Government policies and interventions are powerful instruments that can change social and economic realities on the large scale. However, social reality is highly complex, and policy measures can result in profound unwanted side effects if this complexity has not been captured. For the efit initiative of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Culture in 2002, designed by MGD, the consideration of a wide range of influencing factors was essential to inform the development of a successful design strategy.
The vision of the 2002 Austrian knowledge, education and culture initiative efit, supported by the European Union initiative eEurope 2002, was to
– Enable egalitarian access to knowledge
– Make culture accessible
– Create new knowledge
Education practices in Austria have been primarily didactic. In this tradition, the teacher is the main source of information, students are mainly passive listeners, the interaction between teachers and students is minimal, and teaching content is not being questioned.
The main delivery vehicle for teaching content was lectures, with the content delivered by schoolbooks. Schoolbooks in Austria have been a special case. In 1972, in a government effort to make knowledge accessible for all, all Austrian school books became 100% subsidized to be available for free for students. With the subsequent intention to secure the quality of teaching content, a school book publishers group was formed to standardize teaching content nationwide.
Approach and Process
Among our research questions were: How do current education policy frameworks work in practice? How is the current government policy for education implemented? Which factors can impede, which factors can support a transformation initiative?
We used ethnographic methods, group sessions and personal interviews with students, teachers and education specialists. Our findings included:
– that changing the approaches of teachers who grew up with the didactic tradition would be difficult. However, there was also a group of teachers who showed great interest in digital culture and open teaching methods.
– that there have been existing policies which, although designed to promote egalitarian access to knowledge, were disincentivising new knowledge creation, as a select group of book publishers group was solely responsible for knowledge content.
– there was a fear of new technology in users, reinforced by earlier encounters with overly technical interfaces.
To overcome resistance and fear, to enable new knowledge creation and to achieve lasting change, a strategic approach was required. Changing the established habits and didactic approaches of teachers was deemed to be difficult. However, if we could change the way teaching content was delivered, we could also influence the top-down, linear teaching practices inherent in the didactic method.
The education innovation initiative needed to deal not only with an established tradition of didactic teaching, but also with a school book system which disincentivised new knowledge creation. The schoolbook publishers group was solely responsible for teaching content. To change the way teaching content was created, selected, prepared and delivered, we convinced the schoolbook publishers group to start a digital enhancement program and first make a small part of schoolbooks available in an digital repository. This part of the initiative was branded SbX (Schoolbook eXtra).
Once schoolbooks opened their content to be partly online, we could initiate a change process. Teaching content ceased to be uni-directional – it could now be discussed, annotated and shared online. The next step was to motivate the creation of new knowledge by incentivizing user-created teaching content.
To establish the new vision, we created a process of strategic change in 3 steps.
1 – Unfreeze:
• Open school book content to be available online with the SbX program.
• Reduce the initial fear of new knowledge technologies by designing a better user experience.
• Promote and reinforce a new shared vision for knowledge by creating efit as brand and shared symbol.
2 – Move:
• Motivate users to embrace digital learning technologies with special courses.
• Reward the creation of new learning content with a new content creation prize.
• Open digital content and creation tools to students on an individual level with the eduCard, an innovative multi-purpose school ID and access card.
3 – Refreeze:
• Make the creation and sharing of knowledge content a permanent habit by embedding it in formal curricula.
The research and strategic development phases indicated that the status quo was difficult to tackle; there was a tradition of didactic teaching, and a closed group managed teaching content. To establish change, we needed to introduce the new vision, motivate users to change, and offer a more attractive alternative.
The final system included a new brand (efit), a new knowledge access portal (bildung.at), a new prize for teaching content creators (Lörnie) and the eduCard, an innovative, multi-purpose digital ID card to replace a range of paper-based IDs. The eduCard integrates school ID, access to the digital content repository and access to free public transport. It also functions as an electronic “pocket money” wallet and is planned to be further extended to become a citizen ID and university ID.
The brand efit was the vehicle to promote the goals oft the initiative and to create a shared symbol for its vision. Promoted by brand ambassadors in schools throughout the country, it became a symbol for forward-looking teachers and students.
Our research indicated that the visual language of existing standard web interfaces was perceived as overly technical, reinforcing fear of new technologies. Based on semiotic insights, we designed an improved user experience and an inviting visual language for user interfaces to communicate friendliness, positivity and accessibility.
Advances in knowledge are happening faster than a traditional top-down didactic teaching systems can process. Future ways of transmitting knowledge have to be able to keep pace with the increasingly dynamic nature of knowledge. The new digital learning system is updated in real time, enables interactive learning through others and promotes collaboration. By providing tools for both students and teachers, the system also offers insights for the continuous improvement of the curriculum. The education initiative helped to increase e-learning usage in Austria from below 10% to over 90% within 5 years.