Higher Education Promotes the Student Experience | From the Bell Tower

Utter the phrase “student experience” to a higher education audience and the reaction, depending on the crowd, could be visceral—as in, “education, not experience.” Yet academic librarians could benefit from and contribute to the growing interest in student experience.
Utter the phrase “student experience” to a higher education audience and the reaction, depending on the crowd, could be visceral—as in, “education, not experience.” Yet academic librarians could benefit from and contribute to the growing interest in student experience. Last month’s column focused on design thinking. When librarians describe their application of design thinking it’s often connected to user experience (UX). Librarians employ the design thinking process to identify a problem, sometimes described as pain point, that detracts from the best possible experience and develop a design solution for a better library. Ideally both staff and community members gain the benefits of this improved experience. In retail or service organizations, delivering a user experience is more than eliminating pain points. It defines the experience that customers have, and there is intentionality to put into place the resources and empowerment that frontline staff need to deliver the promised experience. Take the example of Enterprise Car Rental. Its user experience was summed up as “I can make it right.” Customers expected that no matter what went wrong with their rental, every employee could make it right. Enterprise quickly went from one of the worst to one of the best rated car rental firms. Great problem resolution sells. I’ve observed a significant increase in the higher education trade press of references to student experience, but what exactly does that mean or look like in practice? How should the academic library fit into the student experience narrative on campus, and what are the potential benefits to library organizations?

There is Skepticism

What does it mean when a higher education journalist put the phrase “student experience” in quotes, as Steve Kolowich did when writing about elite universities offering online education? It suggests that the concept is being questioned, with a degree of sarcasm. Higher education is designed to enlighten students and expose them to advanced learning and knowledge acquisition, not give them an experience. Critics of the experience narrative say it is consumer oriented and students are not our customers. An opposing school of thought is that college life and learning should be a unique and well-designed experience, in and out of the classroom. Consider the position learning experience designer, which, while still limited, is becoming more commonplace in higher education. It suggests that learning, like memorable experiences, must be intentionally designed and not left to randomness. My past experience with this topic is that faculty tend to be dubious, or even outright incensed, with suggestions that students should be getting a higher education experience. Academic librarians, though, with their growing interest in user experience, demonstrate there’s far more enthusiasm for the idea of designing and delivering a library student experience.

Experience Not Bureaucracy

As an LIS student at Drexel University in the 1970s, we all talked about “The Drexel Shaft.” While there was a physical “shaft” or smokestack on campus, we referred to the awful administrative bureaucracy encountered when performing even the simplest tasks. That student experience was characterized by a truly terrible, administration-centered focus. The contemporary vision of a student experience is everything the old Shaft wasn’t: Seamless. Painless. One-stop. Take the RiSE program at American University, for example. Reinventing the Student Experience (RiSE) is designed to increase retention by eliminating a “siloed student service model” so that units such as campus life, academic affairs, enrollment, and other business units best support the student body. In an environment of declining enrollment in which institutions compete for quality students, delivering a great student experience is a competitive advantage. Need more evidence of the student experience movement? Examine issues of The EvoLLLution, a higher education newsletter that reports on industry trends. Here, administrators discuss how their institutions focus on getting the student experience just right. Search the archives for “student experience” and retrieve a slew of articles from across the spectrum of higher education departments. Be forewarned though, if you have an adversity to business lingo or dread the “C” word (customer), this may be more than you can handle. EvoLLLution frames the college student experience in the business context, but at more institutions it is beginning to bleed over into the curriculum and classroom.

More Than Business

For some enlightened institutions, the experience is more than efficient business practices that eliminate pain points to simplify life for students. When applied to what happens in the classroom or the curriculum, the entire learning process can become an experience designed to engage students with a purposeful education that goes beyond just earning credentials and furthering careers. Woodbury University describes itself as a nonprofit institution dedicated to the student experience. According to Woodbury’s president, student experience contributes to their success by allowing students, especially between freshman and sophomore years, to feel that they fit well with the institution. This piece on how Bates College, a selective four-year liberal arts college, is designing purposeful work into the liberal arts educational tradition, speaks to developing a holistic student experience for both education and placement. While this type of student experience lags behind the bureaucracy-fighting version, I’m convinced it will catch on more widely as another competitive advantage.

Connecting the Library Experience

While faculty and administrators will continue to debate the value of investing in the student experience, academic librarians should continue to build on everything they now do to acknowledge and design a user experience for students. While the academic library is less prone to bureaucracy than the financial aid or advising office, the pathways we create to learning and discovery must be human-centered. Even the most basic of library operations, when broken or confusing, detract from a student’s overall college experience. The academic library student experience should blend seamlessly into students’ workflow and daily routines, avoiding barriers that needlessly waste their time or leave them puzzling over the completion of research tasks. That connects well with the institutional vision of a frictionless student experience. Given our educational mission, the academic library experience should extend to well-designed instruction, study space, and personalized support that delivers what students need to succeed academically—targeted to meet the needs of each library’s unique student population. Academic librarians need to be mindful of the difference between what students truly need to succeed and the librarian’s personal perception of and preference for what constitutes a learning experience. My simple method to achieve student-centeredness is to ask, “Is this in the best interest of the student or am I imposing what I think is best on them?” Am I basing my decisions on evidence of a well-defined student need? Whatever the rest of our higher education colleagues may do in their offices (and we should certainly support an institutional drive for better student experiences), academic librarians, as they often do, should serve as campus leaders in being intentional about the total experience we want for our students.
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