What Barbie Taught Me About Course Design

A person holding a miniature diagram of a house

By Elle Olivier |

I never played with dolls when I was a kid. I had dolls, but I didn’t play with them. It would frustrate my mom endlessly. I would beg for a new doll, rip open the packaging, put the doll in the dollhouse, and leave her there for weeks. My mom would make a point to try and see if I had moved her and would often ask me how I liked the new doll. She said I would always think a little, then shrug, and walk away. One day I was nagging for another doll again, and mom was getting annoyed with my request.

Mom: “Why do you want a new doll if you’re not even going to play with it?!”

Me: “But Mom, I need it!”

Mom: “Why?!”

Me: “Someone has to live in the new house I made!”

I was a weird kid. I scavenged stuff from the garage daily to glue, hammer, and paint—all to my dad’s dismay because he could never find anything after I was in there for a day. You see, I didn’t see the point in pretending to make the doll talk—she could probably do that by herself when no-one was looking—but I did see the point in providing her with a beautiful space to live in and foster the four puppies she had rescued. I didn’t play with dolls because I was too busy building and decorating their space. In my mind, that was the most important first step.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” -Steve Jobs

I still don’t play with Barbie, but she’s always on my mind

I’m a learning designer today. I build and decorate spaces where knowledge and skills live before they are played with. I believe I’ve always known that the most important part of building and designing anything is who it’s for.

Online education is becoming education. As in, remove the first word. This revolution opens the world of knowledge to so many people in such diverse spaces. The goal of education has always been to unlock the rooms in our minds that lead us to new answers. When we design learning experiences, we’re designing with the occupant in mind.

How will they walk from room to room? Which door handle is most accessible? Are the colors on the walls too distracting? Is that couch too comfortable or not comfortable enough? Skillful design means thoughtful design. It means immersion into the spaces we create to ensure intuitive, unbarricaded, easily reached access to every room. What kind of house is going to make anyone feel at home? Will they want to stay awhile, explore, get comfortable? Or would they feel like getting in and getting out quickly?

The roof is made of Maslow

People fall in love with a house because they can see its potential. “I can see myself sitting here, sipping tea, reading a book; I can see the kids playing in the garden; I can see the family sitting around the table in this dining area.” If you’re building a course, is the outcome a clear view of the course’s potential? “I can see myself using this in that situation at work; I can see myself needing this to figure that out.” Yes, the layout is important because purpose informs layout—for a house and a course.

Maslow made a pyramid with the basics at the bottom and the ‘nice-to-have’s’ at the top. But if you put a little triangle on top of a square, it’s because it has a purpose-it keeps out the rain. And though we need to think of course design in terms of the basics first, we need to remember that every part of the pyramid should be the final goal. Before the learner can achieve ‘self-actualization’ or in this case, a credit, credentials, knowledge, a degree, etc. they must first be supplied with the basics to get them there. This requires a course constructed to foster an environment where they have the ability to reach their goals—a course that keeps in mind the roadblocks and needs of each unique person who learns.

Call it reverse engineering, backward-design, or Maslow’s hierarchy. I call it logic. Who cares if Barbie has a nice dress if she can’t wear it because the closet is under the bathtub in the spare bedroom on the 5th floor behind the dragon that lives under a cave? Basics, right?


Elle Olivier

Elle Olivier