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.