Photo Rose Pascarell (left), Vice President for University Life, Marilyn Smith (center-left), Vice President/Chief Information Officer for Information Technology Services, David Burge (center-right), Vice President for Enrollment Management, and Michelle Marks (right), Vice President of Academic Innovation and New Ventures. George Mason University.

George Mason University: Designing the Ideal Student Experience


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Nov 09, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

Known for its innovative culture, George Mason University is listening to students, faculty and staff, in order to envision the ideal student experience and make it a reality.

George Mason University, located in Fairfax, Virginia, is a young public institution that has been growing rapidly. From 2007 to 2016, the number of enrolled students has gone from 30,332 to 35,189, a 16% increase.

“Our growth is predominantly in our undergraduate student population, which speaks to the strength of the George Mason University degree and about how it is perceived. However, it is also reflective of the Northern Virginia area and its growth in the number of students who are choosing to stay and pursue their undergraduate degrees here,” says David Burge, Mason’s vice president for enrollment management.

Along with the new students came the necessity of rethinking the entire student experience through their eyes: How do students define success and how can the university transform their experience to increase student success? That included updating systems, processes, and the way the university is organized, in order to compensate Mason’s ‘innovation debt.’ It was time to focus on addressing student needs with a holistic approach.

With that idea in mind, Mason’s leadership team created the Student Experience Redesign Project, a three-year initiative with Blackboard as a partner in phase one. The ultimate project goal is to maximize student success at the university. But what exactly would define student success?

Defining Student Success

According to Rose Pascarell, Mason’s vice president for University Life, while many institutions define success as getting students to graduation as well as post-graduate career accomplishment, Mason views it more broadly.

“We want to know that students who complete their degree have discovered their strengths, academically and holistically,” says Pascarell. “Success means that a student leaves us knowing what he or she is passionate about, feels hopeful about life after college and about his or her future. The successful Mason graduate is an engaged citizen, a well-rounded scholar, who is prepared to act.”

To Michelle Marks, vice president of Academic Innovation and New Ventures, besides completing their degrees and progressing into jobs in their careers of choice or getting into graduate school, students should develop intellectually, socially, and personally during their time at Mason, so that they are better prepared to have successful careers and meaningful lives.

Marilyn Smith, vice president/chief information officer for Information Technology Services, wishes for students to have an outstanding service experience from the university and wants the leaders at Mason to have insight into metrics that define that service experience.

David Burge, vice president for Enrollment Management, explains the key metrics that Mason is using in an attempt to quantify student success. “The first is the retention metric: what percentage of all first-year students are likely to return for a second year. The second metric would be their speed to degrees, which is to say how quickly do they earn their degrees, and we pay particular attention here to the four-year and six-year graduation rates. The third is a metric that has to do with affinity and the sense of well-being and belonging, which is something that we measure in numerous points throughout the experience,” says Burge. According to him, in the context of the Student Experience Redesign, Mason wants to be able to show some very immediate and lasting results in those three areas.

The Student Experience Redesign Project

Blackboard was asked to be a partner at the beginning of the project, for which the first step was to understand what delights, difficulties and gaps students were facing in their experience at Mason. In order to do that, Blackboard applied design thinking, the same methodology the company uses when creating new software, in an innovative approach developed specifically for institutional partners. The design thinking methodology was adapted for business purposes by David M. Kelley, founder of design consultancy IDEO, and has seen a resurgence in the last decade. Design thinking helps solve complex, multi-factor problems, by collecting input and insights from those who will benefit most from its results – in Mason’s case, its students.

“Design thinking is a creative process for innovating. We wanted to use an action-oriented, positive approach that would engage many members of our community – students, faculty and staff. We didn’t want this to be a top-down initiative,” says Michelle Marks.

Blackboard’s team went through thousands of survey responses, years of student records and university data, and interviewed many students. Blackboard’s team also conducted workshops with faculty and staff, and experienced campus life through conducting on-campus exercises with students. Analysis of student data and behavior provided a wide picture of the Mason student experience, from which a roadmap for improvement was developed.

“Blackboard’s conversations with hundreds of students, staff and faculty, identified hundreds of gaps – some large and some smaller – that impact the student experience. These gaps ranged from technologically-focused challenges around sharing data across our systems, to a student orientation with information overload, to daytime-only access to critical student services and advising that prevent access to services when and where needed,” says Marks.

On the bright side, Mason has found that their Student Services staff are incredibly devoted to students and go above and beyond to help. “Mason has dedicated talent and it is our job to figure out the best way for all of us to work together across offices, and to serve students in the way that is most helpful to their success,” she adds.

A University-Wide Brainstorming Session

After the Blackboard study, the university promoted a day with 250 people divided into tables, including Mason’s president, senior leaders, professionals from different sectors, faculty and students. “They worked together, and the result of that meeting was to come up with six teams, exactly the way Blackboard recommended: self-service 24/7 student support; first-year student care network; student initiation experiences; student voice; data-driven relationship management; and culture of service. The groups are coming up with recommendations, and by the end of the year, we want to have a multi-year, multi-faceted roadmap developed, which we will implement to achieve our vision for a Mason student experience,” says Marilyn Smith.

The first round of ideas that were generated from this collaborative approach are to be implemented in the coming academic year. “We will implement as many as we can over the next few years – and ideally, in the process, generate a culture that is always thinking about how we can improve the student experience,” says Marks.

A Successful Future

Improving the student experience is also a way of guaranteeing Mason’s sustainability. “Mason is a very young institution, we have not been around much longer than 40 years. There are no generations of Mason patriots – yet. But the better we are at making sure that the students who attend here feel that they have value and that their degree was meaningful, the more likely they are to promote us to somebody else,” says David Burge.

With such motivation to make the students’ journey at the university increasingly more successful, Mason is on its way to becoming more and more, a student-centered institution. “I am very positive and excited about moving forward with this roadmap and I think the culture change – getting our people to be collaborative with each other, and not just to look at single functions, but to step back and look at the students’ needs – is a big thing,” says Marilyn Smith.

To Pascarell, the Student Experience Redesign has the potential to positively impact all students. “The redesign should eliminate many small and large obstacles that keep students from moving forward and should result in quality interactions with the university. The outcome should result in higher persistence and shorter time to completion, and also in greater student satisfaction.”

“We want all of our students to feel part of an inclusive community of learners, educators, and innovators who share in unified holistic practices and experiences,” says Michelle Marks. “We want our students to actively contribute to the evolving vision and expression of the collective Mason experience. And we want them to consistently experience proactive, coordinated, nurturing interactions and services in every part of Mason.”

What Mason’s Students Want

1. A positive college experience

2. To feel connected to their university

3. To be challenged in their learning

4. To get their degree, and most of them are willing to work hard for it

5. To participate actively in the workings of the university

6. To make sure their money used in tuition is being well spent

7. To have their voices heard

8. Transparency

What Mason Wants

1. To improve the entire Mason initiation (first year) experience

2. To create a network of support around each and every student

3. To provide online service 24/7 for transactions that can be handled without the need of a direct service appointment

4. To generate a culture that is always thinking about how the student experience may be improved


Photos by: AFP – Tasos Katopodis