Design thinking re-envisions higher education

Students and faculty collaborate to fix issues in higher education.

Emma Nelson

Groups of students, faculty members and community leaders sat at tables and discussed their options, working on designs with materials like pipe cleaners, duct tape and clay.

Their challenge? To re-design an aspect of higher education.

The Oct. 11 event at the University of Minnesota kicked off the Higher Ed Redesign Initiative, an effort to apply design thinking to rethink the way higher education works.

“There’s pretty strong interest in the idea that this old order is ending here in terms of what higher ed looks like,” said David Weerts, co-director of the University’s Jandris Center for Innovative Higher Education

The center — part of the College of Education and Human Development — spearheaded the initiative and is partnering with the College of Design and the Midwestern Higher Education Compact.

The initiative is an effort to use design thinking to re-imagine different aspects of higher education that are often taken for granted.

One-hundred people attended the event and more than 50 were on the waiting list, Weerts said. Participants split into 12 groups, and each worked on one of four challenges.

In one challenge, the group was asked to create a $10,000 bachelor’s degree for a theoretical student whose immigration status made her ineligible for financial aid.

Alex Hermida, a third-year doctoral candidate in CEHD, attended the event and worked on one of the challenges.

“These are very complicated problems, and I don’t think we necessarily came up with a solution,” Hermida said. “We came up with ways to look at the problem.”

The initiative is based on the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education’s Associates Program, which was in operation from 2000-11.

The program brought in professors, policy makers and others to discuss issues facing higher education.

“We’re looking at this as the next generation of that program,” Weerts said.

Design thinking is a process where when working on theoretical concepts, something concrete has to be produced in the end, said Virajita Singh, a senior research fellow and adjunct assistant professor in CDES.

“Oftentimes we can get caught in abstractions and then it’s very easy to get lost there or assume things that may not actually be real,” she said.

Building prototypes can help the designer see things they hadn’t thought of before, Singh said, and critiques allow them to talk about what their initial goals were and if their design changed.

The prototypes developed at the event were photographed, and the groups were videotaped talking about their designs.

People involved with the initiative will critique the prototypes, Weerts said. They’ll be used in planning future design challenges but will not necessarily be put into practice.

A new way of thinking

Design thinking in other fields has just developed over the past decade, Singh said, but is growing fast.

Singh is also working on an initiative through CDES to apply design thinking to the University’s missions of teaching, research and outreach.

This summer, she collaborated with local government to use design thinking for solving the issue of homelessness. She is also working with Allina and other health care organizations to apply design thinking to the health care industry.

“They’ve sort of woken up to the fact that, ‘Oh, design thinking is something we could use,’” Singh said.

Members of the Redesign Initiative are in the process of obtaining funding, Weerts said, and will potentially be a multi-year program.

“The workshop was itself a prototype for how we might run these experiences,” Singh said, “and the results of that are going to inform us.”

Hermida said before he attended the event, he wasn’t sure how it was going to work. But afterward, he said he realized design thinking is applicable to all disciplines.

“It’s exciting because it appeals not only to visual learners, but it’s kinesthetic, it’s auditory, it’s all the different ways we can learn,” he said.

As it looks to the future, the group is deciding how big the initiative should be and who should be involved, Singh said.

She said she sees the initiative happening on different scales — at the University, in partnerships across multiple institutions and potentially at the national level.

There are similar innovation efforts happening across the country, but this is the first partnership within a large university.

“There’s unlimited potential about ‘Where does that go?’” she said. “And so we’re starting here.”