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Does your campus have a ‘student experience’ problem?

Negotiating the policies, process, and services of a college campus can be difficult for even the most tenured staff as organizational structures shift, roles and departments evolve, and priorities change.  Yet there’s an important, yet often overlooked component of these changes: the student experience.

We often talk about student experience as an intangible summary feeling from students by engaging the university– the spirit and connection to the community, the opportunities for students to grow through high impact practices, and the function of specific campus departments to focus on ‘creating a positive environment’ for students.  But consider this– Have you ever been on the phone with your cable provider contesting a charge on a recent bill? That becomes part of your customer experience.  The student experience is one, unifying view of campus ushered through hundreds of small interactions with phone calls, buildings, systems, departments, administrators across the campus.  Student experience is all of these– manifested through a set of interactions with staff, with policies, and with the campus infrastructure as a whole that all contribute to a larger student journey.

Have you ever called a high traffic department to explore what experiencing life from the student’s point of view might look like? Better still, have you spoken with students about the greatest pain points that they experience in engaging with the university?

I’m not suggesting that a campus be overhauled to be solely focused on the path of least resistance for students as its’ only ‘user’– it’s obvious that some experiences by their very function might not be intended to “optimize” the student’s interaction with them, and the stakeholders of a University are widely varied the complexity of which makes the concept of addressing the student experience difficult and complex. What I am saying, however, is that every area of the university should be aware of the variety of stakeholders they interact with, including students, and address the nuances within their needs in a way that acknowledges where unintended and unnecessary barriers or pain points exist and strives to remove them.

What’s more, is that doesn’t mean a new system, policy, or cost is the answer– it might be a thoughtful review and redesign of a form, or reformatting the response when contacting into your department. It’s simply about understanding and considering the student experience, their journey, in their interaction with the university, getting underneath the pain points that exist, and thinking creatively about how to solve the identified challenges.

Don’t underestimate the impact that you have– we’re all “experience” designers. Each encounter with a student is an opportunity to observe and react.  The skill sets that make strong education administrators: engagement with students through empathy, a growth mindset, counseling and listening skills, asking for formal and informal feedback, an investment in helping students succeed; these are the raw materials of human-centered design in higher education (along with a set of tools informed by design thinking or service design; follow my colleague Alex who digs into this topic often). Orienting the campus to the concepts of human-centered design, and rigorously reviewing the campus through the lens of your student makes a difference. Especially as that student is changing.

I’ll go so far that in the current landscape of higher education, those with the most deliberate focus on the holistic student experience will see more students graduate, and those who fail to adapt will struggle. Think student experience is independent of outcomes?

In Tressie McMillan’s Lower Ed, she describes ways for-profit university practices are oriented around making the process easy for their target (historically under-represented, low-income) students to enroll and carry large amounts of loans, pointing out the moral and social implications of huge amounts of stacked debt. While demonstrably predatory and negative, they’ve optimized their lens and approach to the student enrollment experience to their benefit.

For-profits enroll a huge number of students because of the way they have considered, tailored, and adapted their message and processes to adapt their message and process for their target student and make things as easy as possible for them to enroll. This isn’t a blanket call for these kinds of practices to be adopted outside of the for-profit world, but rather an example of the impact that purposeful design has on outcomes.

In a recent NPR interview, McMillan was asked about the emergent trend of inexpensive online education, which illuminated an important observation:

“There’s almost nothing we could do to traditional higher ed to make it more accessible [for working adults] that wouldn’t make it better for traditional students as well. So I worry we are adopting the practices [of for profits] without really changing how we do business.

This is the imperative in the years ahead as student demographics continue to shift, and “non-traditional” students increasingly become the largest percentage of college students attending universities– adapting to this new archetype and persona of student, and adapting the student experience not only on campus, but wherever your students interact with the university.

What does your student experience look like today?

How might you design your campus’ experience for the students of tomorrow?

I’m Back

It’s been a while! The long story (made infinitely shorter by my generally positive regard, combined with the futility of frustration), is that after some inactivity, I lost track of the condition of brianfleduc.com and all it’s related contents faded into the deep-web oblivion.

For a while, it felt like a good thing- more bandwidth to focus on other areas of my life, less pressure and distraction focused on content development and site maintenance, and the cheery reality that I “could always start up another site/blog up again another time.”  But not long after, that shine wore off, and I was left wondering what I would do with this digital echo chamber if I had it back- I brainstormed topics of interest and areas of focus; building, demolishing, redesigning, and rebuilding.  I romanticized posts that were lost, and the “good old days” of ideas set adrift into the interwebs met with support, contention, and thoughtful commentary.

And in that romanticizing, I found myself tragically overwhelmed by the notion that those dozens of ideas, hundreds of posts, years of editorializing and chronicling my experiences and development were gone.

What do you do when all of your musings (seemingly, read: foreshadowing) disappear from the Internet?   It’s an odd question to navigate, and a existential crisis that only exists in an age where your digital life is a mirror and reference point across your experiences- personal reflections, written snapshots, pinned ideas, digital representations of connections with people who we once stood with face to face, and perhaps some we haven’t.

So I decided to do something else, for myself, at least at first.  I filled page after page in Evernote, to keep my writing skills sharp, eventually tiring of the medium (although you’re likely to hear more about this later).  Then I decided to try my hand at chronicling in a Moleskine, which left me with a sore hand and frustration around its disconnection from the world outside.  Months passed, and it collected dust, as did the writer in me.

Needless to say, with a new year came a renewed focus to start fresh (or at least find that damn content I had invested to much time in creating).  So I scoured the internet for cached pages, remnants, or debris from the old brianfleduc.com, and thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, I managed to find an impressive amount (given my previous results, and low expectations); finding that content inspired a larger fresh start– the one you’re looking at (let’s call it brianfleduc.com v2.0).

I’m excited about it– seven years, six states, and thousands of words since my first words posted online at this domain.  With that excitement, comes a disclaimer: after all of that aforementioned reflection on focus and scope on what I would do if I “came back,” I decided to throw it all out and let this one grow organically. Without a doubt, I’ll bring back some of the greatest hits from v1.0, but beyond that, it’ll be a work in progress.
So– if you haven’t met me before, let me introduce myself.  If you’re an old friend, enjoy a few timelessly salient throwbacks (time-stamped with their original post dates for good measure) and take a look around.
It’s good to be back- do you mind sharing and telling your friends?