Bob Harrison talks to Stanford University’s Thomas Black, who revolutionised student services in the US
Thomas BlackWhen Thomas Black grew up in Nebraska, its farming community was a place where innovation and problem solving were the difference between life and death. This had a profound effect on Stanford University’s associate vice-provost for student affairs, and the man behind the university’s iStanford student ‘apps’ revolution.

“I learned at a very early age from my community that in order to survive you had to be able to solve problems as they arose,” he explains, “to innovate when the environment changed otherwise you would just starve.”

Tom Black’s early learning certainly benefited the students on the Palo Alto campus of one of the USA’s most prestigious universities, who now access the resources and support services simply by tapping the iStanford app on their iPods, iPhones, iPads or other mobile devices.

When Tom arrived at Stanford more than three years ago he quickly discovered that, in common with most other higher education institutions, the student services website was underused by students. And the consequence of this was that their access to support services was way below par.

“The students said they hated it,” says Tom. It was then that his Nebraska experiences paid off: “I decided that we had a problem and we needed to solve it quickly and think innovatively. So I turned to the people most likely to know the answer – the students.

“Our whole support structure was based on ‘face time’, yet most of our students live in ‘screen time’.”

Stanford already has an impressive list of alumni who have become the founders of some of the most well known names in digital technology – think Google, for example – so Tom had very good reason to believe the students would be able to help.

But even Tom was surprised by the outcome: “I approached a computer sciences major, Kayvon Beykpour, who was doing some web design and had a start-up business – Terriblyclever Design – with a friend Joe Bernstein, and this coincided with Apple launching the iPhone and the opportunity to design your own apps so we approached Apple and they were happy to help us.”

A few months of hard work later, and with the help of a few more of Kayvon’s trusted student friends and iStanford was born.

“The students loved it,” says Tom. “We have 15,500 students on campus and 12,000 IPhones with 7,000 active on our system and 64,000 downloads every quarter.”

So how did Tom get Stanford to accept such a change? “With some difficulty,” he says, “although it was helpful that our provost John Etchemendy is very technologically orientated and, more important, he is advised by another Stanford graduate, Scott Forestall, who is responsible for the launch of the iPhone. And while the provost didn’t commit to the project immediately, he at least said ‘Hmmm, this could be interesting.’”

Stanford UniversityStanford University: leafy but high-techFairly soon other universities, schools and colleges were showing an interest. More than 70 Universities and 50 schools bought into the project, including Duke University, the University of Chicago and the University of Georgia’s Medical School.

A university support service that had been hated by its students now had Time Magazine asking "Can iStanford Take on Facebook Mobile?"

The potential of the IStanford concept and the design skills of Kayvon and his team were on the radar of commercial companies and in July 2009 Veryclever Design was purchased by education VLE giant Blackboard for $4 million, making Kayvon and Joe millionaires at the age of 20! They now form the core of the Blackboard Mobile project and their team has grown from 4 to 50.

So what comes next for Tom Black and his iStanford achievement? “We are adding to the apps all the time” says Tom. “ I think wifi is a utility now and the tablet and iPad provide us with so much scope for further development of our student support systems, registration, advice and guidance, career counselling, electronic portfolios and transcripts, ongoing contact with alumni. The potential is endless.”

Conditions for innovation

  • Be willing to take risks
  • Have a problem to solve
  • Make sure you have “sponsorship” from senior leaders
  • Be aware that change is constant
  • Don’t have defined and fixed outcomes(you are unlikely to know)
  • Think differently to others (like a Nebraska farmer)
  • Be aware of the cost of NOT innovating

Sources of inspiration

  • “The atmosphere and culture here at Stanford, and the Valley, the students and especially meeting Kayvon, and of course Scott Forestall who launched the iPhone...”
  • “...But probably the biggest influence on my approach to innovation has been those Nebraska farmers when I was growing up.”

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services (and is a contributor to its Future website), the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) and Toshiba UK. You can read his blog on the Futurelab Flux website. He runs Support for Education and Training.
Bob Harrison spends a few weeks every year visiting friends and colleagues at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, which is a hotbed of technological innovation.