Why we’re using design thinking to develop our Student Life System

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With each passing year, the EdTech industry is proving more and more innovative and exciting. Countless developers, companies, and organizations are putting together some pretty out-there ideas to solve issues in education. Students at a growing number of campuses can do everything from pay for a meal to check out a library book with their mobile device.

While a lot of this development ranges from mind-expanding to downright inspirational, there’s another side to this coin: A whole lot of EdTech that gets developed, rolled out, and marketed simply doesn’t work.

EdTech products might show promise in research settings, but flop on real-life campuses. They might be based on outdated or disproved pedagogies. They might fail to account for cultural or socioeconomic diversity.

At RahRah, we tend to think that EdTech solutions fail for a more fundamental reason: they weren’t designed properly.

Over the past few years, EdTech developers have made missteps using the ‘engineer’s solution to the classroom,’ have fallen back on the ‘new and shiny’ factor to drive engagement, or worse, have adopted the ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality.

In other words, many EdTech developers have created a solution without knowing if it will actually solve anything.

And institutions, who often have a “bottoms-up” and decentralized nature of tech purchasing, can be guilty of the garbage can model of organizational choice.’ (But that’s a topic for another post.)

At RahRah, we do things differently. We start with the problem, and design accordingly. We guide our development with design thinking and inform our process with design partner workshops, interviews, and campus visits.

On its face, design thinking might sound like thought leader jargon. But it’s actually a fairly intuitive process. You’ve probably already put it to work without knowing it. It borrows concepts and processes used by successful designers and applies them to other scenarios.

Usually, design thinking begins with exploration. Design thinkers put themselves in end-users’ shoes and walk around. They look to identify what works, what doesn’t, and what pain points exist.

Next comes a stage of synthesis where you take what you’ve learned during the exploration phase and synthesize those points into concrete issues, observations, and most importantly, opportunities.

Once those issues and opportunities are clear, the next logical next step is ideation. This is the ‘think big’ and ‘what if’ stage, where designers consider how the synthesized issues might be solved if no obstacles stood in their way.

Following those lofty thoughts, designers then come back down to earth with evaluation. Based on those lofty ideas, they determine which are actually feasible and achievable.

Next, designers bring their real world solution to life with the creation phase. This involves beta-testing and troubleshooting.

This goes on for some time. Eventually, the product, solution, or whatever it is you’re making reaches the evolution stage. This stage is perpetual, and products will ideally continue to evolve long after the initial development occurs.

Design thinking is obviously messy. It doesn’t always progress in neat steps like those outlined above. We witnessed that firsthand when we gathered a group of undergrads to go through the process together.

Students joined us from NYU, Columbia, UVA, Barnard, and more.

For the exploration phase, we initiated a brain-dump. We asked everyone to write down everything they could think of that is challenging in the student experience on a sticky note and put it up on the whiteboard. We then gave each student a set of dots to ‘vote’ on which experience, problem, or issue was most important to them.

We then tried to ‘ideate’ some different solutions by turning the tables and forming some ‘How might we …’ statements based on what we heard.

This is what we heard and learned:

There are a ton of resources available for students on campus. But finding the right one is beyond difficult. This led us to ask, ‘How might we organize resources in a simple and intuitive way?’

Second, we heard that being new to campus means being lost. All the time. So: ‘How might we provide an easier way to navigate campus?’

Finally, members of our workshop told us again and again that, besides academics (or maybe because of academics) health and wellness is a big concern. ‘How might we help students prioritize wellness, while balancing coursework and social lives?’

The above has formed a part of our exploration, synthesis, and ideation. In response, we have been hard at work developing our Student Life System. This SLS aims to consolidate everything involved in student life outside of academia into one place. We want students to be able to use our SLS to schedule doctors appointments, find out what’s going on with social clubs, pick the right library for their group study session, and more.

We’re currently hard at work with our creation and evolution phases. It might sound tedious, but we’re willing to put in the effort because we don’t want to create a solution that doesn’t solve a problem. We want our SLS to improve life on campus.

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