Exploring How Students Explore in Higher Education

Examining what influences students in general, taking into account what happens beyond the classroom and the subject matter they are studying, promises to broaden and even flip the current model of higher education. The mixing function itself, of exploring new approaches in conjunction with peers, teammates, and mentors, is consistently used by successful students to explore, test alternatives and eventually find their path. This finding from our research reflects what some companies like Pixar and Google call “casual collisions”, where environments are designed so staffers regularly bump into people they might not see every day, where they have the opportunity to have a conversation that might inspire the next great idea. It is clear that further research is warranted into the complex learning, development and achievement trajectories of individual students.

Our Proposition

It is easy to underestimate just how much students themselves adapt and grow while in college. Without question, much of their growth happens outside of the classroom and beyond the scope of most educational technologies. However, technology plays a central role in their learning. Today’s classroom is not their only learning environment: they inhabit many different spaces outside the classroom and they have a spectrum of news feeds, social media and educational resources available to them at any moment, and in any location. Moreover, they are inspired by mentors, influenced by peers and required to respond to family, financial and health issues. They often juggle the problems they solve in class with the real world problem solving they apply across a wide range of relationships while attending college. After all, they are transitioning from personal lives, surrounded by friends and family, to professional lives in which they interact with peers to make their way forward. Observing, measuring and guiding how they tap into the array of resources at their fingertips in order to explore, adapt and grow may well help to identify the most effective educational technologies.

The Important Influences at Work Within Team Structures

When interviewing high performing college students on video, we have been struck by the mindsets at play and by the influence of peers and non-academic professionals on student learning. In particular, the team orientation students exhibit came as a surprise. In dozens of videos, a given student’s identity and voice were influenced by their role in a team context as much as by the subject matter or an individual authority figure. By joining teams and taking on roles within team structures, their perspectives become more fluid than when working in isolation. They challenged themselves to explore what they offered the team as well as what they might take away as learning. In the words of one student, a “curriculum designed in which students do what they came to learn” might be the most effective environment for personal growth and professional development.

As an example, over the past three years, University of Silicon Valley students identified by faculty for their outstanding accomplishments in a class were interviewed on video. These students were first asked to describe what brought them to college. Their answers were typically either to follow a passion or because they felt a certain level of “fit” with the school’s culture. They were then asked what they were working on at the time, and their answers skewed to highly technical deep dives into their roles on teams and what they were able to accomplish together. Finally, they were asked to reflect on what changed for them along the way. This consistent line of questioning enabled a surfacing of both external, team and academic factors.

The student videos represent student perspectives. As professionals, online portfolios provided through LinkedIn and other platforms offer a concise way to track paths after graduation. The qualities these students exhibit in order to make meaning out of their role in a team setting – becoming comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown, navigating by surfacing feedback, embracing a project bigger than oneself, imagining refinements along the way and diving into the flow of the process, even without a clear end point – might very well point to the future of higher education. Here are three examples of students who engaged in personal explorations in learning to redefine their lives.

An Engineer Learns by Tutoring Others

Aaron Cohn admitted he didn’t apply himself at school until his schoolwork made a difference to others. He couldn’t bring himself to commit to learning something simply to pass a test. He would even say he was lazy, doing just enough to get by. Yet, as a senior during his second try at college he developed a graphic user interface to a server farm that enabled students to manage the queue of jobs stacked up at the rendering engine at the end of every semester.

For this senior project, Aaron asked what he could build in service for the college, and the render farm bottleneck bubbled to the top. In order to build the app, he needed to teach himself a new language (Python), to understand the functions of the server and to recognize the needs of the non-technical students who used the system to render out their class and portfolio work at the end of each term. He said, “Now, you can control it. You can do your work if you need to without having somebody else’s job start rendering while you are working. For them, this didn’t exist before. They had a command-line tool. Artists do not do well with command lines!”

He also put into play the listening and decoding skills he had developed as a tutor, mentoring other students who were in many cases like himself. Aaron mentioned right up front that he knew he was there to make a video of his front end app for the render farm but that he also wanted to talk about tutoring. When asked what he meant by tutoring, he revealed that he had discovered he learned best by tutoring other students. He found meaning by exploring how to reach the student he was tutoring. He actualized his potential when he actuated the potential of others. “I could see points where I wasn’t reaching them, and I could see points where I was reaching them. It would be like a light switch, on or off. I was either really getting to them, or really not.”

For Aaron, tutoring and mentoring others provided the structure and urgency he needed to commit himself fully. He recognized that through stepping up, by alerting others to the importance of what they were doing, he developed a professional voice. His willingness to commit himself as a tutor directly influenced him to volunteer for the render farm project. The critical thinking skills he imparted to the students he mentored also helped him to identify the core problems students were having with the render farm and to design an appropriate solution.

“Critical thinking is a skill that you have to use in every aspect of your life. You cannot just take what you hear for granted. If you hear it, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. Have the motivation to go on and verify it yourself. You have to be very careful because a lot of people have opinions and a lot of people have expertise where they want to come from their position of authority and tell you ‘this is how it’s done’. But, they are not necessarily telling you that. They are actually saying, ‘this is the way I do it’ and their perception is that’s how it is done. So, look at a lot of different sources. Take what you can from your teachers, books, the internet, wherever you can get all of your information. You combine all of those, and then you decide what the truth is.”

Aaron is now a Senior Associate Software Application Engineer at Workday, a company that was founded in 2005, went public in 2012, and now has over a billion dollars in yearly revenue. Workday provides SaaS-based enterprise solutions for their customer’s human resources and financial management activities. While Aaron puts his technical knowledge to use in his career, the pathfinding methods he developed in college – including what serves to engage him fully by engaging others – have prepared him to operate in the most competitive and rewarding corporate settings.

A High School Physics Teacher Goes Full Stack By Getting Out of Town

Bakari Holmes was applying his degree in physics by teaching in high school when a representative from a college came to speak to his class about the benefits of hands-on, team-oriented learning made possible by working on real-world problems. In particular, the rep spoke about a video game program in which students designed and built apps in classes that are organized like studios and employ industry roles, methods and tools. Bakari had always loved video games and imagined how great it would be to participate in one of the most dynamic industries on earth.

As a new father, Bakari loved physics and enjoyed teaching, but had come to the realization that another career path might better enable him to provide for his family. For him, going back to college for another degree required a cost-benefit evaluation which would continually surface and guide his path going forward. Over the three years it took to get his new degree, Bakari would continually re-evaluate his position on his path towards this goal. The hands-on nature of his classes reinforced his decision. As his skill set evolved, so did his outlook on what was possible.

At first, Bakari thought his interest in music translated directly into designing the audio elements of games. He had always loved exploring musically, even publishing a Bobby McFerrin-style vocal solo on his portfolio. He was inspired to explore how sound influences the behavior of players in video games just as they influence the emotional response of movie audiences. Exploring the world of sound design opened his eyes as well as his ears.

However, he soon discovered that mobile games must use audio resources efficiently in order to respond to user behavior and to embrace a wide spectrum of sound designs. For instance, a sound like an explosion must be assembled algorithmically. By combining a “bing”, a “bang” and a “boom” in different ways, a smart game developer can bring a wide variety of soundscapes to their work. When viewed from his cost-benefit perspective, Bakari saw his path veer towards hands-on programming. He wouldn’t just produce the sounds, he would explore developing the games themselves.

For the summer before his senior year, Bakari landed an internship at the Sony Playstation program in San Diego, which led to a six-month consulting job at Sony Playstation in San Mateo. It was clear how important teamwork was for him in landing the consulting opportunity after his internship. “A lot of the people skills and passion that I have was really huge and stood out. Being able to answer questions about my previous experience, about what I did on teams, being specific about how that connects to being a successful candidate, that all stood out.”

After his experience working in San Diego and San Mateo, along with attending industry conferences and mixing with professionals in the field, Bakari’s academic decisions now factored in not only his family interests but also honed in on the skills that would serve him best going forward. He became keenly aware of the wide range of technologies involved in delivering video games to users who ran them on mobile devices connected to the game and to others by networks. While he had already directed himself towards a career in the game industry, Bakari also saw the value brought about by a broadened perspective. In his final year of college, he set about to finish the courses needed to be a full-stack developer. He focused on the JavaScript/MEAN stack — including NodeJS, AngularJS, ExpressJS, MongoDB, ReactJS, and D3JS. As a generalist, he could address issues across an entire spectrum of connected devices, databases, networked APIs, and business logic to develop robust user experiences.

Bakari graduated with his second college degree in Software Engineering and is currently working as a JavaScript Sr. Software Engineer with Accenture’s Liquid Application Studio. His online portfolios not only feature him singing with his acapella group “Business Casual”, they highlight his fluency in interface design and passion for physics.

From High School to Exploring AI by Modeling and Networking

Mari Smith admits she had no idea what to expect from college after graduating from high school. Like so many new students, she had to find her footing. She saw that while some other students were more talented artistically, they appreciated someone else building the structures they could then work with within digital environments. She learned to turn rough sketches into 3D models. After making a cube into an actual person her in 3D Modeling class, she was hooked. What also hooked her, as a very organized person, was her ability to fill in for anyone who needed help.

“A good example is a 24-hour game jam. You have to go from concepting your game, developing all of your characters, to actually creating the game, making sure it is functional. A lot of the time you have people on your team who only know concepting and they are only really useful for the beginning stages of the game development process. But if you are able to do concepting, modeling and adding textures (that bring out the finished look), you’re helping your team the entire time and it’s a really good feeling.” 

While her skills evolved, so did her awareness of environments and the objects that populate them. She began to focus on the rooms characters move in, to examine not only what the character does but how they live. She became a digital anthropologist of sorts. She would ask herself, “In this room, what kind of character lives here? What are their daily activities? What is the story to be told here?” To answer these questions led to courses that helped her surface the history and physics behind any project she was working on.

Mastering the process of modeling led to historical research, into the objects in fashion at a particular point in time and how they were used. Mastering texturing led to investigations into physics, into how was light being diffused or reflected by a given object. Was the light celestial, moving in parallel onto an object, or radiating from a nearby source? How would light affect the color of the objects, particularly as seen from multiple angles? Mari invented uses of objects within scenes that helped support the overall story.

By seeing projects from such a deep understanding, Mari became a great help to project managers with scheduling tasks across teams. Her way of seeing and constructing new possibilities led to more successful projects. “You learn a lot of things in all of your classes, but for me the biggest benefit of going to college is networking, it’s the people I meet with every day. You have people you can bounce ideas off of, people you can ask questions, people you can go to and say ‘hey, this is broken, please help me’. That is a really amazing thing that happens here.”

Within months of graduating with a Digital Art and Animation degree, Mari started work on an undisclosed project at Apple. When asked about the new position, she would only say it does not involve her technical skills as much as understanding the value of the project itself. “I feel so fortunate to be working at Apple. The work we are doing has the potential to change how people see and interact with the world.”

The cases provided by these outstanding students exemplify how widely variable and personal higher education outcomes can be. A course, in a given discipline, might actually serve to enable a student to explore and eventually excel in a completely unrelated area. We should become more aware of the multitude of personally meaningful and useful outcomes students discover as a result of their own explorations. These outcomes might well be the best measure of the success of their higher education experience. In particular, the adaptive mindsets that are developed in team settings deserve careful consideration and further research. The complex achievements and outcomes developed through such forms of open-ended exploration deserve greater recognition and appreciation.

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This article first appeared in Lifewide Magazine, Issue #18, January 2017. It has been excerpted from Old School, New School, No School.

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