Looking Back, Looking Forward

Headshot of smiling woman with blonde hair in red topBy Heather Kelly, Senior Director at Student Success in the Division of Student Life at University of Toronto (St.George)

As the first year of the Innovation Hub wraps up, I have the opportunity to reflect on what worked and what we’ve learned along the way.  

The Innovation Hub was inspired by a conference “Leading Innovation and Change in Student Affairs”, that David Newman and I attended in 2015. We were energized by the AVP from Seattle University, Michele Murray, who spoke about the need to bring together a more diverse crew of creative minds from across campus and put them to work on improving the student experience.

What appealed to me was the emphasis on collaborative work. We know that if we generate more ideas we have a better chance of finding better ideas! UofT is large and complex which sometimes presents navigational challenges but its decentralized structure also generates multiple solutions and approaches to shared challenges. By enhancing collaboration across campus, the Innovation Hub has the potential to serve students better by brainstorming across units, departments, Colleges, Faculties and Divisions.

From my perspective, what’s worked is the involvement of diverse staff and students in the process of program/service innovation and the opportunity to connect across functions. By including students in all aspects of the Innovation Hub, the Hub also fosters an organizational culture where student needs are at the forefront. As Ramsdell notes in his blog post on incorporating design thinking in higher ed,  “Environments matter as much if not more than anything else we do as professionals to support our students” (http://www.presence.io/blog/how-to-incorporate-design-thinking-in-higher-ed/).

This is where the Innovation Hub differs from traditional forms of student feedback like surveys or focus groups. I remember listening to staff & students at the Innovation Hub Presentation Day share back what they heard from students. It was powerful and at times, emotional.  From the NSSE data, we know that our students sometimes struggle to find community. However, hearing stories of isolation and connection helped me put myself in students’ shoes and connect with how they might be feeling. The Innovation Hub allows us to connect to how students see, feel and experience UofT. It is a lesson in listening and empathy. At the heart of what empowers the Innovation Hub is student stories.

Looking back, there are a number of lessons learned. First of all, design thinking may be simple in its intent (“designing with students rather than for students”) but is tricky to do.  Design thinking isn’t just about making “things” but more about how we see the world. This is a challenge to communicate.

Also, it is really difficult to think outside of the box! It is easy to fall back into familiar ways of working and hard to let go of one’s own ideas.

The Innovation Hub has grown in ways that I could never have expected. It is better as a result of sharing and collaboration. As we move forward with implementation, we should remember that the best ideas are the ideas we share with others!

Heather Kelly is the Senior Director of Student Success for the Division of Student Life. She also holds a Doctorate in Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

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