HowToCollege, Part One

HowToCollege, Part One

Considering the profound impact the Indie EdTech DataJam conference at Davidson College has had on my summer work and even the layout of this blog, it has been strangely missing from my reflections. I’m writing about it now having just come off of the first prototyping session with CNDLS (Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship) and some amazing friends I met at the conference—an event I’ve been itching to write about since we finished up a few Fridays ago—but realized I had not yet reflected on how I began working with CNDLS in the first place. I’ll be splitting this reflection up into two parts: The EdTech DataJam Conference I attended in March, and the first prototyping session that we just wrapped up earlier in the month.

Way back in March, I was lucky enough to spend a weekend at Davidson College at the Indie Ed-Tech DataJam. I went into the conference with little to no knowledge of the subject; I assumed we would be talking mostly about blended learning, MOOCs, and other EdTech startup speak that I heard around home in the Bay Area.

I’ll be honest, I was pretty lost for a good portion of the conference—it was my first introduction to a whole (new) slew of acronyms, like personal APIs and LMSs. But surprisingly, the acronyms weren’t as intimidating to me—we’re quite acronymically fluent at Designing the Future(s)—as the environment was. Conference attendees came from all over, both geographically and professionally. The room was full of professors, administrators, undergrad and grad students, techies, activists, entrepreneurs, and the conversations we had were engaging and challenging because of the many voices contributing throughout the weekend.

One part of the conference was a huge “aha moment” for me, one that I think has shaped the past few months of my life and has prompted me to ask myself difficult questions about my role in education and my decisions moving into post-graduate life. During the last days of the conference, we all split into groups to design around the “personal API,” which I will let my more knowledgeable friends (i.e. API Evangelist Kin Lane) describe here. The prompt gave us a blank slate and asked us to emphasize student experience, data ownership, and individuality in our final design.

I was in a group with fabulous, fabulous people: the conference’s keynote speaker Audrey Watters (here’s her awesome talk), Alan Levine (check out his CogDogBlog), Adam Croom from Oklahoma State University, a Davidson undergrad, Gage, and the director of CNDLS, Eddie Maloney. In the first stage of the design process, we worked on empathizing with our “audience,” or “user,” the student. As the two students in the group, Gage and I were asked a number of questions about what has made our college experiences important to us. It was great to compare Gage’s and my vastly different college experiences—for one, Gage talked about his formative experiences outside of the classroom, while I rattled off lists of the courses and discussions in the classroom that I had most loved.

But one theme stood out in both of our college narratives: mentorship. Both Gage and I attributed much of our happiness and success to our mentors, faculty or otherwise, who had profound effects on the way we approached our college experience. They wore many hats: our mentors had been advisors during course registration; moral support during stressful weeks; partners in conversation with us, engaging in meaningful conversations about our passions outside of class; they were willing experts and sounding boards for our questions in office hours. Our mentors had fundamentally shaped how we navigated college, just as much as we had acted as agents in choosing our own paths at our respective institutions. The relationships were those of reciprocity and symbiosis.

We then began to collectively wonder: what about the students who don’t get themselves to a conference like this? What about the students who struggle finding mentors, or places of belonging in their institutions? I could empathize with that: my freshman year was one of complete confusion, stress, and lack of direction. While I performed well in class, the lack of community I experienced in my transition to college oftentimes left me feeling lonely, underqualified, and out of place at Georgetown. But, I ultimately took a proactive role in my experience: I found mentors and a community of peers who supported and continue to support me and validate my perspective. As we discussed our own experiences with mentorship and college more broadly, we realized Gage and I are not the target audience: to facilitate community, agency, and a more positive student experience, our system/product/what-have-you would have to engage with those who felt blindsided, lost, or out of place in their college experience.

So our group had a goal and the population we hoped to affect; next was the system/API itself. This session of hard thinking was the most difficult part of the brainstorm: we proposed scheduling app after scheduling app and kept coming up short. A calendar application or messaging service wouldn’t actually help people find their mentors; those things already existed, and they didn’t really help people learn and connect outside of their digital boxes. We were running up against a serious question that I will probably revisit at some point on this blog, if not in life: What are the absolute limitations of technologies that help to bring people together?

We struggled for what seemed like hours with this question. I could see no light at the end of the prototyping tunnel, only a kaleidoscopic view of fluorescent lights and sharpies and sticky-noted whiteboards (not in a good way—I usually love office supplies). It was horrible.

But out of the haze of 2PM caffeine deprivation and mid-afternoon hanger, some ideas began to surface: what about a community of institutional knowledge that came together over individuals’ talents and areas of growth? What about a knowledge database that could not only answer embarrassing questions, but could also help students answer big-picture, “how do I even do college” questions? We began to sketch and build momentum off of each other’s ideas until a concrete prototype pieced itself together: the “HowToCollege” prototype.

To explain our concept, I’ll begin with a “HowToCollege” question that will forever haunt me throughout this project. Imagine you are a new student at a college somewhere, and you go to the dining hall with some friends. In the middle of your meal, you get up to use the restroom. But, alas, there is no toilet paper in [insert name of dining hall here]’s bathroom. You feel awkward in this moment. You search frantically for the toilet paper rolls. You do not ask anyone where they might be, because you think it is a stupid question and do not want people to think of you as “that freshman who asked about the toilet paper at [dining hall]” for the rest of your college experience. You are embarrassed. So you stay quiet, and waste some time looking for toilet paper when you could be having a conversation with your friends over dining hall pizza.

Yes, that is the only example of a simple, yet embarrassing student question that I could think of. Yes, I talked about it in front of both my group and the entire conference group when presenting our prototype. Yes, it has come up twice in the past two weeks. I will probably not escape The Toilet Paper Example any time soon.

As ridiculous as this example is, it illustrates an important point: students who think they are asking silly questions will not always reach out and ask them. Instead, they will waste time looking for answers they can’t find, even though others in the community could have answered them in a heartbeat. The harm of this silence is twofold: it wastes precious time that a student could use to figure out more important parts of their college experience, and it eliminates the potential for a conversation between two people that could lead to some form of community connection.

But simple questions are not the only ones that students ask. I cannot express how many times I have asked my friends about time management or my professors about various pathways through academic life, and I think that this is common across college students’ conversations. But here’s what complicates those “higher-tier” questions: they require conversation to get a satisfactory answer. Whereas the question “where is the toilet paper in the dining hall” (told you, it’s inescapable) can be answered with a quick, factual answer, the question “what is it like to pursue a Master’s degree in Fine Arts” would require one, if not multiple, sit-down conversations. Students ask questions at varying levels of complexity as they try to navigate their institutions; at all tiers of complexity, there is an oftentimes-untapped opportunity for face-to-face connection.

This realization allowed our group to shape a prototype, a sort of question-and-answer forum (think an institutional Quora, or a more community-oriented Reddit) that could both output simple answers to simple questions and allow students to connect with members of their community over larger conversations. So, for simple questions, the system would spit out an answer and let students spend more time on meaningful activities or questions; for complex questions, the system would realize its own limitations and suggest a student meets up with a member of the community in person who could help to discover an answer.

Our initial concept: a question and answer database that could handle both complex and simple student questions.
Our initial concept: a question and answer database that could handle both complex and simple student questions.

Another key part of this design was the reciprocity of the community being built— the recognition that all members of the community have both their strengths and their areas for growth when entering into a new space. We ended up calling these a person’s “haves” and “wants” that allow them to interact in a community of equals. Students could hypothetically indicate their haves and wants in a profile, and they could act as members who both ask questions and provide answers in a symbiotic setting. 

My sketch of a basic profile page, with a student's "Haves" and "Wants."
My sketch of a basic profile page, with a student’s “Haves” and “Wants.” Students could decide what information stays private, and what is displayed to others.

So, there it was: the original idea for the “HowToCollege” App. Gage and I presented the prototype to our whole group, and the result was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in undergrad. Everyone was jumping at the idea, beginning to excitedly imagine where the concept could go. Our facilitators, Ben and Erin of Known in San Francisco, told the team afterward that we had to stick to our idea and run with it. It was a moment of clarity and excitement for everyone in the room. It was (real-live adult!) validation for a session of thinking hard about what we could do to make a college more equitable, formative, and enjoyable for the students it serves.

I rode the high from that idea and its responses for the rest of the conference and the following week. But it was not just the idea itself that got me excited— it was the community of people of all professions and ages that came together behind the idea and offered to support it. My role as a student in the strange, artificial hierarchy of teacher and learner that I expected from the conference vanished at Davidson, and I became a collaborator alongside peers who shared a similar vision for what a positive experience in college looks like.  People were volunteering their time, thoughts, and expertise to this idea before it was wholly concrete. It was the purest collaborative environment I have found in academia thus far, and I am deeply grateful for it.

Our final board, complete with scheduling app designs, sticky notes, and the HowToCollege concept.
Our final board, complete with scheduling app designs, sticky notes, and the HowToCollege concept.

After the conference, I met frequently with Eddie from CNDLS and kept in touch with Kristen Eshleman, the wonderful conference organizer and Director of Davidson’s Digital Learning Research and Design/Academic Technology. We began a working group comprised of a few Davidson students, myself, Eddie, Kristen, Adam, Alan, and others from the conference to think about next steps for “HowToCollege.” I talked with my mentors at school about a myriad of considerations that would surround turning this idea into a concrete project. After many meetings with Eddie, Skype calls with Kristen, and a few long email chains, we designated two weeks in the summer to come together and work on the project at Georgetown.

That first week just passed, and I’ll be reflecting on the amazing experience in a separate blog post. I’m floored that something beginning with thoughts on formative connections in college turned into the potential to help an entire group of students navigate their college lives; I’m even more amazed at the selfless, collaborative people who have given their time to this project. The Indie EdTech DataJam conference and this “HowToCollege” design sprint have both been “meta” experiences: just as our project group works to build community, communication, and reciprocity in college, we have experienced it for ourselves in the process. I am so excited for the work to follow, whether the project reaches a pilot stage or not. I am so lucky to be in the room with amazing thinkers, working on a project that I care for on a very personal level.

Featured image courtesy of Alan Levine via Flickr.

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