IT Connect
Your connection to information technology at the UW

Charting the UW Information Ecosystem

Social interactions are key to student participation in meaningful experiences beyond the classroom


Since 2014, a group of researchers from Academic Experience Design & Delivery (AXDD) and Student Program has been exploring the landscape of communication to students regarding Husky Experience opportunities. Their description of the work—its challenges and surprises—brings to mind an image of intrepid explorers mapping unknown territory.

About the Husky Experience

Initiated in 2013 and sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Husky Experience “encompasses the transformative educational experiences—inside and outside the classroom—that help our students discover their passions in life and work, become independent thinkers and citizens, and gain the skills that lead to meaningful and rewarding lives and careers.”1 The six areas that make up the co-curricular experiences (or “co-curriculars”)—an integral piece of the Husky Experience—are: lifelong learning, leadership, career strategy, cultural understanding, community engagement, and health & wellness.

Not just business requirements, but mental models

To help measure the effectiveness of the University’s efforts to support students in discovering and participating in co-curricular experiences, UW-IT has been conducting research with students and staff since 2014. Phase 1 of this effort resulted in recommendations for improving students’ ability to discover and act on co-curricular opportunities.

At the outset of Phase 2, the research plan focused on understanding business requirements (the systems, software and processes required to manage and convey information to students), to map the existing administrative landscape that enables students to engage with opportunities that make up the Husky Experience, such as work-study, internships, study abroad, volunteering, mentoring and so on.

But researchers quickly realized that any map of the UW information ecosystem would be riddled with holes if business requirements were not complemented by an understanding of how students seek and find information about enrichment opportunities.

“Instead of just asking about requirements, we sought to understand mental models,” said William Washington, User Experience Designer for AXDD. “Without going face to face, collecting qualitative data, we would not have understood student motivations, how they find, interact with and consume information.”

So the Phase 2 effort expanded to include two studies: one to establish a picture of administrative business processes and tools that currently enable student engagement, and one to expand the understanding of how undergraduate students consume information. The studies provide complementary perspectives on a central problem: How can the UW ensure that efforts to facilitate student engagement with co-curricular events and opportunities are effective?

The resulting findings and recommendations are presented in the Husky Experience Phase 2 report.

Relationship before information

To start building a picture of how students learn about and accomplish what they need to do at different stages of their academic careers, researchers invited students to take a survey. The response was impressive: a WebQ survey open for one day garnered 200 responses. After identifying key themes in the survey data, the research team interviewed 25 students from a range of departments (e.g., environmental science, aspiring compsci majors, political science, informatics, French). One critical point that arose in every conversation was the importance of relationships and social connections in helping students discover what they can and want to do in their time at the UW and beyond.

Janice Fournier, Research Scientist for AXDD, summarized this key discovery: “Each student we talked to mentioned an important interaction with, for example, a parent, a sorority sister, a sibling or a friend that sparked an interest.” This surfaced in conversations with comments such as, “My parents studied abroad, so I always had the idea that I would do it”; “My sorority sister encouraged me to take on a leadership position in the house”; “My 4th-grade best friend was getting a lot out of volunteering, and I wanted to have that experience, too.” It’s these encounters that can lead to the transformative learning that the Husky Experience seeks to provide. Janice went on, “We began to realize that it’s not information that starts an engagement. A student must have an internal motivation to engage. Information about co-curriculars is secondary, supplemental and not motivating in and of itself.”

Abi Evans, Research Scientist for AXDD, agreed. “We didn’t understand until the second round of interviews how big the social piece was,” She reflected on how much pressure students face and how this can shape the way they seek information. “As soon as they matriculate, they’re trying to figure out what they need to do to meet requirements, to figure out what to major in and how to get into a major. The juggling they have to do, the planning, wondering, ‘will it fit in with my course schedule’. Right when they get to the UW, they’re really clued into figuring out what they need to do. Students want to have these co-curricular experiences, but they feel they don’t have the time, even before they get into a major. They know they need to do things at a certain time, but they aren’t always sure of how to do it.”

Abi observed that the importance of social connections, even a casual encounter such as a random conversation, could be enough to get a student moving in the direction of a particular opportunity. Online connections, such as the UW Reddit page, can also fill a gap for students seeking information. The anonymity of online contacts can be helpful, allowing students to admit ignorance or worry without having to reveal their identity, and learn from peers how to move forward with a challenge, such as how to get into a particular major or how to develop a backup plan.

Listening to staff

In addition to listening to students, the research team spent time listening to the staff who run the programs that convey information to students, in order to capture the dimensions of the landscape in which they currently work. The systems and processes that UW staff have created over the years constitute a key piece of the information ecosystem. “It was inspiring to hear about all the great things people are doing to help students with the Husky Experience,” said Julie Crowley, Business Analyst for AXDD. “Participants in this part of the research were eager to help,” said Julie. “People were interested in the possibility of getting more data about the people that they serve. And particularly interested in getting more data to improve outreach to student populations that they might be missing.”

Just as student interviews surfaced the importance of relationships, interviews with administrators revealed many similar challenges. “It was impressive to see how these organizations have their own processes worked out. At the same time, they have similar pain points; there’s a lot of overlap in what people struggle with. For example, they want to better understand the student populations they serve. They often see the same students show up to events, but don’t know how to reach beyond the students who are already motivated and informed. The silver lining is that the overlap may help us target specific recommendations that will help many people.”

Taryn Pedigo, Project Manager and Business Analyst for Student Program, concurred.“Opportunity providers across all three campuses are doing really important work to provide students with rich experiences outside of the classroom. UW-IT could certainly do more to assist them in this work, and our research helps us start to get a picture of how.”

Seeing how the parts fit together

Designer William Washington talked about the complexity of the information ecosystem and its many facets. “We’re starting to get a picture of how all these parts fit together” (e.g., email, MyUW,, Facebook, Reddit and so on).” The information ecosystem includes not only online spaces, but student relationships, decision making, their perceptions about various channels (e.g., email, text, social media), what they give their attention to and what they shut out. William continued, “It’s exciting to begin to understand the interplay between all the pieces that make up this ecosystem: the administrative workflows, friendships, devices, the importance of really good visual design. It’s also exciting to find data that challenges common myths, such as, ‘students don’t read email’ or ‘snapchat is an important info resource for students.'”

William acknowledged that there is still much to discover. “We’ll continue to learn about this ecosystem, but this is a good start in the right direction.” The map of the UW information ecosystem will continue to be charted, but the picture drawn by the data is enough to begin efforts to support staff who provide opportunities to students in making changes that will both ensure effective messaging and increase the return on their investment of time and energy. In turn, students will be better connected to all the opportunities the UW has to offer.

What’s next? Learn more at Nov 1 Spark Session

UW-IT researchers will host a Spark Session on November 1, open to all who want to learn more. Session hosts will provide a high-level review of the research findings and recommendations. Then, they will facilitate activities to inspire creative thinking about possible ways to implement those recommendations. As one researcher said, “This won’t be an easy fix to engineer. It will require care to do it well.” Come learn more about the UW information ecosystem and engage with colleagues to begin dreaming up new ways to connect with students.