Using Technology and Design Thinking to Meet Every Learner Wherever They Are

Jacqueline Smith | August 13, 2020 | Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents

Although today’s circumstances are abnormally challenging, students’ lives have always been complex, even more so for students who are parents. At Arizona State University, we are focusing on technology-enhanced, human-centered education to ensure that no matter how complicated the world gets, we can meet all learners wherever they are and however they choose to study.

As college enrollments tipped into comprising primarily “nontraditional” students, a category that includes parents, degree programs didn’t keep pace with the diverse conditions confronting them. Exclusivity and rigidity became the norm, despite not serving the changing needs of society. It’s no wonder that almost three-quarters of part-time students drop out or that 30 million U.S. adults have some college credit but no degree.

To decisively contribute to the collective good, colleges and universities are overdue to accommodate these learners – a need exacerbated by the pandemic. Like workplaces, we haven’t gone far enough to provide flexibility for parents – especially mothers – to balance the demands of office (or classroom) and home life. School and daycare closures have only increased caregiving responsibilities. Thankfully, there are growing calls for greater choice in determining how one’s work and family fit together, at least for some segments of the population. Our higher education system can seize this moment and put forth solutions that benefit everyone who seeks to build her or his future, at any age or stage in life.

At ASU, technological enhancements have proven to be powerful tools in the fight.

For all five years that the category has existed, ASU was named the most innovative university by U.S. News and World Report. We have received this honor for a variety of reasons, perhaps most notably due to our unapologetic approach to integrating technology to make education more personal, accessible, adaptable, and resilient.

Our investment in digital infrastructure was critical in our ability to quickly transition nearly 80,000 students to fully remote instruction in March when the coronavirus pandemic forced our campuses to close. Coupling lessons from ASU Online, our virtual university, means we can offer on-campus students more options come fall, including:

  • In-person coursework;
  • iCourses, which are designed to be taken entirely online and students can watch on their own schedule; and
  • ASU Sync, which offers the benefits of face-to-face instruction in an interactive environment.

Over the summer, we equipped or enhanced more than 800 physical learning spaces with equipment, including 375 which were permanently installed. As a result, that faculty can deliver live lectures via videoconference while students who are either in the classroom or on Zoom can see what’s written on whiteboards and ask questions in real-time, regardless of location.

We also recognize that many student parents who were already working or going to school themselves have been tasked with providing education for their children at home. We launched ASU for YOU as a free community resource for all ages. It includes sample daily schedules for families with younger and older students as well as student parents with links to curriculum content developed by our Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Similarly, our new ASU Family Hub is intended to bring together various opportunities in a “one-stop” support system that is not only convenient, but also provides a cohesive menu of services. Likewise, we received a grant to expand our Sunny chatbot to reach parents and to offer help in Spanish for the first time. Informed by a student parent focus group and participants in ASU’s Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program, the texting app provides 24/7 answers about financial aid, child care, support groups, career resources, and more without having to leave the house or wait in a line.

“We know [nontraditional students]…are balancing all the aspects of their lives. For parents, their children are their priority,” said ASU Assistant Vice President for Outreach Lorenzo Chavez. “So how do we bring ASU assets directly to them? How do we make that accessible for them and in a format they are comfortable with?”

As the fall semester approaches and the idea of a campus extends into pioneering virtual realms, we’re increasingly asking ourselves and our peers these questions.

We know that technology alone won’t provide elements of connection and community that are integral to a successful college experience, so we’re thinking about what we call “Human Systems Engineering,” too. This human-centered methodology introduces psychology to align design interfaces and information systems with human capabilities and limits – including those brought on by shelter-in-place orders and financial shocks. Because why create programs that don’t actually work for humans in their day-to-day?

Our core mission is to provide access to excellent education for all people who seek to improve their lives – and the lives of those that depend on them. Being caught in a moment in history shouldn’t change either priority.

When Olivia Rines, a doctoral candidate and one of the 11,000 parenting students attending ASU across our campuses and online, founded the Sun Devil Student-Parent Network, she said her work to support others in her situation was “my baby … in addition to my actual baby.”

Higher education should approach its own endeavors with the same level of care and responsibility. Let’s continue to share best practices so we’re able to nurture our collective capacity and acclimate our culture and programs to meet real-life needs for the long-haul – regardless if future times are of strength or instability.

Jacqueline Smith is a higher education designer and strategist. She serves as Vice President at the Arizona State University Foundation for a New American University and Professor of Practice in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU. She is a National Advisor with the Ascend Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative.

Photo provided by ASU Now. Copyright: Arizona Board of Regents

Related Posts

Today, Ascend at the Aspen Institute announced that eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) have joined its Black and Native Family Futures Fund.
Press ReleasesDecember 13, 2022
Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin was taught to always take care of those around her, but didn’t always see education as a way of doing so After dropping out of school and later finding herself incarcerated and pregnant, Yolanda became determined to change the course of her life. Once she was released, Yolanda focused on establishing a relationship …

‘1 in 5’ Season 2 Episode 5: Meet Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsDecember 1, 2022
Drayton Jackson experienced homelessness for almost 20 years. Today, Drayton utilizes his lived experience to advocate for others in a similar position—but it wasn’t always easy adjusting to having a seat at the table. Drayton, now the father of eight, is setting boundaries and goals for himself to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Along with …

‘1 in 5’ Season 2 Episode 4: Catching up with Drayton Jackson Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsDecember 1, 2022
1 in 5 Student Parent Podcast
Soren’s interest in higher education has always been rooted in an interest in the environment, even from childhood. As an adult, after struggling with their own mental health, Soren became interested in psychology, and pursued jobs in the medical field, but was soon discouraged by the for-profit medical system. Soren went through challenging transitions in …

‘1 in 5’ Season 2 Episode 3: Meet Soren Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsDecember 1, 2022
Ignacio Angel has decided to define for himself what success looks like as a college student and father of four. The for-profit trade school he went to, which was later investigated for preying on vulnerable students, never delivered on promises of a job, and landed him in debt. With Lilly’s help, he found a support …

‘1 in 5’ Season 2 Episode 2: Meet Ignacio Angel Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsDecember 1, 2022
Dr. Daria Willis brings her extensive education and her own experience as a student parent to her role as president of Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. Daria had her daughter, Lyric, during her first year in college. She shares how keenly she felt the social stigma of being a single parent. It took a …

‘1 in 5’ Season 2 Episode 1: Meet Daria Willis Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsDecember 1, 2022
Today, Ascend at the Aspen Institute (Ascend) released the second season of “1 in 5,” its highly rated podcast that explores the multifaceted lives of the one in five college students raising children.
Press ReleasesDecember 1, 2022
1 in 5 Student Parent Podcast
The 1 in 5 podcast vividly profiles students who are parents pursuing their education while raising a family and working. Today, more than one in five college students (22%) are parents. The experiences of students who are parents should not be unfamiliar or unheard, especially on college campuses. They’re in classrooms and clubs, working jobs and managing finances just like their peers.
BlogDecember 1, 2022
In an op-ed written for Early Learning Nation, 2023 Ascend Parent Advisor, Mikah Jorgensen, shares her personal experience and expertise offering 5 ideas and recommendations for postsecondary institutions to make higher education more supportive of parenting students.
Media MentionsOctober 6, 2022
Today, Ascend at the Aspen Institute (Ascend) announced that 11 new Parent Advisors have joined its Postsecondary Success for Parents initiative (PSP) to help shape Ascend’s expanded agenda to improve higher education policy and practice for student parents.
Press ReleasesSeptember 29, 2022
More than half of the nearly 4 million student parents in the U.S. are students of color, with Black, Native, and Latino students among the most likely to be raising children while in college. In fact, one-third of all Black college students in the U.S. are parents. When higher education is not designed with parents …

A Leadership Imperative: Postsecondary Success for Parents Launches Its Next Phase Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsSeptember 29, 2022
In an op-ed for Philanthropy News Digest, Ascend founder and executive director Anne Mosle highlights the power and potential in listening to and honoring the expertise of parents and caregivers.
Media MentionsAugust 22, 2022
In an article for Lumina Foundation's summer 2022 Focus magazine, Ascend's David Croom offers insight into the power of student parents' commitment to success for themselves and their families.
Media MentionsAugust 3, 2022
In an op-ed for, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez shares insights and reflections on how higher ed can make a difference for families by supporting student parents.
Media MentionsJuly 29, 2022
RFP for HBCUs and TCUs to apply for funding and technical assistance to support student parent success on their campuses One in five college students – close to 4 million – is pursuing higher education while parenting. More than half are students of color, with Black and Native students more likely to be balancing school …

Ascend’s New Family Futures Fund Focuses on Black and Native Student Parent Success Read More »

Aspen Postsecondary Success for ParentsJuly 20, 2022