Student-led R&D is no ordinary platform for innovation

A momentous occasion happened on the campus of Utah State University last week. A 3-year undertaking to put students in the driver's seat of a new kind of R&D to transform higher education has resulted in the launch of a new online student service delivery model. A "one-stop shop" designed by and for students that solves the challenge of helping USU students better track and communicate the competencies and capabilities students acquire during their education experience.The new model represents a big shift from a digital environment where knowledge and expertise is insulated and siloed to an environment where knowledge is connected, shared and personal to the student.

This experiment changed the cultural fabric of this institution.” ~John Allen, Dean, Humanities and Social Sciences College

Like a proud mother watching her child accomplish a major milestone, the launch of MYUSU represents the very best of education and what can happen when we authentically and purposefully consider student-centricity.

Student-led R&D is no ordinary platform for innovation. By putting students at the center, and presenting real-world challenges of the education system, students at USU were given the opportunity to use real-world research and design methodologies to find fresh, new approaches to support student success and timely and appropriate progress toward degree completion.

From day one, students were informed that their voice, their research and their ideas had merit. And it was the University's intention to rely on their work to begin to improve the overall student experience at USU.

So what began with catalytic funding from The Lumina Foundation in 2010 to test how far we could go with this concept of "student-led R&D" has resulted in the radical overhaul of student services and a brand new online student service delivery model that was developed and prototyped by a group of 25 undergraduates. And that's just a starter set of outcomes from this experiment.

What happens when students play designer roles in the creation of new (and better!) school experiences?

"Dean Allen was being honest when he said that what we did is playing an influential role in how the college of CHASS is reconfiguring its understanding of education. I say in all sincerity that you have made a physical and lasting impression on USU and each and every one of you should take great pride in what you have accomplished." ~Jennifer Peeples, faculty sponsor, speaking to students in September, 2013 

There's another story behind this delightful outcome that couldn't be captured or justified when we began this bold adventure. And it certainly couldn't be articulated in planning documents, spreadsheets and budgets. But first, let's begin with a frank review of the process of innovation and transformation and what it took to get us to this point.

  1. Value Creation Requires a Value Exchange
    I've witnessed many education institutions seek to put the student at the center of their transformation effort. But they often fail due to: institutional barriers between departments and disciplines; incoherent engagement strategies that fail to deliver upon the needs of the student; insufficient innovation processes; inabilities to experiment; and general inertia toward anything new and novel. Through student-led R&D, students act as both participant and designer. And a meaningful exchange is created between implementer and user, faculty and student, administrator and faculty, where everyone takes responsibility for the success of the project. This exchange MUST be established upfront - before the process begins. In our case, every stakeholder (student, faculty, administrator and support services) played a meaningful role in the initiative and each received something in return for the effort they put in.
  2. Rigor and Discipline First, Creativity Second
    It's not enough to go into an effort with a well-intended idea to break the mold. While I readily admit that navigating an increasing complex world requires creativity, the heavy lift required to take an idea off the white board and into the real world is grueling - and murky, messy, confusing and filled with roadblocks, hurdles and pit stops. Having the rigor and discipline to follow through on the process is key. (And believe me, there will be moments in the process where you just simply want to run for the hills.) 
  3. Overcome the Fear of Letting Go 
    In the words of Norm Jones, Professor of History and Director of General Education and Curricular Integration at USU, "accept that the inmates can help run the asylum." On the administrative side, the benefits of working with students can reveal profound insights of your consumer and their views from below. On the faculty side, when teaching is reconsidered, ownership is transfered. "Engaging in widespread collaboration in an open classroom and providing real risk (with an equally real safety net) changed my role in the classroom. I became a facilitator," notes USU faculty member Jennifer Peeples. 
  4. Transformation is a process, not an outcome. And it takes time. 
    Truth be told, we entered this experiment with the intent of having students prototype a new e-portfolio solution because that's what we thought they needed. Boy, were we off kilter. Design-thinking is not a process of early validation of an assumption. Rather it's a generative process of discovery that leads to a variety of ideas or solutions. We did not intend to radically overhaul student services. Nor did we intend to re-consider general education requirements (which USU is currently in the throes of doing). We did not intend to change the culture of the institution. Nor did we intend to reconsider notions of teaching. In the end though, the students helped facilitate these accomplishments and more. The fact is that the actual innovation outcome of a new student service delivery model is simply icing on the cake. And that is what a transformation process looks like. You can't budget for it. You can't put a timeframe around it. You can expect the need for adaptability. And lots of iteration. And trust in your compatriots. And faith that if you are mindful and committed to nos. 1, 2 and 3 above, great things will occur.

Where to Go From Here?

If one outcome is clear from this three-year experiment, it's the need for increased and consistent student choice and student voice in our education system. Student-led R&D represents an opportunity to engage students in an ongoing internal innovation process that is both interdisciplinary and action-oriented. It’s an important example of how any institution can proactively put students in the driver’s seat of their own internal innovation activity. By building young people’s capacity, skills and competencies and, strengthening their ownership of the results, we are creating the right kind of environment for ongoing experimentation, culture change and radical student engagement. It might just be the missing link to systemic change in education.

John Quincy Adams said, "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." Tis a fitting quote to end here as I bid a hearty congratulations to everyone at Utah State University. 

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Watch this 3-minute video of USU students expressing the value of Student-Led R&D.

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