IT Trends

Using Collaborative Crowdsourcing to Give Voice to Diverse Communities

A crowdsourcing tool helped create a safe place for sensitive discussions on diversity and inclusion at NYU.

Universities face many critical challenges — student retention, campus safety, curriculum development priorities, alumni engagement and fundraising, and inclusion of diverse populations. In my role as dean of the New York University School of Professional Studies (NYUSPS) for the past four years, and in my prior 20 years of employment in senior-level positions within the school and at NYU, I have become intimately familiar with the complexities and the nuances of such multifaceted challenges.

For the past two years, one of our top priorities at NYUSPS has been striving to address sensitive issues regarding diversity and inclusion. We saw a need and an opportunity to improve faculty and student perceptions and experiences regarding these critical areas. We are part of NYU, a global research university with campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi and sites around the world. In addition to the diversity of these campuses, the student population of the NYU campus here in New York is incredibly international. And NYUSPS is one of the most diverse schools within the university. While the school's history dates back nearly 85 years, over the last 24 years, it has grown its graduate programs from 50 students in one masters degree program to more than 3,500 students in 15 applied professional masters degree programs. The NYUSPS student body is over 50 percent international, with students representing nearly 200 countries. As a result of our commitment to alternative pathways and providing access to affordable education, age, income levels and diversity all must be considered when pursuing a sense of inclusivity for all students.

The future of NYUSPS and NYU lies in a global outlook — one that ensures a diverse and inclusive educational experience in New York City and in locations around the world.

The Challenge at Hand

As part of the broader university effort to address issues of diversity and inclusion, the dean of each school was asked to reflect on, and to address, issues that were of particular concern to his/her community of students, faculty members and administrators.

We faced a challenge of preparing our students for a new brand of education and an increasingly diverse learning environment. Our domestic students were beginning to find themselves in the minority in some of their classes, and it was our job to ready them to thrive in globally diverse classrooms and programs. Many of our international students also needed to adjust to a multicultural learning environment, where they would be engaging with other students from around the world.

To identify and address the issues we saw arising from the shifting dynamics we were encountering in our classrooms, my team initially set about gathering feedback from NYUSPS faculty members and students through roundtable discussions. Though many individuals participated in these, we sensed that some were anxious and unwilling to fully share their experiences. We were able to initiate some productive conversations; however, we found they weren't getting to the heart of the matter. To provide a sense of anonymity that would allow members of the NYUSPS community to express their concerns more freely, we identified a collaboration tool called POPin and utilized it to conduct a series of crowdsourcing campaigns that commenced with faculty members and then proceeded on to students.

Fostering Vital Conversations

Using POPin's online discussion tool, we were able to scale an intimate and sensitive conversation up to include more than 4,500 students and 2,100 faculty members from a wide variety of countries, cultural and religious backgrounds, gender and sexual identities, economic classes and life stages. Because the tool's feedback mechanism is both anonymous and interactive, the scope and quality of the conversations increased dramatically.

The collaborative crowdsourcing process enabled by POPin has significant advantages over surveys, which are one-directional and stand-alone. The crowdsource/crowdsolve model creates a larger and more openly frank collection of feedback than in-person roundtables and town halls. It keeps the discussion going further than single events or survey instances, by sending refined follow-up questions based upon initial feedback. This allows participants to see and discuss visual results metrics in real time within an anonymous online venue.

This community listening initiative opened up the door for us to be really self-reflective and to hear from our numerous constituencies about their experiences in a way that we had not been able to before. Among other things, the exercise taught us how to ask more meaningful and relevant questions. The insights we gathered helped us to structure conversations that continue to this day.

As we move forward, what started out as a diversity and inclusion campaign has opened the dialogue up to much more — faculty development conversations and in-depth discussions about what multicultural competence, diversity and inclusivity should look like, as well as what those words should represent in the day-to-day lives and work of our students and faculty members.

We learned in unexpected ways from this collaborative and iterative process. We used the feedback on our first few focused questions to identify major issues, then we went back and worked on crowdsourcing the solutions to specific issues that had risen to the top through early feedback loops. The POPin sessions enabled a positive and thoughtful dialogue on multiple levels that, in turn, helped us to identify, refine and propagate best practices across NYUSPS and the entire university.

What We're Doing with What We've Learned

By analyzing the initial results, we identified best practices for international student support, concrete ideas for improving the experience of inclusion in both the classroom and the community, and ways to foster better alignment among faculty groups. These crowdsourced solutions were so substantial and astute, we were able to share them beyond NYUSPS to support and inform the university's overall approach to fostering diversity and promoting NYU's brand of global education. For example, the university at large has begun to adopt the NYUSPS model for international student support in a very unique way. We're working with faculty members to help them understand how classroom dynamics are shifting and how they can actively engage in building multicultural classrooms.

In the year following our initial campaigns, we have transformed our community's feedback and proposed solutions around diversity and inclusion into NYUSPS initiatives. I think it's important to note that, with tools like POPin, leaders no longer have to rely on gut instinct or impersonal metrics. The people closest to the challenges at hand know how to identify priorities and develop creative solutions, and this tool provides a way to get closer to those people in greater numbers and depth. These large-scale insights can then be turned into actions that are more likely to succeed because the organizational buy-in is built into the entire process. Students and faculty members have always been — and will always remain — the heartbeat of academic institutions such as NYUSPS. We can't afford to be out of touch, because true inclusivity and empowerment start with knowing that you have a voice and it is being heard.

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