We all know our clients and their needs, right? We’ve been listening to them for years. They spell out their vision and goals in RFQ’s with great buzz words and phrases like State-of-the-Art Classrooms, 21st Century Skills, Active Learning. And we faithfully recite those words back at the interview thinking that’s what they want to hear. But have we ever asked ourselves, “Who really is the client?

Since joining The Sextant Group, I have had the pleasure of working with many campuses. The traditional approach usually includes meeting with faculty and administration to discuss their perceived visions and goals. Often, we provide formal Visioning Sessions to help expand their perspective — not just “what is,” but “what could be.” For most Higher Ed clients, we also invite students to join the group, offering them a place at the table to get their input. But let’s face it — in this setting, students can be a little intimidated by those authority figures in the room. I often wondered if we were getting the real picture.  

At a recent higher education conference, an architect participating in our round table discussion asked the University representative what he thought could be done to better achieve a successful project. His response was immediate: “Go to campus. Talk to students…they are the real clients!”

He was not suggesting scheduling appointments with a few chosen undergrads, but to actually just wander around campus asking questions of whomever you encounter. What are their educational and social priorities? What do they truly need and want? After my decades as an educator, interacting with thousands of students over the years in a variety of settings, this was quite the Aha! moment. But sometimes the best ideas are the most obvious.

So, for our next campus project, I went to campus the day before my Visioning Session with faculty and administration. Targeting locations where students casually gather (the library, student commons, cafeteria), I spent about three hours chatting with students, covering a wide range of topics.

  • Why did you decide to come to this school?
  • What are some of your favorite learning experiences here?
  • What would a classroom look like if you were designing it?
  • What are the biggest technology challenges on this campus?
  • How do you learn best?
  • My favorite space on campus is…?
  • How is the content in your classes currently delivered? What would you change?
  • Faculty would be more effective if…?

The result? Mind blown.

By taking the time to sit and listen to students considering these important issues, it offered remarkable insight into the types of educational experiences students were looking for. It opened me up to the culture that attracted students to this campus. It provided remarkable context for my Visioning Session the next day.

Colorado College, Colorado Springs CO
  • Students on this campus want their educational opportunities to fit their lifestyles.
  • They desire a new system of learning based on flexibility — some of it provided online.
  • They would love to work in teams and have enlightening conversations about class content.
  • They desire a diversity of spaces, ones that are engaging and comfortable, flexible and easy to move around, with writeable surfaces so they can collaborate with others.
  • They want to be empowered and contribute to curriculum decisions.
  • They yearn to apply that knowledge to tackle real-world problems.

Yes, it’s so obviously obvious. But how often do we take the simple step of asking fundamental yet vital questions of the real clients? It might just empower you and your designs.

Principal Nancy Sturm is a nationally-recognized thought leader. Her award-winning programs and techniques enable teachers to use classroom technology effectively to maximize student success. Reach out to Nancy in our Washington DC office at 202.479.2001 x321, or at nsturm@TheSextantGroup.com.