Power of Experience in Higher Education

While some students come to college with complete certainty about their major, many others are less than totally committed to their declared major or they are clearly undecided. For all those students who have yet to completely settle on their choice of major, the experience they have in interaction with an individual faculty member is the most powerful factor in determining whether a student will decide to choose or reject a particular major.

According to an article “Majoring in a Professor” over at Inside Higher Ed, the findings of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association by Christopher G. Takacs, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, and Daniel F. Chambliss, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College, indicate that a student’s choice of major is largely influenced by the first faculty member he or she encounters in the major. However, the influence can be positive or negative, either encouraging a student to commit to that discipline or causing them to reject it for another option. Takacs and Chamliss stated:

Faculty determine students’ taste for academic fields by acting as gatekeepers, either by welcoming them into an area of knowledge, encouraging and inspiring them to explore it, or by raising the costs of entry so high so as to effectively prohibit continuing in it. Faculty can positively or negatively influence student taste for a field — some compelling teachers can get students engaged in fields that they previously disliked, while other, more uncharismatic faculty can alienate students from entire bodies of knowledge, sometimes permanently.

The message from this research to faculty is clear. If they want their discipline to have a future they need to deliver their most engaging course experience in order to draw new students into the discipline. In other words, faculty are responsible for generating their discipline’s next generation of passionate users. While there are faculty who no doubt have the capacity for deeply engaging students in an immersive learning experience, others may want to take the idea of designing a great learning experience more seriously.

The article goes on to debate whether assigning senior faculty to teach introductory courses – an assignment they typically avoid – in the best way to give new students the best possible learning experience. The point of the research would appear to be less about seniority and more about who is a dynamic, caring, engaging instructor that will instill passion for the subject matter in new students. Some faculty would even suggest that what happens in the first moments of the first class can have an impact on the student’s overall experience in that discipline.

Perhaps enough cannot be said about the importance of leveraging that first opportunity you have to engage someone to turn it into a truly memorable experience. Whether it’s the first course, the first class or the first visit to the library, it’s our chance to make a difference in someone’s life. This study’s findings may suggest this is even more important with impressionable college students who are experiencing many things for the first time.

If one faculty member can make that kind of difference, then just imagine what a positive or negative experience with a librarian can accomplish. It should be a reminder to librarians that when they engage with students, be it at a service desk, in an instruction room, in a virtual chat, at a lecture or a campus information fair, they will always want to treat each encounter as an opportunity to put students on the path to becoming passionate library users. That’s the power of the experience in higher education.

Service Does Matter In Higher Education

Though slow to come around, the signs indicate that there is an increased awareness in higher education that the quality of services delivered does matter. When students are behaving more like traditional consumers who comparison shop before making a purchase decision, colleges and universities may want to develop a reputation for delivering great customer experiences. Whether it’s the online registration process, managing student loans and assisting with financial aid or resolving an overdue book issue in the library, students are increasingly attuned to the quality of these experiences – and when it’s subpar they may broadcast it on their social networks. I know I want my institution’s students to be telling each other about the great experience they had in interaction with the library.

More attention is being paid to the student experience. Based on what I’ve read so far this mostly focuses on the quality of face-to-face service. One institution was profiled in Inside Higher Education because they pay students to be mystery shoppers, going around campus to different offices to rate the service. In this particular article, a college describes its effort to institute “mystery shoppers” to make sure students get good service. There is a clear distinction that the mystery effort applies only to students’ interactions with campus service providers; it doesn’t extend to what happens in the classroom. The goal is to focus on out-of-the-classroom experiences that could ultimately impact on the learning experience:

Shank and Marymount’s efforts highlight an often-overlooked aspect of university administration that can have a profound effect on the student experience – the myriad interactions students have with university officials outside the classroom. Shank said such interactions, while not the focus of a student’s time at the university, can shade his or her view of the experience, thereby making him or her less likely to recommend the institution to others or preventing him or her from engaging with a particular campus office. In the case of something like the library or career service, it could have a significant effect on that student’s educational or professional outcome.

Mystery shopping is certainly less common in higher education, but it strikes me as a good way for the institution to know what sort of user experience students are having. It reminded me of an article written a few years ago about an academic library that made use of mystery shoppers to evaluate service quality. Even faculty can agree that the experiences students have beyond the classroom are important to the over quality of higher education – especially when their son or daughter is a college student in need of help from a campus service. This article published in Educause Review suggests that higher education needs to pay closer attention to “service science”. It’s becoming more important for colleges and universities to treat the service they provide as a scientific endeavor that can be studied, analyzed and improved. Yet another Educause Review article described how higher education institutions would be smart to implement “service blueprinting” as a more effective way to improve the student experience.

I hope that the idea of paying attention to the user experience – or at least the service experience – that college students get will spread to many other colleges and universities. While there is far more to be accomplished beyond mystery shopper tactics, the fact that university administrators are beginning to catch on to the value of providing a good user experience is a good sign that institutions will start to encourage – and reward – its different service units to provide great user experiences. I’d like to think that academic librarians are ready to lead the way.

Design Thinking For Our College Students – A Better Higher Education Experience?

One way in which design thinking is promoted by its advocates is as a system for solving difficult or wicked problems. Much of Roger Martin’s classic work on design thinking, The Design of Business, lays out an approach by which businesses can overcome the weaknesses of purely analytic or algorithmic processes for problem solving. In higher education we frequently describe critical thinking as an important outcome for college students, and advocates of information literacy discuss the necessity of helping students think critically about the retrieval and usage of information – and how it contributes to the scholarly communication system. One way in which students can develop higher level critical thinking ability is in solving difficult problems. So it would seem to make sense that helping them to better understand and use design thinking would be a valuable component of higher education. There is little or no evidence that design thinking is currently integrated in to the learning process anywhere within the typical undergraduate college curriculum [NOTE – some design and business programs would be exceptions but this is often more the case at the graduate level].

So I was intrigued to come across an article about design thinking in the fall issue of Review of Education Research. I could recall few if any articles about design thinking in the literature of education, and I immediately wondered what ideas and suggestions the authors, Rim Razzouk and Valerie Shute would be sharing in their article “What is Design Thinking and Why Is It Important?” [NOTE: available only to subscribers]. The basic premise of the article is that current pedagogical approaches are inadequate to prepare students for lifelong learning. No matter what career direction a student is headed, he or she must be an effective problem solver. After pointing out the growing interest in design thinking in the world of the business the authors state that:

Helping students to think like designers may better prepare them to deal with
difficult situations and to solve complex problems in school, in their careers, and
in life in general. Current educational practices, though, typically adhere to outdated theories of learning and pedagogy

The first half of the article provides an in depth literature review of design thinking, so for that reason alone it may be of interest to those seeking a nice survey of the basic concepts and theories. In identifying the characteristics of design thinkers, Razzouk and Shute do a good job of demonstrating that those are qualities we want in our college graduates:
* ability to visualize
* human centered
* ability to develop multiple solutions to a single problem
* systemic vision
* ability to clearly articulate ideas to others
* effective in teams

While the authors do a good job of thinking through how design thinking could benefit college students, the article is thin on providing concrete examples of how and where that would happen in the curriculum. They mostly offer general suggestions:

Associated activities could be designed in a way that requires students
to generate ideas/solutions, receive support for their emergent design thinking
skills… Educators can support their students in developing these skills by providing them with multiple and varied opportunities to design and create prototypes, experiment with different ideas, collaborate with others, reflect on their learning,and repeat the cycle while revising and improving each time. In summary, the premise is that by improving students’ design thinking skills through having them apply processes and methods that designers use to ideate and help them experience how designers approach problems to try to solve them, students will be more ready to face problems, think outside of the box, and come up with innovative solutions.

While I agree with the authors that integrating design thinking skills into the curriculum would definitely benefit the students, I imagine that influencing other faculty to embrace their idea would be difficult. Given that few faculty would even be familiar with design thinking, it would be quite a challenge to get them to accept an entirely new approach to learning that would require them to abandon many of their current practices. I have advocated in the past that Library and Information Science educators should look more closely into design thinking for ways to integrate the ideas and practices into the preparation of future librarians. For the most part it has fallen on deaf ears, and I expect that these authors can expect the same results.

Despite the odds against having the higher education establishment accept design thinking as a viable foundation for a 21st century education, I hope the authors will make an ongoing effort to get other faculty to hear their ideas. As the authors put it, “Helping students to think like designers may better prepare them to deal with difficult situations and to solve complex problems in school, in their careers, and in life in general…If we are serious about preparing students to succeed in the world, we should not require that they memorize facts and repeat them on demand; rather, we should provide them with opportunities to interact with content, think critically about it, and use it to create new information.” I think that’s an educational philosophy that many academic librarians would support. I will be following up to see if the authors are able to gain any traction with their bold proposal for educating college students as design thinkers.

L-Schools and I-Schools Should Take A Closer Look At D-Schools

According to the Wall Street Journal (watch the video) D-Schools are hot and B-Schools are not. The WSJ is acknowledging an important trendh within B-Schools that has been growing in popularity for a few years. While it’s true that a few forward thinking business schools, most notably the Rotman School of Business (U of Toronto) and the Weatherhead School (Case Western) have integrated design thinking into their curriculum, the vast majority of business schools are still offering the same traditional courses and career paths for their MBA students. Moving to a design thinking influenced curriculum makes good sense because more businesses are making use of design thinking and looking to hire those who can bring more of these skills to their companies. At my own institution, the Fox School of Business includes the Center for Design and Innovation, where the faculty are exploring the intersection of design and business, and exposing the newest MBA students to the design inquiry process, a variant on design thinking.

While the video does point out that some B-Schools are providing a mix of design thinking and business thinking, it emphasizes that D-Schools may be the new B-Schools. Students who may have opted for an MBA in the past now want to be designers – especially designers who work at companies like Apple, Google or Facebook. They want to mix their business knowledge with the problem solving methods used by designers. The Stanford D-School is probably the hottest D-School right now, and perhaps it’s no surprise that there are many connections between the school and IDEO. I have participated in several of the D-School’s one-hour webinars, and have learned some great things about design thinking from their faculty members.

It’s great that business schools are recognizing the value of design thinking – and that business people are recognizing the value of attending D-Schools. Perhaps now is the right time for L-Schools (Library) and I-Schools (Information) to take a closer look into this trend, and consider how to integrate design thinking into the curriculum that prepares future library professionals. I made this suggestion in a post a few years ago, and there was a mixed reaction – everything from “Who is he to tell us how to design our curriculum” to “Sounds like an interesting idea” to “I’m already doing this”. The lack of enthusiasm for my suggestion was likely owing to a lack of familiarity with design thinking. Courses on library instruction, human-computer interaction or usability studies may include some elements of design, but it would be completely different to integrate design thinking philosophy into the curriculum – so that every graduate has internalized the design inquiry process as a problem-solving methodology. As a result of that post, I was asked to participate in an ALISE conference panel focusing on design in the LIS curriculum – thanks to those faculty who were open to the possibilities. Clearly there is opportunity here. To my way of thinking, the first LIS program that successfully merges design thinking and library science will establish a distinct advantage in the field. As a starting point, take a closer look at how B-Schools are integrating design thinking into their curriculum and why they are doing it. Even better, make a visit to the Stanford D-School.

This post is not intended as a critique of our LIS programs. There are great programs turning out high quality graduates. I do think the LIS program that breaks new ground by integrating design thinking and philosophy into the curriculum will establish a real advantage over the programs that stay the course. We need LIS graduates with those traditional skills that prepare them for library work. We have a greater need for students who are savvy problem solvers. With the wicked problems confronting the library profession, we need colleagues who can design elegant solutions. Design thinking skills could help our future librarians be the kind of problem solvers and decision makers that can tackle any challenging no matter what area of librarianship is involved. That’s what design thinkers do – they figure out what the real problem is and design a solution. Perhaps some L-Schools and I-Schools will seriously look into the D-School trend, with an intent to use it as a model for future curriculum development. If the goal is to create better libraries, should’t it start with how we prepare future librarians? In the meantime, is it possible that more libraries will just start hiring D-School graduates? I think some already are or will do so soon.

Designing The Campus Tour

Academic libraries make a great stop on the campus tour for prospective students. If nothing else it gives the student tour leaders an opportunity to throw some challenges out to the prospective students and their parents. “Guess how many books there are here?” is a pretty common one. Whatever the tour leaders say about the library it’s usually enough to make most librarians within hearing range cringe with fear. As might be expected, most academic librarians have a student tour story to tell, be it humorous or just plain ugly.

There are good reasons to include the library on the campus tour. For one thing it reminds us academic librarians that the admissions office still considers the library an important place for prospective students to visit. What we need to understand about the campus tour is that increasingly it is the outcome of a design process where little is random or left to chance. In fact, more institutions are paying consulting firms to design the campus tour and media related to the tour. This shift in campus tour design was profiled in a Washington Monthly article titled “Campus Tours Go Disney“. It relates how more institutions are moving away from a drab, walk-a-bout the campus affair, and doing more to add sizzle to the tour:

Many colleges have turned the traditional tour into a more intimate, more elaborate event. Some colleges have full-time “visit coordinators” who preside over tours with personalized touches, quirky diversions, choreographed “signature moments,” and even souvenirs—the stuff of theme parks. Such changes have made tours more fun and engaging, and families tend to get multiple options for who to meet and what to see during their visits… when prospective students visit colleges, they’re not just seeking information about outcomes; they want to know what it would be like to eat, sleep, and socialize at a school for four or more years. So tours designed to convey that “experience” provide something consumers want.

The article profiles Jeff Kallay, a pioneer of campus tour design who “encourages colleges to tell stories that will distinguish them from competitors, to engineer an experience that will stick in consumers’ minds.” Kallay is taking cues from masters of user experience design, such as Disney theme parks, and helping colleges and universities apply the concepts to wow prospective students and their parents – to create something different and much more memorable than other tours they’ll take. One piece of advice that Kallay gives institutions that resonates with me – and which makes me feel vindicated about something I’ve been telling admissions folks for years – is the importance of emphasizing stories and human interaction during the tour:

Listening and eye contact matter more than climbing walls and glitzy dorms, he told his clients. He encouraged security guards to wave, secretaries to smile, and tour guides to ask open-ended questions (and to stop walking backward). In presentations, he has even suggested that tours should deemphasize their facilities, even if it means skipping the library. “Everyone’s got one,” he says.

I’ve advised those who plan the campus tour to stop having student guides regurgitate canned talks about the number of books, the number of databases, and that the library can get any book you need when you need it. As Kallay points out, students probably hear this at every library they visit. Instead, as I’ve recommended, have the students relate a personal success story about using the library for their research and to try to weave into that story the difference an academic librarian makes. According to Kallay, those personalized stories have far greater impact than just talking about the facility and content. Nor would it hurt to have an actual librarian say a few words to tour groups – even if it’s just a “hello – we’re here to help you” statement. If more academic librarians sought to create change in the traditional library tour, perhaps we wouldn’t be having Kallay advising his clients to take the library off the tour because it’s so mundane that it adds nothing unique to the tour experience.

I recommend this article to those who want to better understand why designing a user experience is important in higher education institutions, be it the campus tour or the library experience. If our institutions are bringing in consultants to design a better campus tour, why wouldn’t we want to demonstrate how we are working to design a better library experience for students and faculty. And after you finish reading it – share the link with your campus tour coordinator, and add a note that reads “Let’s talk about the library tour”.