and Bruce, E. (2020), “Are you really doing ’codesign’? Critical reflections when working with vulnerable populations”, BMJ Open, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, Vol. 10 No. 11, e038339, doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-038339.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.