Colleges form alliance to support student-designed learning

At a convention on the future of learning in 2019, a handful of voices stood out to Philomena Mantella.

The newly appointed president of Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, had used the week of her inauguration to bring together philanthropists, educators and advocates to discuss innovation in higher education. But when the attendees gathered in small discussion groups, Mantella found some of the most insightful thinking came from the students.

“What really became clear is the students talking about their own personal experience and what they needed for success and what they were looking for in an institution was the most compelling element of the program,” Mantella said.

Those interactions inspired Mantella to create a formal pathway for students to help design the future of learning, focused on equity and inclusivity. The result is REP4, an alliance of six colleges and universities that will pilot student-designed programming addressing issues such as access and retention to higher education.

Students in an early pilot at Grand Valley State focused on developing ways to connect their classroom experience to their life after college — from personal finances to networking to finding a career.

Details about the consortium were released to The Associated Press ahead of a virtual press conference announcing it Thursday.

The participating schools are Grand Valley State, Amarillo College in Texas, Boise State University in Idaho, San Jose State University in California, Fort Valley State University in Georgia, and Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. The name, REP4, stands for “rapid education prototyping,” and students will design programming to be tested and implemented at each school.

“Students need to feel ownership of their own learning, but often traditional practices and requirements stifle their participation,” San Jose State University President Mary A. Papazian said in a statement. “We believe REP4 will empower students to create a climate in which all students feel a sense of belonging.”

Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, praised the consortium for creating a systematic way to include student voices when addressing issues such as retention, access and diversity. He noted that each of the six schools serve a diverse range of students, many of whom are underrepresented in higher education.

“The students who are often least listened to are those who have less standing, less privilege in the system than others. This is an attempt to really create institutions by, for and with those students,” Mitchell said.

Last summer, Grand Valley State hosted a six-week Learner Engagement Challenge for 23 high school students from the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area to test out the model. Students learned the elements of design thinking and entrepreneurship before trying to come up with answers to this question: “How might we create equitable and inclusive future-focused learning experiences in high school or college?”

Two prototypes came out of that workshop and are now being piloted at Grand Valley State. The first is a life-readiness class that teaches skills around financial literacy, networking and academic structure — hurdles that often impact first-generation college students who do not have parental support to navigate the transition to college. The lessons will be incorporated into one of the university’s six-week summer programs for first-year students.

The second is a curriculum meant to connect what high school students learn in the classroom with possible career paths. Elements of that curriculum will be incorporated into a summer program the school hosts to prepare high school juniors and seniors for college.

Jordan Bernal, now a freshman at Grand Valley State, was one of the student designers who developed the life skills curriculum. Bernal said first-generation college students like himself often struggle to find and take advantage of resources and scholarships once they enroll. He said he hopes the skills program can help all students make a smoother transition to college.

“We didn’t have our parents or anybody else in our family that tell us about these things,” Bernal said. “Building this prototype really just came from our worries being high school seniors going into college, knowing that it’s a big step.”

Julian Sanders, a Grand Valley State senior who was a mentor in last summer’s challenge, said the solutions the students came up with would have filled a gap in his own college experience. While high school taught him how to succeed in a classroom, he said he struggled with other aspects of the college transition.

“It was really about understanding what students wanted out of their education,” he said. “How can we put together a curriculum that will prepare students for that?”

Each of the participating schools will run their own versions of the design-thinking workshop before sharing and implementing the ideas students develop.

High school students who complete the program are guaranteed admission into any of the six schools, Mantella said, where they may even participate in the curriculums they design.

“Let’s listen to the learners, their needs and their lived experience to determine how our systems need to adapt rather than how they need to fit into our system,” Mantella said.

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Ma reported from Charlotte, North Carolina. She covers education and equity for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/anniema15

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The Associated Press’ reporting around issues of race and ethnicity is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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