Because Experiences Matter, Universities Are (should be) Design Organizations

Experiences can be good or bad, and given the ubiquity of communication, stories about those experiences are told nearly every second of every day

The “business,” if you will, of higher education is to provide learners with transformative experiences.

Or it should be.

This is perhaps a controversial statement. To be sure, there are a number of different and contrastive if not competitive ideas about what a university is and should be. Each has a long and specific history. Think here only of the tension between research and teaching. Or of the English, Scottish, and German systems’ impact on the development of US higher education. Or of this country’s most significant contribution to models of higher education, the public land-grant institution (we can also worry about my use of “higher education” and “university” interchangeably).

As an early-career faculty member engaged in my first curriculum effort, one of my senior colleagues argued that the curriculum should consist of courses grounded in the expertise of faculty. There should be a Faculty A course, a Faculty B course (or two), and so on. This was a popular idea. Commonplace even.

The idea might reflect an even deeper notion about how a university achieves good outcomes (i.e., transformative experiences): hire great (good, even) faculty and let them take care of the business.

This isn’t a terrible idea. Faculty are central to the business of a university, if not higher education (there are some models of higher education in which this isn’t the case). Yet this way of thinking, implicit or explicit, is insufficient.

To provide transformative experiences as the core value and reason to attend university entails a completely new design stance that might play out something like this:

1. The university is an experience (or a complex set of articulated experiences).

2. Experiences are extremely difficult to commodify (this is good! and why we might focus on them as suggested here)

3. Experiences are long (4 years) and short (a single class session), and all experiences matter.

4. Experiences can be good or bad, and given the ubiquity of communication, stories about those experiences are told nearly every second of every day (e.g., Hey #Delta my flight is delayed!!)

5. Experiences can be designed.

6. We should design transformative experiences.

7. Universities are design organizations.

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