Saul Kaplan is Chief Catalyst, Business Innovation Factory. BIF creates real world laboratories where organizations can design, prototype, and test new models for delivering value. BIF’s mission is to enable business model and system level innovation in areas of high social impact, including health care, education, energy, and entrepreneurship.

KCH: One component of the Business Innovation Factory is the Student Experience Lab – a “platform to help higher education transform itself”. What was the original motivation for this venture? What problems in higher education do you believe need attention?

SL:  BIF is about transformational change. We believe our important social systems including education must be transformed not tweaked.  Tweaks will not provide us with the 21st century education system that we all want and need. Our current education system is well intentioned but was designed for an industrial era that no longer exists. The current U.S. post-secondary education system does not deliver, at sufficient scale or affordable price, a high-quality college experience that prepares all students with the skills they need to fully participate in the 21st century global economy.  All of the stakeholders in the current system are working incredibly hard to improve but tweaks are not enough.  But how do we create a new system while we are simultaneously trying to pedal the bicycle of the current system? Throwing technology and new point solutions at the current system won’t work. Pointing fingers, blaming each other isn’t helping. At BIF, we believe the way to transform the current system is to do real world experimentation of new system configurations designed around the student.  We need to demonstrate that new system approaches can work and scale to catalyze transformation.  BIF’s Student Experience Lab is a real world platform to experiment with transformational education solutions, models, and systems.

KCH: How has the higher education sector responded to the initiative thus far? 

SL:  The response from innovators in higher ed has been amazing. BIF seeks out innovators that are receptive to experimentation and trying new approaches.  Many of the higher ed leaders we have connected with are very interested in how to bring the voice and experience of the student to the center of the higher ed innovation conversation. There has been a lot of interest in our Student Experience Lab work funded by Lumina to map the environmental and human factors that are the most significant drivers of the college student experience.  The response has also been inspiring to our work with College Board to better understand and develop opportunities to enhance the educational experiences of young men of color.

KCH: There are many approaches to fostering innovation within organizations. What is the approach taken by the Student Experience Lab? 

SL:  There are six core principles that inform our approach in BIF’s Student Experience Lab:

  • Put the student at the center. Student voice and experience should drive the innovation process.
  • Leverage the power of design thinking and process. Design can discover, challenge, and prototype new terrain.
  • Try more stuff. Experiment all the time. Innovators are experimenters. We tinker.
  • Explore adjacencies. The gold is in the grey areas between sectors, silos, and disciplines.
  • Rally the unusual suspects. New ideas and approaches will not come from meetings and more meetings with the same usual suspects.
  • Storytelling creates strong emotional connections to new ideas. Storytelling is magic.

KCH: The logic of working with students to capture their insights about higher education is clear. But how do you then translate these insights from students – who rarely have a direct means of spurring innovation in higher education – into changes in the way that colleges operate? 

SL: At BIF we not only believe student experience should inform the innovation process but that students should be at the center of the design and implementation process as well.  What if we put students in the driver’s seat of a new kind of R&D to transform higher education. One that provided a platform for engaging students more fully in a real world effort that also involved faculty, and university administrators. At BIF we believe student centered design can not only improve a student’s education experience but that it can also be a catalyst to transform higher education itself.  We recently piloted BIF’s Student-Driven Participatory Design Studio with students at Utah State University. The process and results have been inspiring.  Student centered design works.

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