Part V: Thought Leadership Series: Learning from Outside of Higher Education to Build an Agile Campus

Series Overview

The landscape of higher education is undergoing a pivotal transformation, one that demands a fresh perspective on how we approach the student experience. Drawing parallels from places outside of higher education and the evolving needs of students, we're embarking on a journey to explore how institutions can adopt and adapt these lessons. This series will delve into the innovative strategies of leading retail, healthcare, and other institutions that could enable a more agile campus, and help shape the future role of the campus in an increasingly online world.

Part V: Examples of Agility in Higher Ed

The fifth and final installment of our series centers around how the future of higher education, and creating an agile campus, is being shaped by a shift towards student-led, collaborative, and digitally integrated models. Pointing to existing examples Elliot Felix explores how to design for the online student's needs leading to a better experience for all students, and ultimately yielding better retention and engagement.

Takeaway 17: There are “bright spots” in higher education where the student experience has been prioritized to transform how things happen on campus. One particular example is the iZone at the University of Rochester.

“Our model at brightspot is about creating better experiences for students, for faculty, for staff, for partners, and for alumni. Like the Apple Store, it involves thinking about spaces, services, and staffing together. We use this approach with universities. One of my favorite examples is an innovation space we did at the University of Rochester called the iZone. We worked with them to identify a gap. There were a lot of creative students on campus whose projects’ natural home wasn’t going to be, say, the Entrepreneurship Center at the business school. Maybe they wanted to start a film series or podcast, write a play, or do a volunteer project. So there was this gap where a pre-incubator could really be helpful, and where students could come with the germ of an idea. They could go to a workshop about how to develop their pitch. Maybe they could find collaborators. They could meet a mentor. They could build skills in market research, communications, data analysis, design thinking, or whatever it might be. As we helped them think about and conceptualize these things, that became known as the iZone.” 
“We were thinking about the space: a welcome area, consultation spaces, event spaces, small group workspaces. And we were thinking about the services: the classes and the mentoring. Also, we were thinking about the staffing model, which is really about leveraging student fellows to work with their peers in a hands-on way to teach them things like design thinking. There are great examples in Higher Ed of folks thinking about the experience as a product of the space: the services, the staffing, and even the technology systems.

Takeaway 18: Contrary to many critiques, this type of thinking does not require that universities deploy huge resources – there are ways to apply the methodology regardless of budget.

“Sometimes people bristle at the Apple analogy because they think it has to cost a fortune. But I think you can do a lot of this in very lean ways. Design thrives under constraints. Those are the things that inspire great design. Whether you’re talking about the design of a program, a service, a space, or technology, it doesn’t have to cost a lot to use this integrated approach, to innovate. One project story that comes to mind is a library that’s often talked about as a “Library of the Future” at NC State, called the Hunt Library. I think it is a great example of something that seems rather expensive, but it actually came in way under budget and is quite reasonable on a cost per square foot and on an operating basis. We had to turn lemons into lemonade because we started working with them when the state funded a new 200,000-square-foot library, but no new staffing. So it was kind of like, ‘Okay, how are we going to offer support?’ The big idea was to make students the face of help. Let’s really think about how students can help each other in a peer-to-peer model, whether it’s about research, whether it’s about tech support, whether it’s about checking books, or technology in and out.
A key piece of that was coming up with this service point that feels a little like the Apple Store called the ‘Ask Us Zone’. It’s really about students helping each other in the same way that the Apple Store shifted the paradigm from the buying experience to the owning experience. At the Hunt Library, the main desk is all about shifting the paradigm from kind of a transactional relationship – checking things out – to more of a side-by-side relationship. The conversation shifted to ‘Let me show you this. Let me help you. Let me walk you through it. Let’s look at the same screen. Let’s do this side by side’. It’s shifting the paradigm from transactional to consultative or collaborative. This came out of a prototyping workshop where we created the service model with staff using mock-ups and roleplay skits. It was all done on a very lean basis by making the students the face of help. Even though Apple Stores look and feel expensive, Higher Ed can do it in a lean way, and turn a constraint into an opportunity.”

Takeaway 19: Thinking about things as systems rather than silos will be critical to effective experience design for the future of higher education.

“It’s widely accepted now to see the pandemic as an accelerant of underlying things that were already happening. I’ll even give myself a little credit for writing a white paper, formally called ‘The Connected Campus’ pre-pandemic. The big idea in that paper was that a lot of the things that have defined Higher Ed are separations and in the future, those very things are going to be converging and connected. So thinking about the physical and digital, teaching and research, and academia and industry, these things are getting knit together and have been converging for a long time. One example is that two-thirds of ‘fully online students’ study within 50 miles of home, and roughly the same percentage go to campus at least once. More and more students want greater flexibility – students want about 60% of their learning in blended, hybrid, or online formats in both our recent survey and in EDUCAUSE research. Colleges have been trying to work with companies, whether it’s on recruitment, real-world projects, internships, executive ed, or continuing ed, to create these multifaceted relationships. These things have been converging for some time. There are great examples of universities that are out in front of these trends. They are seeing these changes not just as something that’s going to disrupt their traditions, but more as things that they can see as opportunities, and ways of differentiating themselves.”

Takeaway 20: Optimizing for the online or digital/hybrid student will improve the experience for all students. 

“Pre-pandemic, we did a project with Portland State, which is a really fascinating university. More than half the students there are transfers. We started the project trying to understand the needs of adult online learners. The really interesting insight after talking to lots of them was that the opportunities and challenges they faced were not dissimilar from the rest of the student body. They just experienced them on a more extreme basis. Nobody wants to go to campus to sign a form when the office is open only nine to five. The big insight from that was that if you design for the online student when it comes to student services, you make it better for all students. One of the things we found was not only was there this physical runaround there was a digital runaround too. After redoing their portal, they saw a four percentage point retention bump. So, in terms of student services, if you think of online students you’ll probably make the services better for all students.”



Elliot Felix is an author, speaker, and consultant to more than 100 colleges and universities. He is a Partner at Buro Happold where he and the higher ed strategy team – brightspot – create more engaging, more equitable, and more impactful experiences for students by transforming facilities, support services, and technology. He is an accomplished strategist, facilitator, and sense-maker who has advised more than 100 colleges and universities including Arizona State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Institute of Technology, MIT, NC State University, New York University, Stanford University, the University of California Santa Cruz, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia. Elliot is also the author of How to Get the Most Out of College which provides 127 evidence-based tactics for academic, social, and career success in college and beyond. Elliot is a prolific speaker and writer on reimagining higher education and you can find his work in Fast Company, Forbes, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He received his BS from the University of Virginia and an MA from MIT.