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The Maastricht University App Challenge

What can enhance the University Experience?

Yesterday I was a judge at the Maastricht University App Challenge. The idea was for students and staff to come up with and start with the build of apps that could move the University forward. 11 teams worked for 24 hours on technologies that would solve the most pressing issues of University life. From the ideas of the different teams I deducted a couple of themes. Those themes indicate the needs that students and staff feel and the direction of their ideas to fulfil those needs.

For me the first and most important theme that strung a lot of team efforts together was the need for community. A lot of people come to the University looking for a sense of belonging. There was one group that articulated it quite well when they said that the Maastricht University makes potential community members a promise. The community promise of the Maastricht University is composed of several characteristics that draws people to it:

  • It is a promise of an international community. It projects the image of a mixture of cultures and an international orientation.
  • It is a promise of a mixture of disciplines. In Maastricht there is a specific mixture of faculties and studies. That mix is unique and offers the promise of potential synergy between those disciplines.
  • Maybe there is even a promise of intimateness. Maastricht is a small town with a Burgundian culture. People in Maastricht enjoy life, social gatherings, food and drinks.

The reality is that students have a hard time connecting to this community. The University is scattered across two sides of the Maas, faculties are islands, international students don’t mix that easy with Dutch students and the local Maastricht community is not so open to outsiders. Even within studies and classes, it’s often hard to find people with similar interests or people that can help you with your study. The Maastricht University community is an imaginary community, a constructed image of a community that has to become more real for people. It has to fulfil its promise. People want to get more out of it that just a diploma, but they struggle to extract the benefits of being part of the community. It’s difficult to connect, to onboard the community, to land.

That is why the community, peer-to-peer, participation, discover and overall connecting to other people themes were present in a lot of projects in yesterdays App Challenge. The 3 finalist teams worked on: onboarding, finding buddies and peer-to-peer education and events. Other teams also focussed on similar topics like discovering events, knowledge sharing. A lot of projects focussed on discovering what’s available and connecting to the people that organise it, learning from others. It’s all about being connected. It’s a fundamental human need and we seek it out in the institutions we attach ourselves to. Technology offers us the promise of the human, social, group connection that we crave. Popular social networks like Facebook fill this need, but at a cost. The University could offer a more closed community with a different business model that could offer the same connectivity without the drawbacks that come with advertising-based business models. That is actually exactly the way that Facebook started out: as a exclusive service to Harvard students to find and connect to each other. Technology can play a role in creating a community and a lot of teams in the App Challenge were exploring this route.

One of the other things technology might play a role in is quality. To enhance the quality of the things the University offers you need to know what people need and how they value your services. A lot of companies nowadays use ratings, reviews, polls and questionnaires to find out what people think of their offering. When we shop, we shop online and when we decide, we read reviews. They not only help us decide, but also offer organisations the data to help them improve. This can be big data (statistics) or deep data (interviews) and anything in between (reviews). With modern technology it’s much easier to collect and analyse data. With this data the services can be improved. And a couple of teams were working on making it easier for the University and its members to collect input. There were teams working on rating courses and the reach of research questionnaires. Even attendance to classes can be an indication of quality and that was also part of some solutions. There is an apparent need for data and the willingness to provide this data by members of the community. The overarching promise is that you provide data and in return you get better quality services. That is a fair trade people are willing to make.

Traditionally universities differ from Professional Education in that they are more aimed at academic knowledge and skills than knowledge and skills that are required in the world outside the academic world. This line is blurring however. Universities are moving towards a more professional orientation. Students expect the same opportunities (or even better ones) from an academic education than their peers get from a professional higher education. The growing need for orientation of your skillset towards a dream job was present in a couple of teams. This is also an area where technology can help. If you have the data, technology and algorithms can provide you with personalised coaching to develop your skillset in the right direction. It can suggest extra workshops or activities based on your profile and the requirements from the part of the job market you are aiming at. Ideally every student has his own personal assistant that knows the student inside and out and also is an expert in the specific job categories he or she desires. With data and algorithms this is possible.

The final theme I observed is the potential technology offers to enhance the education itself. A lot of education at the University is provided in the same way it has been done for centuries. The potential of technology to provide education in new way is still underdeveloped. Maastricht University has always been a institute that has explored innovative ways of educating its students. Its role in the problem based learning revolution is legendary. But technology offers more possibilities to teach students or make student life better. One team worked on a smart technology solution to put your UM card on your smartphone that opens up lots of new and improved services. One team worked on using game technology to learn about social implications of theoretic knowledge. Technology can do a lot of things and one of them is to remove barriers that exist is the real world. Technology can cross space and time. But it can also simulate real interactions and situations that are much harder and more expensive to experience in real life. In this area there is a lot to discover and lie a lot of opportunities and it was nice to see some teams exploring this area.

All in all it was wonderful to see the teams covering so many areas of the needs of people in the community of the University and the possibilities technology has to offer. I think there are a lot of good ideas that must be developed further. The teams were fairly small, ranging from 1 to 5 people and the time was limited. Some team displayed different qualities than others. But if we could combine the qualities and ideas of these team and give them more time, wonderful things could happen. The energy and engagement is there. I for one am going to incorporate the ideas I picked up into the projects I am working on at the University and I hope others will to. I also hope some of the teams find the time and energy to further develop their ideas and turn them into real solutions. There was a lot of creativity in the App Challenge and that is what the world needs.

Strategic UX Design Consultant @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design

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