The Student Experience Brought to You by … Students!

By Christine Flanagan

Why students should play a designer role in the creation of new (and better!) school experiences.

Choosing a school is only the first step in planning an academic career. After making a selection, students must match interests and passions with an academic program and make important decisions about which courses to take and when to take them. Yet many students struggle with these choices and have little knowledge of the long-term consequences of their decisions.

Often, students have limited information about how elective courses or extracurricular activities fit with their chosen majors and/or programmatic or personal objectives. Many are frustrated that work-based or extracurricular learning is not counted or credited. Upon graduation, many have no idea how to represent the competencies and capabilities they’ve gained, and potential employers have little to go on in assessing candidates.

So what changes must be made to allow for a coherent and goal-focused educational experience for students?

This was the problem statement and design challenge presented to a group of undergraduate students, ranging from freshmen to graduating seniors, at Utah State University (USU) in January 2011.

Guess what? They solved the challenge and then some.

Student voice gets a makeover

What if we put students in the driver’s seat of a new kind of R&D to transform higher education? One that provided a platform for engaging students more fully in a real world effort that also involved faculty, administrators, support services and more? Could we improve a student’s education experience? Could we take it a step further and transform higher education itself?

This is a scenario currently being played out in the Business Innovation Factory’s Student Experience Lab. Founded in 2009, the Student Experience Lab works to effect broad-based behavior change across the educational spectrum by providing a neutral experimental platform that breaks down the bottlenecks that exist within current organizational structures.

In 2010, the Lumina Foundation for Education awarded the Lab a catalyzing grant to give undergraduates the opportunity to use real-world research and design methodologies to transform how students understand, evaluate and articulate the skills, competencies and capabilities they learn in college.

The Lab partnered with Utah State University (USU)—an institution known for advancing innovative programs and experiences and ranked the #1 public university in the West, and among the top five in the nation, on the Forbes list of America’s Best College Buys in 2010.

Over the course of two semesters in 2011, students traveled through a “participatory design” cycle of discovery, prototyping and experimentation.

Participatory design is design with a twist: It engages students themselves in the conceptual development of new educational experiences.

While many education institutions seek to put the student at the center of their transformation effort, they often fail due to: institutional barriers between departments and disciplines; incoherent engagement strategies that fail to deliver upon the needs of the student; insufficient innovation processes; inabilities to experiment; and general inertia toward anything new and novel.

Through participatory design, students act as both participant and designer. And a meaningful partnership is created between implementer and user, teacher and student, administrator and teacher, where everyone takes responsibility for the success of the project.

Understanding the student experience

Ultimately, the goal of this participatory design initiative was to find fresh, new approaches to support student success and timely and appropriate progress toward degree completion. Primary research activities conducted by students at USU during 2011 began with a series of ethnographic activities (interviewing and observation) to build a deep understanding of the student experience and the people who play a role in delivering that experience. Students conducted field research into the experience of fellow students; they interviewed experts both inside and outside the university; and they analyzed their findings to reveal patterns, trends and key insights related to their research.

“The role,” explained Taylor Halversen, a junior and student participant, “was to be a decoder of university and student expectations and aspirations for a university experience; to look at what the university feels is important to give their students and what the students want from the university, and how to better make those two aspirations one and the same.”

Many components of the student experience were studied and analyzed to understand the design challenge including, how students value the importance of the diploma or transcript; why they struggle to meet the necessary requirements to succeed during and after their school experience; and why so many students often become disenchanted and disconnected from the university.

After several weeks of research, students came to an alarming conclusion: It turns out most students at USU have access to a plethora of services and support structures to aid them through their college experience. These services (for example, student health services, career services, admissions, campus recreation, the registrar’s office, advising and financial aid, to name just a few ) help students nurture and develop the skills, competencies and capabilities they will need upon graduation. Unfortunately, many students either do not take advantage of these services or do not even know they exist. In its phase 1 research report, one student team remarked: “The question ‘Why doesn’t everyone know about these things?’ haunted us.”

This led students to hone in on the design challenge and investigate why, if so many support services exist, do students still struggle with the creation of a coherent and goal-focused educational experience?

Part of the problem, students discovered, is that many services have isolated information or are in isolated locations across campus. Many services are static, when the lives of students are fluid and ever changing. Often, students go to the wrong service with a question because it’s not clear what function each service delivers. Some students used descriptors such as “goose chase,” “overwhelmed,” and “ping pong” to describe the current experience they go through during their interactions with student services.

This perceived “engagement gap” between what the university offers and what students utilize provided an insight that students were able to significantly build upon.

It was found that this engagement gap exists because of:

  • A general misunderstanding of the different services offered and their respective functions;
  • A lack of general knowledge of what the students were expected to utilize;
  • Inadequate advertising and communication;
  • Current (and incorrect) student view of the resources;
  • A lack of connectivity between resources;
  • A lack of functional organization of the existing information; and
  • A limited time frame in which students could receive the university information.

Comparing the college experience with a marathon, one student, Kenneth Bennion, said “I would never attempt to run for four or five hours, especially if the route wasn’t clearly marked and I had to find my own path to the finish line. Are you crazy? Yet many college students intend to do just that: Spend four or five or more years trying to find that finish line, that magical college degree.”

At the same time, research revealed that students enjoy feeling autonomous and self-sufficient. They seek a communication avenue that is dynamic, personal and changeable. Unfortunately, many students are also unable or unwilling to adequately direct their autonomy.

“We found that many students were aware of many of the resources and information offered by the university, and needed personal attention from advisors or other knowledgeable sources to understand procedures and course goals,” explained one student team in its research report. “Still others waited for information to come to them, relying on deadlines and direct communication from advisors, professors and school officials to tell them what steps they need to take next.  Those that are still searching for direction seem more hesitant to “dive in” to clubs and organizations, but will if coerced by peers.”

“Many students are afraid of not being self-sufficient within a university setting. Although they are observant enough to know that they are missing out on valuable opportunities, they lack accurate information to correct their course,” observed another student team. “These students need a more personable touch within the university system and would benefit from more hands-on courses, career planning and a “contact them first” approach to the on-campus resources.”

From this research, our teams hypothesized that students who feel connected to their school are more likely to persist in school and ultimately, graduate. So the design challenge became, how might the university better assist students with the self-discovery process while balancing student desire for independence and self-sufficiency?

“With all the information and resources available at USU, where in the process do students lose touch, and why do they lose touch,” asked one student team? “What is the prescribed “university” path and where do students deviate from it? This is vital information. The university needs to know where students are getting disconnected so they can bridge that gap. And students need to know where they can reconnect with the university so they can have a successful and enjoyable college experience.”

Answering these questions led to a surprising opportunity area for innovation: Student services need not create new information or new structures to aid students; they simply needed to re-configure, re-combine and re-direct students to existing information and services more effectively and efficiently.

This realization gave way to a powerful solution idea devised by one student team to create a new and integrated digital environment to bridge the gaps of engagement and communication between students, university resources, extracurricular groups and faculty.

Closing the student engagement gap

By taking advantage of all that the university has to offer, students begin to make powerful connections while forming lifelong skills. This is why students involved with our participatory design studio found it imperative that the relationship between students and the school be enhanced.

What is a relationship after all? It’s a two-way dialogue of shared support (both intellectual and social), experiential knowledge, trust, and confidentiality. If each student support is trying to develop individual relationships with students, it’s easy to see how students tend to tune out or turn away all together.

From this insight, students then designed and developed a vision of the future for a “holistic” student service delivery model that is both seamless and democratic—a web-based, “one-stop-shop” that is tightly linked to a student’s evolving personal, strategic, academic and financial objectives.

The delivery model they designed:

  • Connects independent support services together to learn from and engage with one another for the betterment of the student;
  • Provides an easily navigable process for student self-discovery and self-actualization; and
  • Allows students to conveniently build their own personal web of support based on need, issue or circumstance.

The new model that students designed shifts the digital environment away from a framework where knowledge and expertise are insulated and siloed to an environment where knowledge is connected, shared and personal to the student. And it provides a seamless flow of experience that allows all students the opportunity to understand how complex student services relate to one another.

For instance, self-help and self-assessment features were built into the prototype to make students feel smart, knowledgeable and empowered. These features enable the system to respond with both:

1. Preventative information

  • Students close to graduation will automatically get a graduation toolbox to help them navigate the process, fill out appropriate forms and keep track of their progress while new students would receive information that will familiarize them with school policies and help them complete necessary processes such as registering for classes).
  • A “schedule an appointment” feature that brings up a scheduling window showing different resource contacts with whom students can (or should, if the system prompts) create an appointment.
  • A personal progress bar featuring both general education and major requirements. The bar depicts how far along the student is toward degree completion.

2. Proactive information

  • A “rate my semester” survey which, once completed, returns to the student recommended classes, scholarships, student organizations, study groups and/or extra-curricular activities or internships for the student to sign up for based on the results of the survey.
  • Forums where students, faculty and staff are able to ask questions, post feedback and discuss aspects of the university.
  • A “Tips” reel which includes a constant feed of tips based on the personal profile and overall site usage of the student. Contains advice from upperclassmen, student services and faculty.  (i.e. “Meet with your advisor before it’s time to register,” or, “There’s an internship opportunity opening up which fits with your major.”

“Each student will experience the model differently, because the model personalizes content based on the student’s needs, preferences and student information,” explained one student team.

The model also establishes interconnectivity by delivering a purpose-driven, academic social network that provides access and connection to all levels of expert help, both formal (student service) and informal (fellow students). The model replaces static content delivery with content that changes over time, or content that adapts to the student’s context or preferences or any combination of the two. “This helps students feel self-sufficient, allows for resources to have their features and functions better utilized, and creates cohesion and personalization of opportunities by and between all the resources,” explained another student team.

Missing link to systemic change?

If one outcome is clear from this year-long experiment, it’s the need for increased and consistent student choice and student voice in our education system. Our initiative demonstrates a new technique for engaging students in an ongoing internal innovation process that is both interdisciplinary and action-oriented. It’s an important example of how any institution can proactively put students in the driver’s seat of the institution’s own internal R&D activity.

It’s important to note that we are not belittling the role of expertise both at the academic and administrative level. Specialized training and experience are critical. In the participatory model, however, this special expertise is yet another resource to be drawn on‑not a source of power and authority.

By building young people’s capacity, skills and competencies and, strengthening their ownership of the results within the Lab, we are creating the right kind of environment for ongoing experimentation, culture change and radical student engagement. We view this as a missing link to systemic change.

The Lab is at the inception stage of investigating the power of this approach. And we are investigating new design challenges based on the ongoing research we conduct to understand the student experience.

Recognizing that not every experiment results in the successful implementation of a new solution, we are confident that the process itself will result in improved communication between all stakeholders of a particular institution or network. Social interaction is essential to innovation; it leads to meaningful collaboration and ultimately, the creation of the right kind of cultural environment necessary to deal with disruptive shifts.

So, as USU shifts to implement its innovative new student-centered solution with a September 2012 launch date, we ask the question: Why shouldn’t young people play a designer role in the creation of new (and better!) school experiences?

Christine Flanagan is director of the Business Innovation Factory’s Student Experience Lab.



What does it feel like for a student to be considered a valued contributor to improvement of their experience? Watch this short video of students at Utah State University.


This studio wasn’t a breeze. It challenged many beliefs and assumptions about learning and education. Hear what struggles students encountered at Utah State University and how they overcame them.



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