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How to center learners in education design: 4 strategies for an equity-centered approach

Learners share their stories during a design session at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina. We started off the initial sessions with community circles to hear from each design team member to create an inclusive space, build trust, and see each other as equals.
A design session at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
A design session at Lonestar Community College-Tomball in Texas.
A design session with students at Arlington Career Center in Arlington, Virginia.
What we’ve learned while designing dual enrollment pathways with high school students

By Ivan Lui, Education Designer at Education Design Lab

In today’s evolving landscape of higher education, fostering equity must not just be a goal but a core value.

At the Education Design Lab, we believe true equity can only be achieved when those most affected by systemic barriers are actively involved in the design of solutions. That’s why we’re redefining the role of learners in shaping the future of community colleges across the nation: from passive recipients of education to active architects of change.

Started in June 2023, the goal of the Designers in Residence 2.0: Accelerating Pathways program is to build sustainable, regional partnerships designed to support Black and Hispanic/Latino students, and students from low-income backgrounds, to complete an associate degree one year after high school graduation.

We’re partnering with six community colleges to revamp their dual enrollment pathway programs. Our approach? Inclusive innovation through equity-centered design, with students at the forefront.

Through the equity-centered design process, the college shares decision-making power with students and stakeholders from K-12, employers, government, community organizations, other higher ed institutions, and families. It also centers learner voices to understand the root issues from those most proximate to the problems.

Finally, students are part of the collaborative effort that encourages innovation among the diverse stakeholders. Students told us they felt seen, heard, and valued — a stark contrast to the often-dismissed voices of youth. By including students in our design teams, we tapped into their lived experiences, insights, and creativity, amplifying their role as experts in their own education.

“One word to describe my experience on the regional design team is empowering. I feel like I’m actually making a difference, I matter, my experiences matter, my opinions matter. I feel so connected with the group. I feel like I’m doing amazing things.” — Freya Olson (pictured second from right), dual enrollment student at Arlington Career Center and Northern Virginia Community College

 

Why don’t more institutions engage students in this way?

Adultism, the negative stereotypes and assumptions that adults often hold about youth, can create significant hurdles in the path to meaningful student engagement. Along with other forms of bias, these preconceived notions may lead to the dismissal of student voices or the underestimation of their capacity to contribute meaningfully to decision-making processes. A lack of know-how in effectively engaging students can also make it difficult for colleges seeking to adopt more inclusive practices. Establishing authentic relationships with students, sharing power and privilege, and collaborating with multiple stakeholders require skills that staff might not be trained in.

And it’s not that colleges don’t engage learners, but oftentimes, institutions are used to identifying a problem, coming up with solutions for the problem, and THEN asking students (perhaps their student employees or student government) what they think of the solutions. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but it’s more powerful if students can be part of identifying the problem, affirming that it is a problem, and co-designing the solutions.

Furthermore, for institutions that are already overworked and stretched thin, finding the time and resources required to engage students in a meaningful and impactful way can seem impossible. With competing priorities and limited bandwidth, dedicating the necessary time and attention to fostering genuine student involvement can seem like a nice-to-have rather than a priority. However, amplifying the voices of students and integrating their perspectives into the decision-making processes is the right way because it creates more innovative, effective, and equitable solutions.

Knowing all of this, here’s how we approach our design challenge:

We include students on the design teams: First, we crafted design sessions that included and centered students. We asked (and strong-armed if necessary) our colleges to identify and invite students and their families to be on the regional design teams. Not all colleges were up to the task: at one of our sessions, we had to go find students in the building at the last minute. Overall, there were anywhere from three to 14 students participating with each college.

We create inclusive spaces through storytelling: We started off the initial sessions with community circles to hear from each design team member (but especially students, who aren’t often given a voice in these places) to create an inclusive space, build trust, and see each other as equals. Everyone was asked to share about their personal connections, identity, and bias they brought to the team. It was inspiring for the teams to hear about the diversity of life experience and assets represented. However, it was also humbling to hear story after story of people experiencing systemic barriers to reaching their own educational goals. All this created a common sense of belonging and resolve to work together to do better.

We ask students about their goals + barriers: In the Understand/Empathize phase of the equity-centered design process, we made the students the focus, so we could truly understand the root issues they faced. We started off with basic questions for students in the room: What goals and dreams do you have for your future? What might block you from reaching them? What supports, resources, or guidance would you need? Their answers prompted further questions and discussions by the whole regional design teams, which then guided the development of the problem statement. A problem statement is a tool that helps us understand the root causes of the symptoms we see so we can find the right solutions, and each design team came up with a specific one for their region and context. Hearing directly from students holds everyone accountable to address the problems they are facing, not with band-aids and window dressing, but with effective and innovative solutions.

We offer stipends: Finally, we recognized the value of compensating students for their time and expertise. By offering stipends, we affirmed the worth of their contributions and perspectives, ensured that financial constraints didn’t prevent them from participating, and empowered them by giving them ownership of their voice and experiences. Students were not just passive participants but active contributors, shaping policies and practices that directly impact their educational journey.

What’s the impact so far?

Even as we are months away from launching new dual enrollment pathways programs at our colleges, we have already seen the impact from our efforts to engage students. The prototypes developed have been innovative, including aligning college and high school start dates, student-ambassador-led outreach events, college-staffed dual-enrollment centers on high school campuses, and cohort-style support groups. Our colleges, their stakeholder partners, and their communities have been energized by this process.

A few of our designers are already imitating our methods and adopting equity-centered design to address other systemic problems on their campuses. For example, Forsyth Technical Community College in N.C. is leading a campus-wide design session to focus on the success of their entire student body. And Lone Star College – Tomball in Texas created a Quest for Innovation Design Summit to improve campus spaces with learner ideas.

“When you really think about it, it makes so much sense to involve students in solving problems that directly affect them and their peers. They offer such a unique perspective and can identify aspects of the problem that we, as faculty and staff, might miss.” — Dr. Jackie Thomas, Vice President of Student Success, Lone Star College-Tomball

 

Education Design Lab is ready to support you in your college’s efforts to elevate learner voices and co-create equitable solutions. Together, we can transform higher education into a space where every student feels valued, empowered, and heard.

 

Ivan Lui brings a unique mix of experience in intentional design, academic research, project management, economic development, and social work to the Lab, where he works as an Education Designer for the Designers in Residence project.

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