Collaboration | Feature

Student Crowdsourcing on Campus

The concept of higher education has little meaning if ideas aren't constantly bubbling up on campus to change what people think or do. Frequently, however, the adult staff-members and administrators have put themselves in charge of turning most ideas into decisions for the campus, even though it's really the students being served. The use of crowdsourcing within idea generation can turn that tradition on its nose by allowing students to share their ideas, letting other students decide which ones have the most merit, and then implementing the best among them. That's how it works at the University of Virginia, the school founded by Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville in 1819, currently serving about 21,000 students.

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Eric McDaniel, a third-year English and political theory major, is the director of university relations for the Student Council at U Virginia. In that role he does a lot of outreach to the broader university community. For example, when Teresa Sullivan was unceremoniously (and temporarily) ousted as president during the summer, McDaniel coordinated response for the Council. But he's also responsible for "pooling information and concerns and ideas from students and passing them to people that can do stuff about it." That's a job he came into with experience.

Shortly after arriving at the university, McDaniel posted a message to the student feedback site asking the student council to get a bus stop moved from what he considered a "really inconvenient location." He followed that up with a message to members of his dorm asking them to vote up his suggestion. Within a week, the suggestion had become the third or fourth most popular idea on the site, and he heard back from a Council representative who told him they were in discussions with university transit and would keep him posted. The bus stop was moved and a fan of the feedback site was born.

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When McDaniel became a member of the student government a couple of years later, he knew the site could play a major role in improving the university experience for students.

Now, SpeakUpUVa.com, a university-branded version of a feedback service supplied by UserVoice and run by the Council, supplies McDaniel and the larger campus community with a forum for continual improvement. With "UVa.com," as he refers to it, students can post their ideas, other students can vote them up or down, and departments on campus can respond appropriately, which may or may not involve student government.

Previously, that request for a bus stop would have required McDaniel to attend a student government meeting or to send an email and hope that it was received by the right person. "I don't know if I would have been incensed enough to go in and meet with a council representative in person," he says. The website makes that effort a "three-second" activity. "That's how our generation feels most comfortable communicating. I don't have to go and talk to anybody in person. I can just sign online with my phone and post this up there."

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By virtue of the voting aspects of UVa.com, the student government can quickly gauge how important a given request is to the student body as a whole.

But it's the behind-the-scenes work done by McDaniel that has ensured the success of the initiative. Early on he went around campus and set up meetings with people from various university departments--dining, libraries, facilities management, IT, administration, and others--that could address the feedback that surfaced on the site. "I said, 'I'd really like everyone on the grounds to have a stake in this,'" he recalls. "When there's a Wi Fi problem in a dormitory and someone posts in UVa.com, [IT Services] will be able to see it and directly respond without us having to function as a middle man. The whole big idea is breaking down as many barriers as possible through this technology use."

Now representatives from those operational areas receive the same daily email McDaniel and others in the Council receive, notifying them of what's been posted on the site. They're signed on as administrators, he notes, "and can respond to concerns directly." Frequently, whether or not a particular suggestion has anybody voting for it, those department reps will add comments to address suggestions, critiques, and ideas right on the site to let participants know that they're aware of the issues and are working on a response.

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McDaniel can point to 150 concrete actions taken in regards to student feedback during his terms. For example, one suggestion from a student that gained a lot of support was to increase the number of initial credits a student could sign up for. The online registration system limited that to 15 credits or five three-credit classes. But since some classes are worth four credits, a student couldn't sign up for five classes without filling out special forms "and going through a big process."

Another complaint: "We had a dining hall that would close at inconvenient times for students. If I blocked my schedule with classes from 10 to 1, there was nowhere to get lunch, so I'd have to wait until dinner to eat at all," explains McDaniel. "We look at that and say, 'Who do we get into contact with to make that change happen?' In this case it was dining. So we went and talked to them. Now that dining hall is open all day."

Not all ideas are good ones, he acknowledges, while others that may be among the best can turn out be multi-year initiatives. For example, one "really popular idea" is a request for a new space where students can set up performances without having to construct a stage. Says McDaniel, that one "has been a two- to three-year effort between the council and administration to get done."

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To succeed with sites such as UVa.com, McDaniel recommends promoting it as much as possible at the beginning. "Crowdsourcing only works if a whole crowd uses it," he says. "You have to hit hard early on."

He also advises getting as many other people involved as possible. "When we got [IT Services], and dining and the libraries involved, it really made a difference in the sustainability of the program, because it was such a quick turnaround," he points out. "When you have a concern, they'll address it almost immediately, regardless of how popular the idea is."

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