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01.05.2019 - 5 min. Read

Purposeful learning for a meaningful life: The mission – and future – of the SXD Lab

Photo by eCampusOntario 2019, CC-BY SA

By Chris Fernlund

Lead, Student Supports, eCampusOntario

Purposeful learning for a meaningful life. Does this statement just sound cool? Or does it have actual meaning for you? In my world, this statement is a powerful concept that influences the work I do with students at eCampusOntario. Let’s break this statement down.

What drives you?

Every student attending higher education in Ontario must invest two things: time and money. Ontario students know that in order to obtain formal education, one must join an institutional “club”, spend a great deal of time with this club and pay fees to maintain membership. What drives thousands of students to make such an investment?

There is no simple answer. We all have our own complex motivations for pursuing anything. Ask yourself: if you attended college or university, what was your purpose for pursuing education? Did you go to land a job? To learn new skills? To be a better person? All of the above? Regardless of your reasoning, I think it’s safe to assume we all sought something and anticipated a return on investment.

The benefits of knowing your purpose

Recently, I stumbled across an article by Dr. Henry G. Brzycki and Elaine J. Brzycki, titled Visionary universities teach life purpose: Does yours?” The piece emphasizes the importance of students knowing their purpose, even saying that “knowing your purpose is associated with improved physical health, including lower stress hormone levels, improved cardiovascular and metabolic markers, reduced pain, a regression in some cancers, and longevity” (italics mine).

Wow! Clearly knowing your purpose can have plenty of health-related benefits. But what about your purpose for pursuing education? Does knowing your purpose for learning influence your success as a student? The University of Michigan believes so. They’ve learned that “by placing the student at the center of their curricula and co-curricular learning, they are better able to establish self-authorship, navigate conflict, create their own learning, and identify and understand multiple perspectives.”

The power of student-led design

At eCampusOntario I have the privilege of managing the Student Experience Design (SXD) Lab. I work with students to design solutions to issues or pain points affecting their learning experience, with the outputs contributing to an open innovation commons. Before we officially launched the SXD Lab, we worked extensively with students and stakeholders to formulate a vision that would shape the future of the lab. What did students come up with? You guessed it: Purposeful learning for a meaningful life.

For me, this statement not only acts as a guiding light for the SXD Lab, but as a definition of education and a reason one might pursue it. One might pursue education to obtain meaningful employment. Another might want to make a meaningful contribution to a local community. I would argue that the majority of students pursuing higher education seek purposeful learning to find meaning, whatever that meaning may look like for them.

The future of purposeful learning

So far, supporting this mission of the SXD Lab has been a positive reminder of what’s really important. At eCampusOntario, we want to demonstrate the benefits of engaging students meaningfully in the design and operation of the higher education system that exists to serve them. The theory of change says that if we can enable students to co-create their own learning journey, they’ll be able to experience purposeful learning opportunities that are meaningful to them.

The SXD Lab shows that students can and should be included throughout educational design. For us, working with students to design new and better experiences has taught us about the benefits of a student-first approach. Working directly with students leads to better outcomes. Our project work out of the SXD Lab demonstrates the accumulated value of this approach. In this way, the SXD Lab acts as an accountability measure for the student experience. Students tell us all the time what works, what doesn’t and what could be better. In the end, this feedback helps us design optimal experiences that support purposeful learning for personal meaning in higher education.

Now imagine what we could accomplish as a system if every institution adopted this way of thinking.

The SXD Lab has accomplished a lot in our short history. Now, we’re ready to take it to the next level. We’ve empowered student teams to co-design innovative solutions, but we’re looking downstream as well. How can we bridge the gap between innovative student work and institutional or industry priorities? How might we design a future business model for the SXD Lab, so it can expand its operational scale to substantially boost participation from institutions and students?

If you have an idea, we want to hear from you. Tell us how we can do better. You can submit your thoughts here: or connect with me directly at