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Monday, September 25, 2023

Academics & Research

Higher education research project focuses on student needs rather than institutions

A team of UH graduate students recently published Student Needs 2025, a higher education research project focused on meeting student needs through ways such as improved mentoring, personalized learning and feedback in real time.  The team decided that stepping away from institutional changes was critical to ensuring progress for future UH students.

“Our research was not aimed at suggesting what universities should do — our purpose was to paint a picture of what students and their needs looked like,” said Andrew Hines, coordinator of the College of Technology’s Foresight Graduate Program. “We felt the future of higher education story from the viewpoint of the institutions has been told again and again. Rather than add to that pile, we focused exclusively on what students would need.”

With the help of a $153,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation, Hines was able to assemble a team of 20 faculty, alumni and students to work on the project during the past spring semester.  The Lumina Foundation is a private foundation committed to increasing the number of Americans with high quality degrees, certifications and other qualifications to build a better higher education system across the country. Lumina’s “Goal 2025” aims to raise that number to 60 percent by the year 2025. According to a UH Office of Communications press release, it’s currently at 38.7 percent.

“I am hard-pressed to find a better example of how a bold vision can energize an organization than what I’ve seen with Lumina Foundation,” Hines said. “They are totally focused on achieving their goal — it motivates all the work they do. It’s ambitious, motivating and energizing.”

Hines serves on the Lumina innovation advisory council as a UH researcher. He became involved with the Lumina Foundation through a former Foresight student, Juan Suarez, who is now the vice president for communications and innovation at Lumina.

“He brought me into a few projects, such as doing some scenario work with them to help with their strategic planning — all in pursuit of Goal 2025,” Hines said.

There are many reasons why higher education research tends to center around the universities rather than the students, but the main factor is funding.

“Institutions have the power and the money,” Hines said. “It makes sense to target research at them because they have the means to fund it and the ability to act on it. Students are really not an organized body; they’re harder to reach.”

The 20 Foresight students, faculty and alumni involved with the project were split into teams that focused on the six areas deemed essential to student activity: living, learning, connecting, participating, working and playing.  The teams were asked to conduct a Framework Foresight study of each area.

“Framework Foresight is the UH Foresight program’s approach to forecasting, and results in two possible futures:  the baseline, or most likely future, and the alternative future, which contains more surprises and unexpected developments,” said project manager Alexandra Whittington. “The effort was extremely collaborative and allowed students in particular to benefit from the experience of seeing the forecasting approach they learn in the graduate program being applied to a ‘real-life’ client.”

Foresight graduate student Laura Schlehuber worked on the playing sector of the project and said she is proud of the work the students have done.

“We found an extreme amount of change higher education and students need to be aware of today to help us prepare for that future,” Schlehuber said. “One of the most profound differences is how students will interact and learn.  It has a rippling effect on how teachers teach, how we live, how we work and how we play.”

Of the eight major needs for increasing higher education the students discovered, Whittington said mentoring is the most crucial.

“Universities need to realize that students are more than just customers passing through and recognize strategies to nurture the vast potential in each and every person,” Whittington said. “This aspect of higher education — developing the whole person — deserves attention on a much more holistic level.”

Other issues the project investigated included balancing the needs of traditional students with nontraditional ones. Traditional students make up less than 30 percent of the student body, and that percentage is declining.

“First-generation, adult and independent students have different needs than traditional students, and serving those needs is a challenge for all universities in the future,” Hines said.

Research found that the concept of the classroom is changing for students as well, and according to Hines, “the walls are coming down.”

“Virtual technology is expanding the reach of the classroom beyond the walls and across the state, country and globe,” Hines said. “Within the classrooms themselves, they are going to be re-designed to encourage interaction, discussion and group work — more like recreation rooms with comfy chairs, whiteboard walls and embedded cameras and microphones. Classrooms will be more like hangouts than cubicle farms.”

Whittington said the virtual technology students have access to today is outdating the typical classroom setting and driving this new design.

“The learning experience as an event locked into time and place seems to be outdated,” Whittington said. “Online courses, hybrid courses, distance learning and other alternatives like MOOCs (massive online open courses) are transforming higher education, and we found that to meet student needs in the future this transformation must be accommodated.”

Hines said Lumina’s vision of Goal 2025 is “amazing” and said he hopes his work carries the momentum of the goal forward.

“I hope that our report might catalyze greater interest in student needs,” Hines said, “and who knows, (maybe) inspire a student movement.”

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