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Design thinking and higher education

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All semester long, stu­dents in School of Archi­tec­ture director George Thrush’s “Under­standing Design” class have been exposed to the idea of design thinking—a method­ology that refers to a set of prin­ci­ples, from mindset to process, that can be applied to solve com­plex prob­lems. While stu­dents in Thrush’s class have used this method­ology to approach archi­tec­tural design chal­lenges, it’s also applic­able across society and used by inno­v­a­tive businesses.

With this “big pic­ture” per­spec­tive in mind, Thrush said it was fit­ting that Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun served as the final guest lec­turer in his class last Thursday. To begin the con­ver­sa­tion, Aoun asked stu­dents a simple ques­tion about higher edu­ca­tion: “What’s on your mind?”

One by one, stu­dents raised their hands and listed a range of timely topics they often dis­cuss, including online edu­ca­tion, the rising costs of higher edu­ca­tion, tran­si­tioning from col­lege to the job market, and the university’s increasing global pres­ence. Impressed with the thoughtful approach, Aoun noted that all of these con­cepts are part of the trans­for­ma­tion cur­rently underway in higher education.

Speaking to about 50 stu­dents in an Inter­na­tional Vil­lage class­room, Aoun explained that this trans­for­ma­tion is due largely to glob­al­iza­tion and tech­no­log­ical advance­ment. “Tech­nology is changing the way we’re looking at infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge,” Aoun said, holding up an iPad to demon­strate his point. Glob­al­iza­tion, he con­tinued, affects all busi­nesses, big and small; as an example, he said a small com­pany in Boston might feel the impact of glob­al­iza­tion through the fluc­tu­a­tion of com­modi­ties and global energy prices.

This trans­for­ma­tion, Aoun explained, is leading higher edu­ca­tion to bifur­cate into two models: the tra­di­tional col­lege model with smaller classes, faculty-​​student inter­ac­tion, and the campus expe­ri­ence; and a mass approach to edu­ca­tion like that of Coursera, a leading plat­form for Mas­sive Open Online Courses. (On Wednesday, Coursera co-​​founder Daphne Koller served as the keynote speaker in the latest install­ment of the “Pro­files in Inno­va­tion” Pres­i­den­tial Speaker Series.)

MOOCs, Aoun said, are increas­ingly forcing col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties to explain their value to stu­dents, par­tic­u­larly as col­lege costs rise. For North­eastern, those dif­fer­en­tia­tors include its experiential-​​education model, with its sig­na­ture co-​​op pro­gram; use-​​inspired research, par­tic­u­larly in the areas of health, secu­rity, and sus­tain­ability; and the launch of grad­uate cam­puses in Char­lotte, N.C., and Seattle, Wash. which offers degree pro­grams in strategic areas of increasing demand such as cyber­se­cu­rity and health informatics.

More than 90 per­cent of North­eastern grad­u­ates from 2006 through 2011 were employed full-​​time or enrolled in grad­uate school within nine months after grad­u­a­tion. The real-​​world expe­ri­ence stu­dents gain through the inte­gra­tion of co-​​op and class­room learning, Aoun said, is a major con­tributing factor in giving North­eastern grad­u­ates an edge in pur­suing suc­cessful careers.

Aoun also said North­eastern ded­i­cates abun­dant resources to con­tin­u­ally expand its entre­pre­neur­ship ecosystem. Like a new ven­ture, Aoun said the uni­ver­sity is con­stantly evolving; he noted that he likes to think of North­eastern as a startup that began in 1898.

“If we do busi­ness as usual, we’re going to miss many oppor­tu­ni­ties,” he said. “No one can play it safe in this world, not even universities.”