By Ryan Girves
It’s a simple, but potentially powerful idea: directly involving students in developing technology and innovation that will enhance learning and a sense of connectedness on campus. That was the idea behind the experience three University of Kentucky students recently had in traveling to Apple's Enterprise Design Lab in California.
There, they participated in the development of an iOS app that will help new students transition to life at UK as part of the university’s Smart Campus initiative that begins rolling out this summer when the university will distribute iPad Air devices to all Fall 2019 first-year students during summer orientations and at K Week, UK's fall semester welcome week. The new app will be available in 2020.
Using their personal experiences at the university, the students believe the new app will have a significant and positive impact on the campus community by building a strong foundation for students through the use of technology.
"I believe it has the potential to absolutely revolutionize the student experience at UK. The hope is that it will increase interconnectivity on campus, bringing more harmony and opportunity to the student body," said Asare Nkansah (BSCS 2019), a computer science doctoral student in the College of Engineering and one of the three students who worked with Apple. "This opportunity also allowed us to advocate for more communication between faculty and students. The application will allow incoming freshmen to get to know their advisors and potential mentors on a deeper level before they even arrive at the university. Most importantly, this opportunity has opened the door for more potential collaborations moving forward."
In addition to Nkansah, the other participating students were Claire Hilbrecht, an undergraduate student in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, and Destin Bell, an undergraduate student in the Gatton College of Business and Economics.
Specifically, they worked directly with the Apple development team and a number of UK officials, serving as a sounding board and providing developers with ample feedback on what they believe freshmen will need to succeed in their new environment.
"When we arrived, they split the entire process up into three parts over the course of three days," Nkansah explained. "They informed us that the students would be the 'users' and that the entirety of the three days would be centered around the needs of the student body."
The students described issues or "pain points" facing students — like finding a sense of belonging, mental wellness, academic resources and advising — and worked to create potential solutions to those pain points. Once a draft of the app was created, the students critiqued the app, focusing on content, student appeal and functionality, keeping in mind the diverse backgrounds of the campus community.
By the end of their visit, a prototype of the app was finalized, one that all three students were pleased with.
"I am glad that the university has recognized the value in this new method of product development, and thus made moves to prioritize student voices in this initiative," Hilbrecht said. “I look forward to seeing how they continue to engage students in future initiatives at UK."
The university sees student involvement with this process as a means of improving learning. Through leveraging the power of technology and student collaboration, the university is able to address a number of real-life obstacles facing students across a single, cutting edge, digital platform.
“The world our students will enter after graduation is increasingly defined by the ability to successfully understand and utilize technology,” said Eric N. Monday, UK’s executive vice president for finance and administration, who is helping lead the Smart Campus initiative. “UK can and should be a leader in creating not only a level playing field for all of our students in this important space, but also how we adapt and use technology to enhance learning, improve student outcomes, and apply it to other important issues, such as well-being and health care.”
Together, these three students have begun to pave the way for the future of teaching and learning at the university. While the campus community will soon gain an innovative new app, Nkansah, Hilbrecht and Bell will walk away with a new perspective on the university.
"From this experience, I got a real sense UK faculty and staff are committed to bettering the experience for students beyond just improving retention numbers," Bell said. "They legitimately want students at UK to thrive and make their college experience as efficient and effective as possible."
"It’s difficult to explain how important this experience has been, and will continue to be, on my overall outlook on life," Nkansah said. "UK’s sole focus is to find ways to enhance the student experience and allow them to be in a better position to succeed in the future. When we focus on how we can help others reach the next level, true success can be obtained for those being invested in."