Published on 2018/10/25
The EvoLLLution | Redesigning Higher Ed with the Student at the Center
Institutions that rethink the educational experience by putting the student at the center of their decision-making processes will be better positioned to meet the modern demands of traditional and post-traditional learners.
“Let’s work backwards.” This would be my husband speaking. It’s one of his favorite sayings, right up there with “Let’s use a little engineering,” and, “It’s OK, I’m from Cleveland.”

There’s a point to this.

We in higher education like to give a lot of lip service to the concept of student-centricity. The student, after all, is our raison d’être. As an industry, our common purpose is to literally improve our world by educating students to discover, work and participate in our democracy.

The unfortunate truth is that most institutions are ill-prepared to be student-centric. The infrastructure of a traditional college or university has typically developed over decades and involves the mythology of policy and practice, grounded in the limitations of systems and laws. These institutions were not designed to be student-centric; they were designed to work for their mission during those moments in their development when decisions were made. Those decisions lasted, often far beyond their original rationale. Like urban legends, they became the collective truth that feels known.

What does it look like when we put the student at the center?

“Let’s work backwards.”

To be student-centric, we need to know who our students are. Let’s go beyond demographics, beyond income, beyond SAT scores, beyond age and family statistics. Let’s look at how students live: how they interact and learn in environments outside of formal institutions. Like a sociologist, let’s follow a student into their natural environment and gather data. Also, we could just ask them.

One of the cardinal sins that people commit when attempting to redesign a system around the student is to implement changes based on what they themselves would want. While this may occasionally also happen to be what the student wants, unless the student in this scenario is exclusively you, decisions about the design of this environment should not necessarily be made based on what you think you want. Even our assumptions about what helps and what hurts students’ chances of success should be challenged—ineffective interventions are not necessarily neutral (think the Cambridge Somerville Youth Study, which I learned about via a Freakonomics episode, or why fitness apps can backfire).

“Let’s use a little engineering.”

Assume that we can leapfrog over some of the necessary investigation and research for a moment. Assume that we could leverage some of the consumer activities that people engage in every day, from online shopping to IM’ing. Let’s imagine what that might look like applied to higher education.

  1. Suggestion Engines

Are we making assumptions about what students should be learning, or would be well suited to learn? Some classes within a course of study are intended to “weed out” the students who shouldn’t be in that field. (Let’s assume they shouldn’t actually be in that field for a moment, rather than discussing the whole philosophy of “weeding” out students that we’ve already gone to the trouble to vet and admit.) Maybe there’s a rationale for this. Maybe that student shouldn’t be in that field of study. Wouldn’t it be great to match the learner not just to their degree, but also to what they would be good at? Provide suggestions on what their paths might look like? Support their success?

  1. Online Engagement

People are constantly interacting online. We have virtual meetings, we write emails (many, many emails), we’re IM’ing, we post on Facebook (because I’m just old school enough to still do that). In general, we use the online world to connect. Why do our learning environments feel so different, so cold and so distant?

Historically, distance learning started as a way to expand access to education, but it was very broadcast-based, from correspondence courses for secretaries to recorded lectures in place of online courses. We can change that, but it requires a new focus away from delivery and towards engagement. It requires significant investments in course design and more learning experience design. It requires investments in quality standards and professional development. It requires being thoughtful and experimental about what works online.

  1. Just-In-Time Learning

I’ve heard so many times that students shouldn’t be learning on their cell phones. It’s a bit of a moot point. They are learning on their cell phones. They might just not be learning course content on their cell phones. But why shouldn’t they be? eBooks aren’t a fringe thing—folks read them all the time. Amazon is raking it in, at the rate of over 1 million paid downloads of eBooks a day. Podcast listening is up: nearly half of Americans (44 percent) have listened to a podcast. Video works as a teaching tool (and it works on your cell phone).

YouTube is the second largest search engine. My family regularly uses YouTube for just-in-time learning for our kids. (“Mom, what’s a hurricane?” We look it up. “Mom, what does a volcano exploding look like?” We look it up. “Mom, can you find that song about the continents and oceans?” We look it up and I get suckered into purchasing a subscription to some site that sells content about social studies to young, impressionable children and slightly older mothers whose resistance is weakened by a Sunday afternoon, longing for the work week.)

Here’s a great example of the efficacy of video learning. My husband and I successfully installed ceiling fans as a result of YouTube videos. This was a feat of achievement of KSADs:

  • Knowledge: We had it, as demonstrated by the functional ceiling fan.
  • Skills: We didn’t electrocute ourselves. We were able to replicate this skill set on a total of 5 fans of 3 different styles.
  • Abilities: We had the capacity to work together to install something that was hands-on.
  • Dispositions: We’re still married post-ceiling fan installation.

Now maybe you don’t want to write an essay by dictating into your phone. But recently I’ve thought that maybe you do! I know an extraordinarily successful individual who regularly dictated everything from emails to articles he wrote. Maybe that’s a skill you can learn and flex too. He wasn’t even a Millennial; he would be over 80 today.

  1. Effective Customer Service and Help

Students need help when they need help, where they need help. It’s fairly likely they need help when it’s not 8:30 AM-4:30 PM and they happen to be in between classes. Peak eTutoring hours are generally in the evening. You need help when you’re working on your work, not before you realize you need help. Look at the effectiveness of Kahn Academy and Amazon. Amazon will answer my chat anytime. I don’t even care if it’s a chatbot, as long as they get me what I need.

Where do you do your banking? I do mine on my phone. Lots of people do, apparently, or they wouldn’t have so many apps. I now order my groceries on my phone and pick them up at the store. Truly a marvel of modern science. Why shouldn’t every student be able to apply on their phone, register on their phone, learn on their phone, receive suggestions, updates and even “nudges” on their phone? Many colleges and universities already enable this, but most do not.

Let’s look to what other highly successful businesses have put into place to win and keep customers in order to help create a truly student-centric learning experience. Let’s look at the tools people routinely use that are effective and efficient, and then implement things we’ve learned from what works. It doesn’t mean cheapening the college and university experience. It means rethinking it. And testing that theory; I’m not the user.

Education is Personal

So why the constant infusion of my husband’s sayings, my children’s use of video, and my own consumer habits into this article? Fundamentally, technology has changed our expectations of how the world should work. It is bleeding into education because it works. The how, where, when and even why we learn is evolving. It is often discussed in the context of the post-traditional learner: my rationale for learning does not stand apart from my life; rather, it is integrated into it. One of my mentors used to say that, at best, the institution is now the student’s third priority, after their family and after their job.

This does not only apply to the post-traditional student, even though it may apply especially to the post-traditional student. The coming demographic cliff in higher education forces all institutions to think about the nature of learning and student-centricity, even for their 18- to 22-year-old students.

It’s time to realize that learning is personal, and our institutions should be too.

It’s time to realize that there is no traditional student—there are individual students, with unique needs, and we should build our systems around them.

And if I’m wrong?  “It’s okay: I’m from Cleveland.”

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