“There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented—or disoriented—than the choice of a major.” (Eric St. John, 2000)
Abby is a senior at the University of Kentucky. In a few months, she will graduate with a major in Integrated Communication Studies (ICS) and transition into a full time role with her current internship employer. Abby loves the field she has chosen and feels it matches well with her personality and interests. But the process of finding the right major was not so smooth. She entered university three and a half years ago without any idea of what she wanted to do and an overwhelming choice of more than 150 majors from which to choose. In her first semester, she chose nursing as one of her options, even though after having shadowed a nurse in the summer, she knew that is not what she wanted to do. It took two years of hit and miss, as well as numerous conversations with her advisor, peers, and parents to settle on ICS as a major. However, many of her peers are not as lucky – they either end up spending 5-6 years in college in order to find the right major and fulfill requirements, or graduate with a major that is not aligned with their personality and career goal.
About 2 million freshmen start university each year in the US. Three out of four of these freshmen tend to change majors at least once during the course of their education, and less than 50% graduate in four years. Switching majors or going undeclared has adverse economic impacts on both students and universities. Each additional year spent deciding majors and fulfilling requirements adds anywhere between $20,000 to $50,000 of academic bills and debt for students. At the same time, prospective students find a university less attractive if the average years to graduation is greater than four.
The University of Kentucky, a long time SAP customer, saw this as an opportunity to leverage technology to assist students with making smarter decisions in university today, so they can excel in their careers tomorrow. Over the past few years, they conducted extensive research with students, advisors and administrators to understand their needs and aspirations. Based on this research, the University of Kentucky developed an application, known as MyUK. This app helps students decide majors based on their interests, find courses within those majors, register for classes, and ensure they fulfill all course requirements.
However, the university felt there was room for further innovation based on the conversations they heard among students, advisors and faculty. All three stakeholders expressed interest in a tool that would help bring them on the same page about a student’s progress and goals through university, and enable them to make better decisions throughout that time. The university asked SAP’s Design Services team, the Design and Co-Innovation Center, to conduct a design thinking workshop with university officials, professors, and advisors to co-innovate the vision for this tool. The workshop, titled “The Future of Degree Planning,” was held on January 21-22, 2016, with over 30 attendees from the University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University, and SAP’s development and account teams.
We started the workshop on the foundation of empathy – teams of participants interviewed students to understand how they made decisions about courses, what tools they used, who they sought input from, the challenges they faced, and what their aspirations for a future system look like. Empathy is the foundation of the design thinking process, and this step allowed the participants to build a shared understanding of how end users experience the problem they were trying to solve.
Conversations with the students highlighted that advisors play a pivotal role in their time at university – most students used a combination of online tools and peer feedback to shortlist courses and majors, and made the final decision based on their advisors’ inputs and their interests. For example, Abby told the group that the human interaction with her advisor was extremely important and irreplaceable when deciding courses. This was a key insight to gain early on as it helped participants redefine the problem from the student and advisors’ perspective. They realized that the ideal technological solution should strengthen the student-advisor relationship and improve the lives of both groups.
Another important point the teams learnt from these conversations was that students juggle multiple responsibilities – classes, school work and assignments, extracurricular activities, and jobs and internships. This makes scheduling a nightmare, and what students really want is a tool that helps them reverse schedule classes based on other commitments like jobs and extracurricular activities.
From there on, participants went on to make empathy maps, write problem statements, create personas, draw storyboards, develop and redevelop prototypes, and envision a truly futuristic solution for degree planning – one that used emerging technologies like smart devices and virtual reality. One team came up with a virtual reality headset that allowed students to experience how micro decisions like classes had a macro impact on careers. Another conceived the “Incredible Enchanted Egg”, a Tamagotchi-like companion that keeps students up-to-date about their upcoming classes and assignments, alerts them when they are lagging behind requirements, helps them plan for their career, and allows them to communicate easily with advisors.
The design thinking process goes through cycles of divergence and convergence. At the end of the second day, every team’s storyboard came together to tell a different piece of the story of a student’s life cycle, starting the summer before freshman year and ending with a successful and timely graduation. The chaos and divergence of day one paved the way for participants to break free of constraints and think big.
The University of Kentucky and SAP are exploring the next step, which is the design phase, to translate the vision developed during the workshop into a working prototype. While the end product might not look like the Incredible Enchanted Egg or a virtual reality headset, it is important to remember that these crazy yet exciting ideas were pivotal in developing a vision for what features and functionality a future product needs to have. It is not necessary that we end up with the Incredible Enchanted Egg (though that future might not be too far away!), but that we end up with a product that does everything the fictional Incredible Enchanted Egg could do. When we shared the vision for the tool with Abby, her reaction was very positive. She said she wished this tool existed four years ago so she could have used a more structured approach to choosing her course of study. At the same time, she felt it could really help students in the future decide their majors early on and graduate on time.