February 24, 2021

10 Ways to Redesign Your Student Experience Post-COVID

Designing Experiences

Affordable access. Engaging learning. Holistic student support. Diverse, inclusive communities. Equitable spaces. We believe that these are all within reach if colleges and universities can build on the changes you’ve made due to COVID, and redesign your student experience, considering your academic programs, student services, technology, facilities, and community.

Student experience is the composite of students’ activities and interactions with academic programs, student services, technology, spaces, and people, over time. Each of these interactions is a “touchpoint,” something to be designed.

Engaging, equitable student experience only happens by design.

In this post, we share 10 ways to redesign your student experience to emerge from this crisis stronger than before. With each, we’ve included both evidence and examples – we’re firm believers in science fiction author William Gibson’s observation that “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” These are drawn from our work helping nearly 100 colleges and universities improve the lives of more than a million students who’ve set foot in spaces, logged onto systems, used services, and worked with staff.

Our insights also reflect best practices gleaned from conversations with our student advisory board, our courses helping colleges and universities understand and improve their student experience, our whitepapers on how higher education is changing, our research on the student experience during the pandemic, tools like our Student Experience Canvas and Student Experience Roadmap, and roundtable discussions we’ve been facilitating with dozens of institutions.

1. Embrace experiential learning

Institutions should embrace hands-on, object-based experiential learning that is locally and globally relevant and builds skills and relationships. Study after study have shown the benefits of active learning, including a meta-analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which failure rates were reduced by half. Colleges and universities can better engage students with real-world projects that make an impact in flat, flexible learning spaces like in Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business.

2. Create flexible, applied programs

To attract and support today’s post-traditional learners, provide shorter, more flexible programs that attract a diverse student body, solve real-world problems, and make connections – on campus and online. Longitudinal research from Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Project-Based Learning found many positive impacts such as 86% of students working effectively on a team and 78% being an effective leader. One example: Claremont Lincoln University’s new innovative programs enable students to learn primarily asynchronously, take 1-2 courses at a time while working and pause as needed, all on a compressed schedule as they work on projects that make an impact.

3. Consolidate student services

Colleges and universities can end the student runaround by creating digital and physical service hubs that are more effective for the student and more efficient for the college. A Rand Corporation study of four community college systems found a 3% average increase in student retention by moving to an integrated model, with better outcomes for adult learners over the age of 25, and students of color. For example, Portland State University redesigned its student portal to bring together student services digitally and University of Virginia brought together advising services physically.

Portland State’s MyPSU App
4. Program for inclusion

To foster community and belonging, institutions must be more intentional and proactive about programs and communications. In brightspot’s student surveys, only 53% of students are satisfied with their institutions creating a sense of belonging. We recently facilitated a roundtable discussion with student affairs leaders at eight institutions who all emphasized the value in small-scale personal connections, the need for more proactive curation of inclusive experiences, the need for accurate central online events portals, and to meet students where they are physically, digitally, and culturally.

5. Think “phygitally”

Your student experience isn’t physical or digital, it’s both. These intertwine everyday; people use technology to research where to go, to book a space and/or appointment, to navigate and check-in, to communicate and collaborate with others, and to provide feedback and reviews. In the future, courses, events, and services will all be a phygital hybrid; for instance, a recent survey by The Economist found 81% of faculty anticipate creation of a hybrid learning model in the future. Colleges and universities should focus on designing these experiences, creating a sense of place online, and redesigning support services.

6. Design services to support learning

As colleges and universities move beyond “emergency remote teaching” (aka lecturing over zoom for 50 minutes three times a week), you need to define, communicate, and deliver the suite of services to support online and hybrid courses. From our work developing service and staffing models and our EDUCAUSE courses on instructional technology, we’ve learned that across colleges, schools, and departments, institutions need to create a shared philosophy, a shared service catalog with a common language, and shared metrics and data collection approaches. This is where service design can help.

7. Focus the campus on fostering community

The campus isn’t only for classes. It’s for community and creativity – the hands-on, experiential, and memorable activities that can’t be done (or done as well) online. In brightspot’s recent student experience survey with WeWork, we asked students how they’d allocate their tuition and fees relative to what they value and only would be put 41% toward classes. While unique in their scale and approach, Southern New Hampshire University’s decision to hold online classes for on-campus students is a sign of a shifting focus for the campus on community through events and activities.

“The Impact of COVID-19 on the University Student Experience” by brightspot and WeWork
8. Support flexible working

Post-pandemic, just as students won’t want to give up the flexibility to learn anytime and anywhere, so too will faculty and staff want to retain flexibility in terms of space, technology, policies, and processes to determine where, when, and how to work. When staff and faculty are at their best, they can best inspire, inform, and support students. But as of 2019, only 10% of faculty and staff can work remotely and only 32% were engaged. This despite of all the benefits, such as those the MIT’s Sloan School of Management found in their research with the University of Minnesota and in MIT’s own flexible workplace pilot with brightspot.

9. Think outside-in and inside-out

In a time of crisis, it’s tempting to focus inward. Instead, colleges and universities should treat surrounding communities as your partner when thinking about projects, programs, communications, and spaces; for instance, through shared spaces like innovation labs and coworking spaces. It not only creates a more innovative and resilient campus, culture, and curriculum but it has financial benefits as well such as the 40x ROI of partnerships that the National Science Foundations Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers Program (IUCRC) program calculated.

10. Organize for impact

As colleges and universities turn outward to increase their partnerships, enable students to work on projects with impact, and focus research initiatives on societal challenges like climate change, they have an opportunity to solve grand challenges in the service of the public good. To do so, they should organize programs more by the problems they solve and the impact of their solutions, less so by discipline and department. For example Marquette’s Student-run Businesses Program enables experiential learning in the community while UCLA’s Grand Challenges focus teams across disciplines to solve society’s toughest challenges and increase impact.

The student-led businesses Nest Pop-up Shop, part of Marquette’s Student-run Business Program

Using these 10 strategies, colleges and universities can do more than plan for a future that’s just a slightly different version of the way things have been. After assessing the current experience and uncovering the future needs, you can think boldly about what your institution will look like after COVID-19 and what changes you’ll have to make to deliver on your mission. You can redesign your finances, enrollment, programs, student support services, institutional attributes, and facilities – and do it in a way that’s more equitable and inclusive.


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