Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Design Studio: An experimental class that could change the student experience at USU

Last January, fifteen students seated around a conference table in Old Main were presented with a campus-wide problem: students at USU often struggle when making important decisions about their studies and are unaware of the resources and services available to help them navigate this process. They were asked to conceptualize solutions to this issue.
The students were participating in a 16-week experimental course developed to allow students transform higher education by conceiving new tools for their peers to track and understand their progress through the university. The class, Design Studio, was co-taught by Jennifer Peeples, associate professor of speech communication, and instructors from the Business Innovation Factory, a nonprofit organization focused on innovation in areas of high social impact.
“We have all these great services, but I don’t think we enable student access to all of them, said James Morales, vice president for student services. “I don’t think they’re really aware of what they are.”
The students set out interviewing student service departments, deans, and students about how students access information and devise pathways through the university. They concluded that there needs to be one place housing all the information students need to know during their college careers and it needs to be easy to use. They proposed the university develop a personalized online system for students to track and modify their progress over time.
When Morales came to USU two years ago, he noticed the university was using an outdated model of student accessibility to university services. He wanted to upgrade to a more web-based, user-oriented model that evolved with students as they progressed through college.
“It’s really kind of serendipitous,” Morales said. “They were thinking about the very same thing I had been thinking about. We came at them from two different vantage points, and in my experience, when those serendipitous experiences happen; you have to pay attention to them.”
In fall 2011, Peeples was asked to lead a continuation of the Design Studio course taking the concept of the single information site and making it a reality. Morales tapped staff to work in parallel with the class, focused on implementing the students’ designs into a workable model.
It is not a typical class. There are no lectures; there are no grades; and students are immediately applying what they learn to create a real product for a real client. Design Studio demands a great deal of commitment and is only graded pass/fail. It does not count towards their majors. A few students commented that the class is “like having a final project due every week.” However, they remained dedicated to their project.
Trent Morrison, a junior studying communications, admits the class is intensive, but worth it. “We work hard, but we have fun, he said. “It’s a really good experience. It will be really cool to see the outcome.”
Peeples knows the class is demanding, yet she continues to be impressed with the students who enroll in it.
“The students are excellent,” she said, “There is a high level of expectation, but they really step up because they see it as important.”
This unconventional classroom setting has allowed these students to design three prototypes for a new website that heightens accessibility to student services by compiling them in one location. The primary goal of these prototypes is personalization and accessibility, bringing services to the students instead of them having to go search for them.
One design is based on a gaming models and social networks, where each student creates a profile with an avatar.  The main focus of this design is to simplify and enhance the navigation of services. Features include interactive applications, divided into academic and social and extracurricular subjects. Another prototype is fashioned after a dashboard concept, comprised of apps and widgets. Students can add and remove student services applications as their interests change.
“All the models are transformable to the students’ needs as they develop through their college career,” Morales said. “There are a lot of visuals with manageable chunks of information instead of an information overload. And the site builds around the individual student.”
Each design is focused on creating an enjoyable and informative experience for students, allowing them to see first-hand how they are doing with the click of a button. The Design Studio teams tested their prototypes with a variety of students to gather feedback on their designs.
“Student ideas, insights and thoughts are being taken very seriously. If they don’t like it, [we] won’t use it.” Peeples said. “We’re hoping [the project] will be useful for everyone. If we do it right, it shouldn’t just be freshman, but it should be all-encompassing.”
Student services aims to have the new site completed and running by Fall 2012. The timeline is “aggressive,” Morales admitted. However, he has been impressed with the work produced in the past two Design Studio courses and has faith they will create workable prototypes.
“My confidence in USU students just keeps rising,” he said. “I continue to be extremely excited about where we’re going.”
This article was written by Shanelle Galloway, the first Boyd and Sybil Stewart Fellow in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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