By Crossland Staff Writer

A User-Centered Approach to Higher Education

Higher Education

At the Crossland Group, we believe that the world of higher education is in the midst of transformational change.

The Changing Nature of Higher Education

Historically, changes to the educational process, pedagogy, and the implementation of “new” theories in education have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. This is particularly true in the United States, and most particularly true in higher education. We believe that that trend has been altered, and that change in the world of higher education will be more radical and faster than expected. In fact, it has already begun.

The changes that we see from our perspective are driven by a combination of external and internal factors.

External factors include:

  • The costs of private and public higher education in the US have risen well above the broader GDP, and have stayed above this level for a very long time.
  • There has been a significant increase in loans for higher education, with outstanding student debt at the highest level ever.
  • Worldwide youth unemployment is above 25 percent, and wage increases are minimal, even for those who are employed; as a result, the “value” of higher education is being questioned.
  • There is an emergence of disruptive technology in the form of launching of MOOCs (massive open online courses) by universities such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Wellesley, and Northwestern.
  • There is a dwindling of the US demographics in the “college-ready” set, and there is an explosive emerging market demand for education by those who lack access.

In a nutshell, costs and prices are rising while technology is making higher education scalable globally in a way the world has not experienced previously.

Internal factors include:

  • Out-of-control costs as the result of the race to attract students.
  • Endowments that have suffered through the financial crisis.
  • Intensely aware prospective and current student bodies.
  • Crushing health care and retirement costs for faculty and staff.
  • Declining research funding from government sources such as the NSF, NEA, and NIH.
  • The demand for “cross-trained” graduates (computer science and biology; theatre and animation; public policy and economics) run counter to the traditional education offered in specific departments, which underpins the organizational and academic hierarchies of the institutions.
  • Teaching one-on-one, or in a class with the educator at the front of the room is being augmented and replaced by long-distance learning, lifelong learning, collaborative hands on projects, and interdisciplinary majors.

The result of all these factors is that institutions that have never thought about strategy and change are now trying to define value propositions; understand their stakeholders; and figure out how to survive before the dust settles. At the Crossland Group, we see this among our clients. As a business, we have operated at the intersection of the public–private sectors for fifteen years. We are seeing that expand into the public–private–academic ecosystem as we speak.

[Take a look at “The Future of Higher Education” infographic, courtesy of the website,]

Should Academia Get User-Centered?

The disciplines and creative output which accompany user-centered design have exploded onto the academic and business landscape over the past decade or so. While user-centered design is much older than that, its reach and impact in corporate America has gotten to the tipping point. Organizations as influential as Apple, Disney, Pepsi, and AT&T have C-suite executives who oversee “user experience.”

This concept is at the core of understanding and creating unique customer experiences which keep consumers coming back for more. This concept is not lost on the leaders of those institutions of higher learning who understand that strategy and value propositions must ultimately be related to the customers who use and pay for products and services—including experiences in higher education.

In order to be effective, the application of the principles of user-centered design must be adapted to the unique attributes of institutions of higher education. Within that broader context, individual colleges and universities have specific needs, as do individual companies or NGOs.

In working with our higher education clients, we have learned that the “customer” is an ecosystem, not just the individual student. While including the student is critical to becoming truly customer-experience driven, the student experience alone is not sufficient to define either a strategy or a “user-experience” model.

Why the ecosystem? Academia is unique. The institution’s product or service is to create an educated individual, as well as someone who knows how to learn throughout life. Students come “incomplete.” They may not know what they ultimately want to learn, and they certainly don’t always know what they should learn. Some are older and focused. Others are young and inexperienced.

Faculty and parents (or family or other funders, such as ROTC, Bosse, scholarships) have unique roles to play in both the selection of an institution of higher education and the execution of what turns a student into a graduate.

User-Centered Design Affects All Stakeholders

Students may want an experience that no faculty can or should deliver! While some students will experience most of their higher education remotely; some will commute to a campus; and some will live on a campus. You get the point . . . this is way more complicated than how you bank or how you experience your insurance agency or how you travel from point A to point B.

This is why we believe that the principles of deep ethnographic research, creating personae, and prototyping, elements that are ingrained in user-centered design, are critical to creative thinking and execution in higher education. We ask our clients to start with the elements of strategic planning, and use customer experience as a way to further that thinking.

Specifically, faculty, parents, funding sources, and the board of trustees are part of the customer experience for institutions of higher education—not just students. This provides a unique set of challenges to making the institutions “user-friendly” and “client-centric.”

In fact, we suspect that institutions of higher learning that define their strategy clearly; align their ecosystem to that strategy; implement content and processes that are consistent with the strategy; and learn to be both user-friendly and have a good customer experience to “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk,” will be successful as competition for students, curricula, and faculty gets tougher and tougher.

“I have been a professional for forty years, and I have never worked with a better consulting firm than the Crossland Group. They are our partners, and have been very instrumental in where we are today [...]”

Dana Mohler-Faria

Former President

Bridgewater State University

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