What can empathy teach us?

We could all learn something by looking at the student experience from a student perspective, says Lenovo’s Sam Morris

The festive period is over, and a new year begins. If you’re anything like me, your best-laid plans and resolutions could be quickly over-taken by fire-fighting and routine tasks. Sadly, it’s too easy for day-to-day realities to deflect our focus from what we all work so hard to achieve: bringing value to the campus and the learning experiences it breeds.

Whenever I fall victim to the ‘big machine’, with its meetings and pressure and tasks, I make an effort to hang out in a real-life classroom environment. Only then do I get to see what a great catapult to new and different learning experiences technology can be. I also witness first-hand the interaction between students and teachers. The insight is invigorating, and revealing.

So, here’s a question for the commercial side of the house: how often do you walk in the shoes of students – or equally, faculty? ‘Never’ is not the answer your HE institution needs.

If I think back to what I wanted from university as an undergraduate in 1987, my expectations mirrored those of my current counterparts: to explore learning outside a structured curriculum. Throughout their primary and secondary education, students are led by teachers to follow fixed courses and progress as a group. HE provided me with greater freedom to study on my own terms.

Now of course, that freedom is exponentially enhanced by connectedness and the internet’s reach. 21st century students have far greater tools and choice to branch out beyond the campus and define not just what they study – but how, where and even when. The old limitations have been removed, including the formality of engagement with faculty.

Intimacy and flexibility shape the connected learning experience, meaning today’s mentors must be accessible across different platforms, technologies and locations. Asynchronous communication via email or discussion threads on Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) is just as common as synchronous communication through Skype or chat apps. Out-of-hours, off-campus, on-demand: each is fair game. Faculty’s early adopters will always keep up – but it’s the responsibility of HE’s commercial professionals to support the infrastructure that makes such engagement possible. And to do so in a way that ensures teaching staff retain the balance and control to concentrate on their own academic research.

Earlier this year, LinkedIn invited over 80 of its Influencers to post stories to a series entitled If I Were 22. Continuing that theme, what advice would I give my younger self, were I starting my university days now? Push the boundaries of what the curriculum dictates; challenge the expectations of your degree; look for guidance on social networks; draw heavily on the experience of alumni and peers.

But the wisdom works both ways. Last month, Grant Wiggins, the renowned educational reformist, wrote affectingly about a teacher who spent two days shadowing 10th and 12th grade students at a High School in the US: “I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done in my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of 10 things.”*

If you could afford yourself the opportunity of taking a ‘walkabout’ among students and faculty, what would empathy teach you – and how would you apply the lessons learned? Maybe 2015 is the time to find out.

Sam Morris is Worldwide Education Executive at Lenovo.

W: https://www.lenovo.com/uk/en/