During the spring 2018 semester, Illinois Tech Academic Affairs, the Staff Advisory Council (SAC), and the University Faculty Council (UFC) co-sponsored a series of community forums wherein staff and faculty members “collaboratively engaged in an exploratory and evolving process to forecast the future of higher education.” This Future of Higher Education forum series, as it came to be known, has continued into the fall 2018 semester as an open ideation space for Illinois Tech community members to contribute to meaningful conversations designed to ultimately shape the university’s overarching strategic plans and actions. The most recent installment of the Future of Higher Education forums was held on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 23 in the MTCC Ballroom, packed to capacity with Illinois Tech students, staff, and faculty, with a follow-up forum repeating the same process on Tuesday, October 30 in Morris Hall at the Downtown Campus.
Under the subtitle of “learning how to be a more student-centered university,” this forum was opened by Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Christopher White, who remarked that “only in these conversations will we be able to figure out the correct path” in shaping the university’s future focuses. Provost Peter Kilpatrick further added to these sentiments, stating in his opening remarks that in order for the university to fulfill its goals of “becoming more student-centered,” students have to be listened to. It was for this reason that the various tables at the forum each had at least one student present among the various staff and faculty members.
Denis Weil, the dean of the Institute of Design, then introduced the structure for the forum. Based on the double diamond design framework, the majority of the forum would see the audience breakout into conversations among its various tables in alternating processes of divergent and convergent thinking, based on prompts displayed on the room’s overhead display. What was most notable about this design approach was that the students at each table were empowered with the ability to control the conversations at their respective tables, each being entrusted with a printed stop sign that they could use in the event that their table’s discussion veered off-topic.
Acting Academic Director of the Kaplan Institute Aaron Cook and Associate Director for Instructional Design & Technology Brad Katz then moderated the breakout discussions, asking a series of prompts and questions to get the individual tables discussing among themselves various facets of the student experience on campus and what the university’s various departments could do to address these issues.
The key objectives of this activity, as stated by Cook and Katz, were to give students a voice and say in the future of the university, to better understand students’ needs, to identify gaps where the university can do more for students, and to practice actually being more student-centered.
With students leading the discussions of their tables, the forum first asked questions concerning what needs the students felt needed to be met in order to set them up for success, which of these needs the tables found most surprising or indicative of blind spots, and what each tables’ individual members could do to directly address these needs. Each table was also tasked with compiling answers to these questions on pads of sticky notes, to be collected for data consolidation upon the forum’s conclusion. A quick audience discussion after this first activity revealed a wide host of needs brought up, ranging from textbook prices and ease of reading lab manuals to the meeting of basic human needs and connections between classroom and industry experiences.
The latter half of the forum then asked the overall question of “how might we…?” It was here that the breakout groups were tasked with brainstorming possible solutions to the various needs laid out on their sticky note collections. With tables composed of students, staff, and faculty from every corner of the university, hundreds of possible ideas for bettering the university’s potential to cater for the needs of students were generated and scribbled down, ranging from “not being driven by financial concerns” to “staffing the One Stop” and “co-locating student services.”
Kilpatrick closed the forum by reiterating that “if the focus of our strategic plan is to focus on student success,” then the contributions and idea generation that occurred at this forum represents a vital, user-driven step in this process. The fall 2018 iterations of the Future of Higher Education forums will conclude with a forum on November 14, subtitled “determining our core values.”
Photo by Megan Mozina (She/her)