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Design thinking and higher education

All semester long, students in School of Architecture director George Thrush’s “Understanding Design” class have been exposed to the idea of design thinking—a methodology that refers to a set of principles, from mindset to process, that can be applied to solve complex problems. While students in Thrush’s class have used this methodology to approach architectural design challenges, it’s also applicable across society and used by innovative businesses.

With this “big picture” perspective in mind, Thrush said it was fitting that President Joseph E. Aoun served as the final guest lecturer in his class last Thursday. To begin the conversation, Aoun asked students a simple question about higher education: “What’s on your mind?”

One by one, students raised their hands and listed a range of timely topics they often discuss, including online education, the rising costs of higher education, transitioning from college to the job market, and the university’s increasing global presence. Impressed with the thoughtful approach, Aoun noted that all of these concepts are part of the transformation currently underway in higher education.

Speaking to about 50 students in an International Village classroom, Aoun explained that this transformation is due largely to globalization and technological advancement. “Technology is changing the way we’re looking at information and knowledge,” Aoun said, holding up an iPad to demonstrate his point. Globalization, he continued, affects all businesses, big and small; as an example, he said a small company in Boston might feel the impact of globalization through the fluctuation of commodities and global energy prices.

This transformation, Aoun explained, is leading higher education to bifurcate into two models: the traditional college model with smaller classes, faculty-student interaction, and the campus experience; and a mass approach to education like that of Coursera, a leading platform for Massive Open Online Courses. (On Wednesday, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller served as the keynote speaker in the latest installment of the “Profiles in Innovation” Presidential Speaker Series.)

MOOCs, Aoun said, are increasingly forcing colleges and universities to explain their value to students, particularly as college costs rise. For Northeastern, those differentiators include its experiential-education model, with its signature co-op program; use-inspired research, particularly in the areas of health, security, and sustainability; and the launch of graduate campuses in Charlotte, N.C., and Seattle, Wash. which offers degree programs in strategic areas of increasing demand such as cybersecurity and health informatics.

More than 90 percent of Northeastern graduates from 2006 through 2011 were employed full-time or enrolled in graduate school within nine months after graduation. The real-world experience students gain through the integration of co-op and classroom learning, Aoun said, is a major contributing factor in giving Northeastern graduates an edge in pursuing successful careers.

Aoun also said Northeastern dedicates abundant resources to continually expand its entrepreneurship ecosystem. Like a new venture, Aoun said the university is constantly evolving; he noted that he likes to think of Northeastern as a startup that began in 1898.

“If we do business as usual, we’re going to miss many opportunities,” he said. “No one can play it safe in this world, not even universities.”