Bringing Students Into Our Liminal Space

A guest post by Davidson’s Kristen Eshleman.

March 5, 2015
This post originally appeared on Kristen Eshleman’s blog. Kristen is the Director of Academic Technology at Davidson College. I am re-publishing her writing in this space to share with our community Kristen’s thoughts about the ELI 2015 Leadership Seminar on Design and Innovation that she and I co-led with Amy Collier from Stanford and Allison Dulin Salisbury from Davidson.
My Twitter tagline reads: “lover of liminal spaces”. I can claim that as part of my anthropology background, but it’s as much a reflection of my professional life as it is my intellectual interests. Academic technologists have existed in liminal spaces from the beginning. We’re not purely IT, or library, or Center for Teaching and Learning. We move between these spaces in a constant state of formative transition. Liminal spaces by definition reveal intersections and foster knowledge acquisition through collaboration, but in our case, that collaboration is typically limited to instructional support.
Education is more than instruction, however. It is a two-way street. Ultimately, learning happens because students want to learn. Dave Cormier sums up this sentiment nicely in his post on the first principle of learning:
All kinds of pedagogy happens after this… but it doesn’t happen until this happens.”
Who Do We Serve?
In this year’s ELI Leadership Seminar pre-conference survey, we asked attendees to answer the question: “Who do you serve on your campus?” Only 13% of us identified our students as primary stakeholders. Not everyone in the group is an academic technologist, but we are all supporting teaching and learning in some way, and overwhelmingly we view faculty and administrators as our primary stakeholders. As one respondent noted, “students are also stakeholders, but we don’t (yet) have a direct route to them.”
The seminar was primarily a crash course in human centered design (HCD)methodology with a goal of building internal capacity for innovation in a time of change. HCD is an end-user design process that starts with “how might we…” questions in an attempt to define the problem before assuming a solution. I curated some of the process and takeaways from our session. Although we identified our primary stakeholders as faculty and administrators, across the board our “how might we” questions focused on designing solutions for students.
A New “How Might We…?”
In thinking about the great discussions from our session, I want to propose an additional “how might we” question, specifically for academic technologists:
How might we design a process that meets the technological needs of modern learners in a time of continuous change?
With this question in mind, how should academic technologists leverage the advantage of our liminal space to create more direct pathways to our students? Here are some ideas from Davidson College:
Do an digital ethnography of the students on your campus.
  • Led by students and under our guidance, we are conducting ethnographic research to better understand how our students naturally interface with digital technologies, for personal and academic productivity.
  • How do we converge technology decisions with the understanding of these practices before we invest in solutions?


Host design thinking sessions to lift student voices.


  • As we think about deploying technologies for pedagogical best practices, we will move to a design thinking process that includes both faculty and students.
  • Through a newly founded student organization we advise, we are creating opportunities for design thinking to address student concerns about technology in the curriculum.


Involve students more heavily in committees and IT working groups.


  • We are looking at ways we can balance faculty/student representation on technology decision-making committees and working groups that impact teaching and learning.


I believe we serve the faculty and administration better when we invest in technologies that help students drive their own learning. The first step is understanding that learning process from the student perspective.


What other ways can we create direct pathways and bring students into our liminal space?



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