Designing Programs for Students, Start with a Student Design Team Feature Story

May 30, 2019

How course registration was made easier through student input from the start

Getty Images – Huffington Post 2013

Much has changed in higher education since the 1980s according to Dr. Bob Bramucci, Vice Chancellor of Technology and Learning for the South Orange County Community College District (SOCCCD).

The sheer number of students attending college has increased exponentially over the years. In fact, more millennials are attending college than any previous generation. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of college-educated young adults with bachelor’s degrees is at its highest yet. Forty percent of millennials in the workforce are more educated that Gen Xers and Baby Boomers during the same points in their careers.

Even something as fundamental as registering for classes has changed dramatically in the last several decades. Dr. Bramucci notes how much that portion of the student experience has changed—when he registered for college in the 1980s, one spent hours registering in person at the gymnasium. Today’s students register online, with the average registration session lasting about three and a half minutes.

In addition—college tuition, technology advances, increased diversity, and learning tools vary greatly for existing students compared to the college environments of Baby Boomers’ and GenXers, who comprise the majority of administrative positions in higher education today.

So when it was time for administrators at SOCCCD to adopt new technology to help students register for classes and connect with faculty and other students online, Dr. Bob Bramucci and his colleagues did not rely upon their college experiences alone. They turned to the subject matter experts—students.

“College is hard,” says Dr. Bramucci. “But registration doesn’t have to be.”

Dating back to 1995, SOCCCD, not unlike other community colleges, put their class schedules online. Back then, the static HTML pages generated in a batch  job each night. Then in 2002, the class schedule was upgraded to the first version of SmartSchedule, adding information from the course catalog, faculty profiles, real-time enrollment data, section-specific deadline dates, and campus maps to highlight the location of classes. In 2004, a shopping cart feature was added, fully integrating with the registration system.

Fast forwarding to 2016, the value of student input was made clear through the creation of a Student Design Team to assist in the development of SmartSchedule 2.0.

Students were sought out to provide input, feedback, and anecdotal information about what they needed to succeed and what features in the registration process could help them in achieving their goals more efficiently. SmartSchedule 2.0 sought to bring information into one place and present it to students in an intuitive and understandable way.

According to Jim Gaston, SOCCCD Director, IT-Academic Systems, the class schedule is a neglected area in higher education technology. “The class schedule is the exact place where students are making important decisions that will impact their future,” says Gaston. “Academic planning is the theoretical path, but the class schedule is the place students sift through what is actually offered and select desired classes.”

Too often, systems are adopted and built in isolation and then integrated after the fact. “Community colleges should encourage academic exploration,” Gaston explains. And SOCCCD IT Administrators are charting new territory and making landmark discoveries through their work with students from the campuses of Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, CA and Irvine Valley College in Irvine, CA.

Students of various genders, ethnic backgrounds, positions in life, areas of study, and career goals have applied, been interviewed, and hired to serve as professional “inputters”. Technically speaking, the job of the students who serve on the Student Design Team is to provide helpful input about the operation of the SmartSchedule amongst other student success tools.

From the design architecture, to the navigation tools, to the wording of each section, students have input on a tool that will influence much of their own college experience.  The bonus for many members of the Student Design Team—the ability to improve the college experience for their peers and future students.

The collaborative process initiates with the design. Step one is the idea, which develops into a prototype and then the iteration begins. Next, faculty and staff participate in brainstorming sessions, which is followed by the development process where students become part of the cooperative endeavor to develop a product that serves their needs.

Images of rough sketches from Student Design Team

After a review of class schedules from other community colleges, brainstorming transpires with the students in the form of a retreat or breakout groups. Collective input is then transferred to rough sketches and designed based on personas, (i.e.) Olivia the Overachiever, Uri the Undecided, Abby the Adult Learner, Ed the Emeritus Student, and the list goes on.

Student Design Team Member Tony Bautista (far left) with breakout group.

Various phases of the demo process occurs, then the infrastructure is developed. From that point in the process, focus groups of real students are structured through outreach efforts led by the Student Design Team.

Tony Bautista, a veteran and what some would consider a non-traditional student, is a key member on the Student Design Team.  Tony returned to school after experiencing great success in the private sector but wanted a change and began a new professional journey at Saddleback College. It was there that he also discovered the opportunity to be hired on the Student Design Team.  As a returning student, Tony serves as a great asset to the team. “Not only can I provide input as a non-traditional student on the Student Design Team, but I can identify with other students like me who meet roadblocks when navigating through college later in life,” said Tony.

The members of the Student Design Team meet weekly with staff leader Jim Gaston and team. Not only to improve upon the design and development of the SmartSchedule, but to fine-tune other products under consideration for SOCCCD’s IT Department. Surprisingly, every student on the design team is not a “techy”. In fact, most were brought to the team with limited knowledge and interest about technology. Kelsey Lillie, a cosmetology student, openly shares that she has little interest in tech development, but thought the opportunity to serve on the design team would be a good experience for her. “I plan to open up a salon after earning my bachelor’s degree in business and then possibly starting my own makeup line,” says Kelsey. “Being a member of the Student Design Team allows me the chance to work with others and learn how to speak the language of administrators who have years of experience in the business world and have earned masters and doctorate degrees,” Kelsey said.

Still shots of the video

On the other hand, Student Design Team member Sam Seifollahi is using the experience to not only meet new people, but to develop new skills. Sam works to record the “how to” video tutorials for the SmartSchedule—an integral marketing tool to ensure that students utilize the SmartSchedule to its full potential.

Student Design Team Member Bita Gheibi during a promotional video shoot of the Student Design Team

Student Design Team member, Bita Gheibi shares similar sentiments with Kelsey and Sam. Getting hired to the Student Design Team not only provided a great job on campus, but exposure to a professional environment. She also feels that the access to high level managers and administrators will help prepare her for the next stages of her college and professional life. “As a member of a team that helps develop student success tools, I feel it will be a great resume builder,” said Bita. In addition, Bita has fun working with the team and IT Department, plus Bita knows that she is making a meaningful impact that will benefit students for years to come.

Now that the SmartSchedule is up and running, the focus has been narrowed on the development of the product, specifically the student involvement portion of the product development process.

With the potential to serve as a replicable model across the nation, SOCCCD’s Student Design Team is an example to other two and four-year institutions about how the student voice, when included early, and infused in every phase of the development process, can serve as an invaluable tool to the colleges to help ensure that the work of staff and faculty meet the needs of students in today’s environment.

The added advantage is that simultaneously, students gain hands on experience in a professional environment and learn transferable skills that can be utilized throughout the rest of their academic and professional careers.

Overall, the everyday work that takes place on a south Orange County community college campus, encapsulates the commitment of community colleges in America—to focus on access, responsiveness to community need, and equity.

About the South Orange County Community College District: SOCCCD serves more than 60,000 students per year through our two colleges, Saddleback College and Irvine Valley College. The district serves nearly one million residents and employs more than 3,000 faculty and staff.