What Matters to UofT Students? The Innovation Hub’s 4-year journey to understanding this question

Julia smeed smiling at the camera, wearing a striped shirt
Julia Smeed smiling at the camera

Well into our fourth year at the Innovation Hub, we continue our mission to improve campus life through student-centric design. Over the last four years, we have collected an immense amount of data, including over 600 interviews from students and other community members from across campus. Our diverse teams of students have logged over 4,600 hours of data analysis to generate empathy for students and their experiences on campus.

There is tension in our work, and our teams have learned that we must recognize the biases we carry from our respective capacities. The diversity of our teams is a strength and we challenge each other daily to understand how our own perspective is just one perspective, shaped by our own positionality. I feel so privileged to lead these diverse teams of students in this work and I learn alongside of them each day. I also feel honoured that so many students have felt safe to share stories of their experiences with us. Our job is to constantly think about how we honour these stories and ensure that they are shared back to the larger UofT community.

From Past to Present: Working with the Data 

We started this work in 2016 with a simple question: What do students need in order to live a good life? Once hundreds of students and other UofT community members provided their thoughts, our crowdsourced Domains of Innovation were created as aspirational goals for our work.

With so many stories now catalogued securely in qualitative research software, and coded using an ever-emerging coding structure that reflects the complexity and diversity of the experiences, our team set out to ask a new question of the data: What matters to UofT students?

Our team spent months combing through the stories students have entrusted us with. Working through this data was an iterative process that involved drawing out insights through coding and classification, but also dialogue about the deeper meaning of what matters to students based on what they told us. The team noticed clear themes that appeared again and again and reflected on how they resonated not only at an individual level but also throughout the system or institutional level.

Data Analysis Team lead Danielle Baillargeon thoughtfully described how she lead her team to think about the data:  

“We were interested in the main tensions that arise from this data. It is often these discussions around tensions in data that lead us to articulate the needs of students in a way that can serve as a catalyst for change across the university.”  

Danielle Baillargeon, Data Analysis Team Lead

Sitting within tension and pressure points is a crucial part of the design thinking process. Without having these difficult conversations about what data is telling us, the real needs of students can be overlooked.  

Honouring student voices 

Student stories are so precious to us and we believe that the data we hold truly represents the voices of the diverse student community at UofT. We endeavour always to engage with students with diverse identities, circumstances and perspectives. Amplifying student voices across campus provides an opportunity for decision-makers to take action to create change to better meet students ever changing needs.  

By re-examining our data, we’ve been able to develop a set of insights that we feel is representative of a current student perspective or response to our question: What Matters to UofT students? It is important to note, however, that we can not possibly boil the individual experience of each student into a generalized set of themes and principles. Instead, through this work, we can imagine possibilities that celebrate and embrace the diversity & intersectionality of UofT students. 

Embracing a ‘Multi-versity’ 

Our key insight is the idea of embracing a ‘Multi-versity’ at our UofT campus. As a large and decentralized institution, the University of Toronto has the ability to offer diverse opportunities to diverse groups of students with dynamic needs and experiences. Having an institution with multiple identities that reflects our student communities allows these various colleges, campuses, and faculties to better respond to the evolving needs of students. That is why it’s time we embrace our multidimensional landscape.

Johanna Pokorny, our Senior Research Assistant at the Innovation Hub, shared another piece of important finding from this work: 

“Students know the university has so much to offer, but they feel like the onus is on them to navigate this complex and disconnected system. The university often has lots of support in this regard, but it adds to the work of navigating it. However, when students overcome these navigations and learning challenges, they feel empowered.”  

Johanna Pokorny, Senior Research Assistant

Larger universities can be overwhelming for students to navigate on their own, but students want to feel empowered by doing so. By improving access to these resources, students are provided with the space to exercise their self-agency which is an important idea that needs to be explored.  

Our report of findings, entitled What Matters to UofT Students? offers detailed insights about what we found through this analysis, and shares an update on what we now know to be true for each of the five domains of innovation. Our hope is that by sharing these stories, faculty, staff, students, and other community members can be empowered to create change on campus by thinking about these things as they are designing new initiatives, spaces, policies, programs, etc.  

We hope members of the UofT community can reflect on how multiplicity and the capacity to be agentive can be balanced to support students’ self-determination.   

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