Field Notes from the Student Experience Lab

Straight from the horses mouth, my mother used to tell me, is the best way to get the facts. BIF puts a high priority on capturing field notes on all project work. These informal reports chronicle the work of the team, as opposed to their findings, which tend to get the most attention. We think a quick glance will give you come interesting insight into the personalities behind the Student Experience Lab team and a peek into what they discover as they move forward. The following notes are from 6/1-6/12/09. Work in the BIF Student Experience Lab has begun! Chris Finlay, June 1, 2009 We are thrilled to be exploring the world of higher education to see how we can help to provide insight into what students need to have a successful education experience. As we all know, the world has changed rapidly, which requires new approaches to educating for jobs that did not exist even 5 years ago.

With that challenge in mind, the team’s first order of business is refining our research plan to make sure we are collecting the right data about the right questions. Good questions are often about reexamining the obvious. Questions like "What defines a student?" have emerged as important themes in this work. The answer may seem obvious, but the mad dash to a conclusion about what defines a student is one of the most dangerous flaws of the current post secondary education system. Formulating an inclusive and student-centric answer to “what defines a student” will be an important part of our work in the Student Experience Lab. There are clearly broader ways in which to understand how people learn and approach their own education than the ideas that dominate the current system. It is no small challenge we are tackling this work with the help of a smart research advisory board, great resources and strong leadership.

Speaking of having great resources, one of our first activities was to visit BIF's friends at the Met School in Providence. The Met School is a fantastic example of education at the edge. It is a student centered, one student at a time, teaching method that is yielding real results for a group of kids who need the most help. It is exciting to see in action. The BIF team was able to meet with some of the students and hear their stories about what they expect for their futures. We are also are beginning to recruit students from near and far that fit our research criteria. The team is looking forward to getting out and exploring their worlds. Can't wait to share what we find. Kicking off the Student Experience Lab with a Visit to the Met School Julianne Gauron, June 1, 2009 We went out for our first field research on the Student Experience Lab this week, visiting the Met School in Providence. Jamie Scurry welcomed us and we attended an Advisory, basically an open style homeroom class in which the students work on their work, discuss it with their peers and meet with their teacher. The students at the Met School engage in an LTI – Learning Through Internships, of their choosing. While the school assists the students to determine their interests and possible trajectories I am impressed by the self awareness which these young men and women show when the responsibility of determining their own route is placed in their hands. I spoke at length with Mike, a sophomore, who is competing in a regional Business Plan competition and whose knowledge of business planning made me slightly envious. Afterwards the BIF team, Chris Finlay, James Hamar and myself, met with two female students to discuss their experiences at the school and ask questions that had arisen from the class visit and simply around this unique model of schooling. Again I was impressed by their ability to articulate their experiences, opinions and hopes with such maturity. We are in the early stages of an eight month examination of the American post secondary education system; telling the micro and macro stories, trying to determine opportunities for innovation to engage students more deeply and get non participants into the increasingly important pursuit of a post secondary education. Although I have worked with youth all my life, teaching, coaching and mentoring for over fifteen years, the Met School visit was a perfect entry point reminding me of the deep wisdom and potential of American youth. Students are capable of almost anything given the opportunity, the support and the respect. Some Gems from Early Research in the Student Experience Lab Chris Finlay, June 8, 2009 It’s been three weeks since we launched the Student Experience Lab and the team has spent many hours surveying the landscape and refining our research goals. Research into the questions surrounding the post secondary education experience hasled me to some pretty intense reports and experts. There is much to learn about this field full of passionate advocates. One of my favorite quotes this week comes from an article on Stanford's Multidisciplinary Teaching & Research website ( where Kim Smith, who has an MBA from Stanford, and is the co-founder of NewSchools Venture Fund. When it comes to deciphering the differences among the experts, Kim says, "sometimes they truly believe different things, and sometimes they just talk different."

This really gets to the heart of the challenge of communicating about the current experience of college students. We too often get tripped up speaking different languages, losing the opportunity to work on the real issues. What gets lost in translation is that there is a huge community of researchers and advocates who care deeply about the future of education. This shared passion for education innovation is the silver lining in the murky world of competing expert opinions on what needs to change.

A couple of other great quotes from this week’s work:
  • “Universities won't survive. The future is outside the traditional campus, outside the traditional classroom. Distance learning is coming on fast." - Peter Drucker, in 1997,
  • “The Industrial Age model of education is hard to change. New paradigms cause dislocation, disruption, confusion, and uncertainty. They are nearly always received with coolness or hostility. Vested interests fight change. And leaders of old paradigms are often the last to embrace the new.” - BIF-5 Storyteller Don Tapscott,Chairman of nGenera Insight and Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.
  • "There are a lot of sacred cows. Why, for example, are universities judged by the number of students they exclude, or by how much they spend? Why aren't they judged by how well they teach, and at what price?” - Luis M. Proenza, President of the University of Akron
  • "The path we've chosen for our post-secondary education system will not revive our economy - rather, it will take us in the direction of a third-world economy and permanent budget problems for the state. Unless that is the outcome we desire, we must make it a top priority to restore the health of public higher education." - John D. Wiley, Chancellor, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Entertainment, Technology are not Optional James Hamar, June 9, 2009 I am avid watcher of the Daily Show with John Stewart and the Colbert Report on Comedy Central. It’s funny to think of the success of those shows, and that they actually make news, entertaining and interesting to younger people. Both of these shows break almost all of the rules about how people typically get the news. Every segment is delivered with such a level of sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humor that some people may struggle to distinguish the “real news” from the comedy.

That got me thinking.Why can’t we break a few rules in the education system to deliver a better experience to more students? If the Daily Show breaks down international news in a way that captivates younger viewers, why can't our schools do the same? I am not advocating that we get stand-up comedians to be our teachers, but a little entertainment might go a long way in making information relevant to today’s students. In our research so far, we have heard people use the term "digital natives" about the under 25 demographic. This means that these people have grown up surrounded by technology and digital devices. They are not only comfortable using these tools, they rely on them for almost all aspects of daily life. When we re-think college education, we need to keep this important idea in the forefront. Curriculums must embrace the opportunities and the challenges of delivering services to digital natives.

Coming from a technology background, it’s amazing to think that the average extent of tech integration in the classroom is a computer. With all of the different media creation and publishing tools, how come no one uses them? An astounding number of people in America have computers, and many of them are aware of services like youtube, twitter, and facebook. I think finding a way to include these things, at least for students like me, would allow more creative ways to deliver classroom content.

Imagine that rather than writing a 10 page book report on your summer reading, you could do a chapter by chapter video blog posted to a youtube service. With a service like twitter, you could maintain a low threshold level of communication with your students or teachers after school, such as project reminders or bits of useful information to guide them down a research path. You could create a facebook group that everyone could use as a collaboration platform for extra help in a particular class or subject.

I check my facebook and twitter accounts 10-15 times daily. I remember leaving college classes every day, and being told to check my school email, but I never would. It was a hassle and an extra step OUT of the way. If we could create interesting ways to keep college or high school intertwined within things people do on a routine out of school using technology platforms, then perhaps that saved time could be reallocated to other things to improve the education experience. So let’s just say it for the record: Technology and entertainment are no longer optional if the end goal is to engage more students in a meaningful post secondary educational experience. Financial, social and practical reasons abound to support this idea. I am looking forward to moving further into our work and talking directly with students of all stripes about how their experience would be different if the integration of technology and entertainment was central to the learning experience, instead of an after thought.

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