George Mason’s Journey to the Ideal Student Experience


The most rewarding moments in my job as a higher ed consultant are those in which I learn from my clients. I’m a big believer in collaboration, and it’s through the exchange of ideas with our partners that our services have evolved and expanded over the years.

Last year was no exception: our team was awarded an important engagement with George Mason University, located in Fairfax, Virginia.

The Challenge for Mason

The challenge for Mason was what we call “innovation debt.” As the institution grew rapidly to serve 34,000 students over the last 40 years, its infrastructure, processes, and organizational structure did not always support all student needs. As a result, the student experience suffered. The Mason leadership team set out to fix this problem and Blackboard was asked to help with Phase I of a three-year project.

We set out to detail the ideal student experience using an innovative approach we developed specifically for our institutional partners. The methodology is a combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis, supported by tenets of design thinking and human-centered design.

In a typical consulting engagement, a team of analysts tackle the research phase armed with primary surveys, PowerPoints with plenty of pie charts, and process pyramids. The quantitative inputs become the essential ingredients in delivering the work, bringing broad data-driven insights to the strategic plan, each statistically significant and validated across named sources. But Mason, an institution known for its innovative culture, was interested in employing our unique design-thinking approach.

Our Design Thinking Approach to Understanding the Student Experience

Design thinking has seen a great resurgence in the last several years. The approach is gaining attention in the higher education arena because it helps solve complex, multi-factor problems by leveraging input and insights from the people who will most benefit from its results. Through its core tenets of immersion, empathy, and iteration, design thinking ensures that the challenges faced by students are understood at a human-to-human level, not assumed or extracted from a research statistic.

Leveraging our customized take of the design thinking approach, we kicked off the project by tapping into thousands of survey responses, years of student records, and file upon file of University data. We also met with hundreds of students, conducted over 40 hours of one-on-one interviews, led five half-day faculty and staff workshops, and experienced campus for several weeks at a time, including orientation. The combination of data-driven and behavior-driven insights provided a much more complete picture of the Mason student experience.

What’s more, the stories we heard not only validated the data but also brought to life the factors that can truly make a difference in the education experience—factors and details that may have otherwise been overlooked.

The Insights Gained From Our Work

Last summer, we produced a video with the Mason team that was shown on the mainstage of our BbWorld conference in July. In the interview, Mason’s CIO Marilyn Smith said, “I think from the design thinking project, we’re going to have data that helps us understand behaviors, and I don’t think we had a lot of that before.” It was, in fact, these behavioral insights that elevated the results of this project to a set of recommendations that Mason could move forward into project plans and initiatives, many of which kick off this year.

Looking back, I see again how important it is to take a collaborative approach on behalf of our clients. No project is alike; every university has unique challenges. From working with Mason, and with many others, I have seen the tremendous value in adopting both a qualitative and quantitative approach to redesigning the student experience. Together, we successfully found the best of both worlds.


Want to know more about how George Mason defines their ideal student experience and their plans for making that vision a reality? Hear more in our recent webinar, Defining the Ideal Student Experience, From Application to Graduation.