An ecosystem model for holistic student experience in higher education

Nan Bahr, November 12, 2020


In this paper, I reflect on the desperate need for a backbone, a framework, for attending to holistic student experience in higher education. This emerges from my observation that although various elements of a University community proudly proclaim that they attend to student experience, rarely do they connect beyond their specialist siloes. This results in a general misunderstanding of the combined effects of their actions on the holistic student experience.

I have been prompted to consider what belongs in a discussion of student experience, and what should not, and I propose a model for drawing those things that matter together into the same handbag. Then I propose a four-branch ecosystem that depicts the forces that contribute to a positive student experience. This may provide a common language and shared vision to grow a greater sense of unity across an institution and prompt a greater sense of holistic positive student experience.


Many higher education institutions strive to be “one university,” rather than a conglomerate of diverse and distinct bits, that is, they seek to be the opposite of a multiplicity or even an amalgamation. Their goal is often to create a holistic student experience. Their dream is for a unification of purpose across the institution.

The challenge they face is that Universities often comprise a suite of segregated ultra-specialised portfolios and work units. As a result, there is typically a siloed and isolated approach to work unit identification and work planning. The potential for overlapping interests between these elements can be misunderstood and missed. Pragmatically this fuels considerable duplication and therefore redundancy of services. Most importantly, rather than pulling in the same direction to unify the student experience, there is a multiplicity of perspectives on best practice for positive student experience at play at the one institution. The confused students sit as the meat in the sandwich.

In Australia, It does not help that “student experience” is a performance metric for government subsidy and for brand identification, and so appears as an important KPI for most University portfolios, separately. One very important metric for KPIs is the annual profile of student experience provided by an annual and national survey of students, lovingly referred to as QILT (Quality Indicators for Teaching and Learning). The types of things that contribute to the annual QILT results in the Overall Student Experience category are as diverse as the state of facilities, library resources, instructional quality, teacher/student ratios, accessibility of course staff, and administrative efficiency. The government provides other additional data as indicators for student experience, including: attrition/retention, completion rates, graduate employment rate, and graduate salaries. Much like the meaning of life, the universe and everything as discussed in the classic fictional work “Hitch hikers Guide to the Galaxy” the answer to the question of  “Student Experience” could be 42, and the meaning would be just as easily decipherable. So “student experience” has become quite nebulous as a concept: but a highly prized goal.

What’s in and what’s out

First, we need to decide what the term “student experience” ought to conjure for the stakeholders and players in this game. I suggest, it ought to refer to the quality of the student’s engagement with the designed learning and teaching offerings in a program of study, that is, their “academic experience”. So, I propose that it’s about the authenticity and alignments between curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, and the student’s sense of achievement of expected and desired learning outcomes. If that’s the case, then the first tranche of eliminations from the “student experience” handbag are facilities, library physical resources, administrative efficiency, completion rates, graduate salaries. That’s not to say that these things are not important. I just suggest that they muddy the waters when trying to understand student experience in their academic program, their academic experience. I take these in turn.

What’s out

Facilities. It’s nice to be in salubrious environments, but the bar doesn’t actually need to be that high to enable most programs of study efficiently. On the hierarchy of needs, we are pitching for clean, tidy, safe and relevant (i.e., industry standard equipment). Given the huge numbers of students who engage with their programs on-line, this aspect might already be completely irrelevant for many.

Library physical resources. We have turned up the dial on online resources and most people are comfortable in a minimalist study environment or in their pyjamas at home anyway. I refer back to clean, tidy, safe and relevant. Many students attend the library to get some peace and quiet, access wifi, meet up with peers. The local coffee shop might even fit the bill.

Administrative efficiency. I agree that administrative efficiency is important, but does not directly relate to experience as a student (emphasis intentional).

Completion rates. There are so many personal variables that impact upon completion. I suggest that it is not an authentic indicator of the student experience. Illness, poverty, relationships, family responsibilities, are just a few of the issues commonly cited for extended timelines for a student’s academic journey. These are beyond the institution’s and the student’s, control.

What’s in

The things that therefore need to remain in the handbag for “student experience” are instructional quality, teacher/student ratios, accessibility of course staff. Add to these, relevance and industry connectedness as elements for consideration of the effectiveness of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment. Some of these have metrics that can be tracked and analysed. Others are less tangible. However, I propose that there is a four-branch ecosystem that depicts how student experience can be addressed with a combined holistic effect.

Four branch ecosystem for student experience

Figure 1, is an illustration of the proposed four-branch ecosystem for student experience for one case example. There are four basic quadrants. They are the learner, industry connection, the learning, and the social values. These quadrants would be the same for any institution. Each of these need to have a bespoke brand descriptor or watermark. These will be the directions supported in the institution’s strategic plan.

Figure 1: Student Experience model

The Learner Quadrant

In the depicted case, the goal is for a learner to become self-determined and self-reliant. This will be achieved through the design and implementation of a support curriculum and associated services. Regardless of the learner watermark, this quadrant is always addressed through the support curriculum and services. That is, a different institution may choose to describe their learner as compassionate and empathetic. If this were the case then the design and implementation of the support curriculum would be different, but they would remain the mechanisms for addressing this watermark.

The Industry Connection Quadrant

The Industry Connection quadrant attends to those aspects of student experience that prepare them for the next steps after graduation. The depicted case shows a premium for direct connection with industry and the mechanism is via programs of Work Integrated Learning (WIL). Just to clarify, WIL is not only about work site placements, practicums, internships and the like. WIL is about the relevance of the curriculum, the authenticity of the pedagogy and the industry relevant skills that have been designed into the program of study. This therefore links to the next quadrant …

The Designed Learning Quadrant

The designed learning quadrant is how an institution brings to life the knowledge, skills and attributes that will establish graduates as employees of choice. In this depiction the emphasis is placed on initiative and influence. A different institution might seek to develop graduates who have a particular world view, often the case at faith based institutions. In any case, the mechanisms for achieving the desired outcomes are curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. These are like the pedals on a bike that need to be turned to get the vehicle moving. However, just to run the metaphor to ground a little further, it’s no good having the pedals if the bike has flat tyres and you’ve no idea where you are going. My point is that the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment must be mindfully designed and monitored to ensure alignment with the entire ecosystem.

               Social Values Quadrant

The Social Values Quadrant puts the whole into holistic. The student experience turns on the developing professional social values, their compass for applying their knowledge, skills, initiative and influence. The mechanism supporting this, the glue of the model, is the policy framework for the University incorporating the procedures and protocols for informing and shaping the graduate watermark.

Conclusion: The Handbag

This ecosystem for student experience as depicted enables conversations, decisions, designs, and shared purpose. I believe that it brings together in the one handbag those components that are most pertinent to student experience in higher education It shows where players in the system function and how they connect with a shared purpose. This could be the foundation for a better and more mindfully constructed suite of actions selected by an institution with more tangible impact on student experience.

One thought on “An ecosystem model for holistic student experience in higher education

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  1. Universities need to build towards becoming more holistic institutions, absolutely!

    Though there is still a long way towards such a goal, and for now, Universities are more rightly an amalgamation of ‘specialist siloes’.

    It is surely the case that Universities should work towards a ‘Positive Student Experience’. Thought it still seems reasonable that student experience is measured by feedback coming back from students.

    This is how many great applications are developed not through employing the greatest specialists on the development of the app but by constantly listening and being able to tweak the design of what they’ve built based on feedback.

    These specialist siloes of research are often not nimble in how they respond to student feedback, furthermore, what if there is student feedback about a course and then the design does not change but rather than responding to the feedback to re-evaluate the course the feedback is dismissed from defensiveness.

    Of course, it is not right to directly attack the person when making critical feedback about a course, however, many courses are developed by specialists that are one and the same with the content they teach and critical feedback can seem more like an attack on their person rather than a genuine expression of the student experience.

    Perhaps it is equally as important to focus on teacher engagement with the feedback!

    A focus on designated learning seems to dismiss the focus on what is being designated to be learnt. How useful is it for a student in an age of Artificial Intelligence to be focused on repetitive activities that repeat redundancy later to be taken over by machine? – Learning how to speak and collaborate with data scientists ideas would be a far more fruitful learning experience!

    A compelling argument for repetitive activities would be like practising music to allow a form of relaxation on the parasympathetic nervous system and brain restoration. Through this would need to be the explicit aim to facilitate the creative discovery of novel perceptions to approach the task and not to complete the task to fill time; the famous story of Gauss comes to mind adding 1 to 100 in a matter of seconds to the surprise of his teacher.

    One can certainly learn theory very agile but putting into practice requires the facilities. One only really needs a kindle, a bicycle and a tent to teach themselves the theory of however the wheel often gets punctured and becomes flat when its comes to the practical application of that theory. To grow a plant on agar is very different from reading and knowing how to grow a plant of agar and these experiences of learning require specialised facilities.

    This is where universities are often at fault, by stringing along students in high-class facilities with only theory that could be learnt on a laptop at home to then turn around and say that the facilities and equipment of practical application require trust and supervision of which requires more learning and administrative approval…… ‘Groan’.

    A positive student experience needs enriched learning. There are limits to what can be achieved to this end online. The student experience is ultimately tied to the mental development of the student. What he/she learns is important but the life satisfaction that she/he gains from the learning is the student experience and this is not always achieved through following the designated course.

    Liked by 1 person

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