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Taking a Human-Centered Approach to Higher Education Research

Namita Mehta is a Learning Experience Designer with the Office of Information Technology at CU Boulder.  She has over 15 years of experience in education and holds an Ed.D in Leadership for Educational Equity.

Lauren Storz is an Academic Experience Analyst on the Academic Technology Design Team, and a PhD student in cultural anthropology at CU Boulder.  

Traditionally, teaching and learning in higher education has implemented “the banking model of education” as coined by Paulo Freire. Freire (2018) describes this model as one in which “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (p. 72).  This model reinforces that instructors should hold the power of what goes on in the classroom while students remain passive learners of their education. Through the years, there has been a greater emphasis on student-centered approaches (e.g. connected learning) that entail empowering students to be active learners who direct their own educational experience– positioning instructors as learning facilitators.  Brown and Long (2006) refer to this as shifting from thinking of learning spaces as “information commons” to “learning commons”. Technology has been key in promoting this with student response systems where students can contribute their respondents even in a large lecture classroom.  Other technological tools such as lecture capture, Kubi, and Zoom video conferencing have allowed students to continue their  educational experience even when they are physically unable to be in the classroom by allowing students to actively engage from off-campus locations. This commitment to a student-centered approach has led the Academic Technology Design Team (part of University of Colorado Boulder’s Office of Information Technology) to incorporate a human-centered approach to studying complex educational problems. This post provides a glimpse into our orienting mindset in approaching human-centered research in higher education, and is the first of a series of four essays. Our hope is that this series introduces readers to some of the foundational features of this approach, while giving concrete examples from our work at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

Thinking About the Experience 

The increase of technologically mediated pedagogical approaches at the university level has prompted the Academic Technology Design Team to explore user experience (UX) research methods to better understand how they fit into our approach of understanding and improving student-centered learning processes. Originally coined by Donald Norman in his book The Design of Everyday Things (1998), UX has since evolved into a dynamic and quickly growing field. The UX pioneer has been vocal in the past ten years about how stretched and misinterpreted the term has become. In Norman’s own words:

 I invented the term because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow. I wanted to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual. Since then the term has spread widely, so much so that it is starting to lose its meaning. 

This quote resonated with us as we have encountered multiple iterations of UX research approaches– from research that is solely concerned with specific user interface (UI) design features to much more comprehensive systems analysis.  In response to this ambiguity, we have thought deeply about the methods we use to understand the experience(s) of students, faculty, and staff as they engage with academic technologies within the university. To match the complexity of higher education, we have positioned our approach to research closer to social science disciplines like anthropology, sociology, and science and technology studies which are invested in understanding sociotechnical systems. This requires (re)situating academic technologies within the social, cultural, and ethical frameworks through which they acquire meaning and value. To do this, we use a grounded theory approach in which we try to speak to as many relevant groups as possible, observe the context in which technology is (or could be) used, and collect feedback (via focus groups, usability studies, or surveys) throughout a research project to compare and iterate upon our understanding of a given sociotechnical system. This helps to push back on technological determinist assumptions that a given academic technology is the best way for students to learn without first creating an empirical foundation from which to access its efficacy.  

Applying A Design-Based/UX Approach

Maintaining a holistic orientation towards academic technology research is crucial for realizing its potential in higher education classroom and service design.  Students, faculty, and staff interact with a dynamic array of sociotechnical systems across the university context on a daily basis. It is for this reason that we consider the questions we tackle to be classified as “wicked problems” around technology-mediated teaching and learning, and student academic success.  We study how technologies are being used to determine if an upgrade or a new technology or design could solve a problem, or if meaningful interventions can be made in the form of IT and pedagogical support services.  Studying all of the relationships within a system allows us to move from understanding the problem to determining the best solution.  

Figure 1: Bower’s (2019) Theory of Technology-Mediated Learning


Bower’s (2019) theory of technology-mediated learning is a helpful starting point in thinking about the relationships that take place in an academic context.  This theory examines the affordances of technology as they relate to the faculty, students, campus community, and broader context.  In the Design of Everyday Things (1998), Norman defines an affordance as “a relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could possibly be used.”  Although this theory does not elaborate on the peer interactions and student dynamics that occur, it can be used as a way to think broadly about the factors that influence a student’s experience.  More specifically, this relationship-oriented perspective can be applied to studies in higher education as a tool for conceptualizing the key stakeholders and relationships that impact the subject of study.  This includes understanding processes, experiences, dynamics, and environment.  As Norman states above, everything needs to be considered in a user’s experience.

The subsequent posts dive deeper into the ways we have elaborated upon the theory of technology-mediated learning by: 1) using a mixed methods approach to understand and refine the problem statement, 2) incorporate participatory methods by engaging students and faculty at data collection, design challenges, and testing, and 3) working within the assessment cycle to build an iterative approach to continually refine and ensure that the approach is student and faculty-centered. We realize the world is rapidly shifting in response to COVID-19 as we write this post; however, we strongly feel that this blog series remains relevant– perhaps even more so now that many university students are experiencing remote learning.    

This is the first blog of a four part blog series. For the second blog click here


Brown, M., & Long, P. (2006). Trends in learning space design. Learning Spaces, 9, 1-9.

Bower, M. (2019). Technology‐mediated learning theory. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(3), 1035-1048. doi:10.1111/bjet.12771

Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing USA.

Norman, D. A. (1998). The design of everyday things. New York, NY: Basic books.


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