Design for Ageing discussions

The heart of online learning

Image: The Zimmers - world's oldest rock band,

Five years ago, I began teaching a fully online subject called Design for Ageing with Professor Alan Pert as part of the Master of Ageing. I came to online teaching with reluctance as I value the face-to-face studio setting where students explore and test ideas through sharing design proposals. In the studio, teaching incorporates iterative feedback from tutors and peers aligned with Kolb’s Learning Cycle of conceptualising, testing, experiencing and reflecting. I now understand that online teaching provides certain opportunities and learning experiences which are not possible face-to-face. The student’ contributions to the discussion board are considered and often based on careful reading of research. Students bring perspectives from their cultural and discipline experiences and yet, in a discussion board setting, we are largely freed from preconceptions about the contributors linked to issues of age, gender, personality and appearance.

We began with 20 or so students and now introduce Design for Ageing to over 50 students each year. Our students have included geriatricians, nurses, librarians, superannuation experts, specialist architects, lawyers, IT experts, occupational therapists and physiotherapists, teachers and aged care developers and managers. They join a cohort of Master’s students from Melbourne School of Design in disciplines including architecture, property, urban planning and landscape architecture.

With the exception of two webinars, we have no synchronous teaching and yet we observe deep learning occurring despite the lack of face-to-face interaction. The discussion boards where students upload ideas and links have become the heart of the online learning environment. One recent student, Merrick Morley, describes the virtual discussions as:

an important and insightful aspect of the subject. Ageing has affected us all in different and profound ways, reflected by the differences in our age, sex, ethnicity, religion, culture, and socio-economic status. We were tasked with responding to the same questions, yet every response was different. While common themes emerged each week, it seemed that most students took the time to think, understand, and respond in an idiosyncratic way. This reveals the other great aspect of the virtual discussions - responses required greater thought than the comparable response delivered in a physical tutorial group. I believe that students (who are already motivated in the subject) were further inspired to look for more ideas and research to validate or challenge their views, expanding on the themes within each discussion.

Each week, Alan and I present a suite of short videos embedded with some provocations or questions. We begin at the scale of the person and then shift to an urban scale before considering a range of building types and neighbourhoods including housing, retirement villages, residential aged care facilities, hospices and hospitals.

Because of the class size we run parallel discussion groups which are led by architects, Sarah Backhouse and David Pryor who bring extensive industry experience.  Sarah, David and I share the key ideas as a summary each week. For example, part of one weekly task asked students to provide ten keywords/phrases to inform the brief of their own aged accommodation setting. Here is an overview of student responses that could usefully inform a checklist for the briefing of design for ageing.

Yinqian and Mairead highlighted the importance of harmonious, caring and respectful neighbours. This is intriguing to think about in design terms. How can designs support great neighbourhoods? Balancing privacy and sociability was mentioned by Miaoquian. David (tutor) agreed that all kinds of competing issues need to be balanced as briefs and designs get developed. Mairead highlighted the importance of personalising space. Yi Wang and Tsen Le spoke about space with a big window to have tea or to sit and enjoy the scenery. Several, including Qinyi, Cindy and Haoxi, mentioned smart technologies. Jingran wants good ventilation and fresh air. Yiyu mentioned the importance of high ceilings. Sook Lee included low maintenance and low energy and considered the importance of the home as an investment. Hayley found it a fun exercise and Junming also had fun hoping the future home would include a chef.

Some organised keywords thematically. Wan Leng used themes of emotional, physical and social. All the senses were important to Dianne including scent. Sixuan and Meng Hao particularly focused on safety issues such as non-slip, rounded corners, divided paths and clear signage. Jie would like support from a 24-hour emergency medical team. In contrast, Dingran’s list focused on meaning, purpose autonomy and respect.

Yifan, Merrick and Lukas extrapolated themselves into the future, bringing a positive outlook. Others such as YanYuan shared ideas after chatting with grandparents. Chuan Li, Malita and Si Nga reminded us of the importance of affordability and proximity to health services. Malita also mentioned that the home would need to adapt/be adapted over time. Some, including Sommya, emphasised multi-generational living, giving examples. Below is the word cloud developed from the combined contributions from students.

A screenshot of a cell phone screen with text

Description automatically generated

Answering this deceptively simple task reveals a lot about ourselves and what we value. Design for ageing engages with pragmatic, experiential and conceptual issues. In addition to this discussion, students engaged on 20 or so other discussion topics across the term bringing insights to how the built environment accommodates and impacts the diverse needs of older people - whether active, frail or in the last stages of life.

It is useful to finish with hearing from students about their learning at the end of Design for Ageing. Gemma Coward, bringing a background in marketing, came to understand that good design for ageing should be good design for all abilities and all ages and noted the benefits of design subjects suitable for both designers and non-designers. Sommya Bindal, an urban planner, did miss having in-person discussions but felt the skills and knowledge acquired would result in being a better urban planner and valued the discussion of design concepts between people from different backgrounds. Linda Simpson is currently working with guide dogs and found the breadth of the subject useful. Phoebe Mcguire, an architecture student who has also completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, valued having access to so many expert interviews on topics every week. Mei Lin Sharifah Rose Amie EE with no background in design was initially daunted by the design focus but ended up finding the broad content ‘did not feel “heavy” as there were many videos which feature valuable insights from experts, which balances out the reading materials’ Rose is currently a tertiary educator in Singapor teaching Gerontology.

Wan Leng See self-describes as a ‘practising Chartered Accountant with zero understanding on design’. The following words are excerpts from reflections by Wan Leng on the Design for Ageing subject: Longevity is the greatest success of mankind and while we triumph over longevity, equally important is the quality of life for the longer years we live. It is fortunate that this is the most amenable issue as we are empowered and have the ability to design an environment for a better world, not only for the ageing community but also for ourselves, one day. Now I understand design extends beyond aesthetics or functionality embracing inclusivity, psychological effects, and most importantly, forward-looking. It evolves and corresponds with the fluidity and progress of society, be it demography, cultures, climate or technology.

[ Source: Associate Professor Clare Newton, Learning Environments, Melbourne School of Design, ]