Design Thinking for Student Experiences by Alex Emmanuele

In the Summer 2016 issue of Leadership Exchange, there is a page-long article about Design Thinking in Higher Education, by two directors from the jCENTER for Innovative Higher Education at the University of Minnesota. They assert that higher education provides prime challenges for which we can use Design Thinking – a problem solving process and mindset which focuses on empathy with users or a user population to gain insight into experiences for a problem, rather than just fixing a problem at surface level. For example – a mid sized private university has a mental health crisis on campus; instead of hiring more full-  or part-time counselors to ‘fix’ the students’ mental status, investigating the campus climate, gaining a deeper understanding of the ‘why’ experience of a student, and then looking at what specifically about the mental health support on campus is lacking, provides a much more comprehensive and creative solution, one which also may uncover other obstacles and opportunities previously hidden, all of which can help transform a struggling campus to a thriving community.

An excellent example of this ‘need for empathic understanding’ can be found in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s article Stigma, Stress, and Fear: Faculty Mental-Health Services Fall Short. The summary for this piece is in two concise sentences: “Counseling and other support for troubled students have become easier to find in recent years. But many professors still deal with their problems in isolation.” That observation brings forward one major part of design thinking that is missing in the quick read in Leadership Exchange: users and questions. The authors are correct in asserting that DT “requires an unapologetic focus on the user.” However, what wasn’t said is that there can be multiple users for the same problem. Mental health on campus is a very current and relevant challenge for many institutions around the country. When students call for help because of a lack of support, task forces, divisions, and consultants usually go right to staffing concerns, citing rising student fees and insurance limitations as the main obstacles to improvement. What is often overlooked is the parts of campus that surround students the rest of the time when they aren’t in waiting rooms at the health and counseling center—faculty, staff, administrators, and peers, all of whom may experience the same challenges, but with slightly different experiences. Do they count as users? How do we solve for multiple users? What happens if there are contradicting needs and solutions? That is where design thinkers thrive, solving wicked complex problems that have real, human impact that changes lives and stories.

In short, Design Thinking can have infinite applications in higher education and in bringing change to learning, not just divisional and systemic. The key is in the authentic doing. If one would approach design thinking as a copy-paste process, it will have little or no effect on the problem.