Success-tech triumphs in higher ed
Early alert systems. Transfer credit assessment tools. Adaptive technologies. Apps to push student reminders. Career assessment software.
Colleges and universities nationwide use these and many other success technologies to help students improve grades, increase involvement and persist to graduation with as little debt as possible.
Driven, in part, by pressure from new federal regulations, campus leaders have made a priority of guiding students toward degrees and gainful employment. These wide-ranging retention efforts comprise everything from teaching students time-management and study skills to providing academic support, financial aid know-how and connections to the community.
Of course, recognizing that additional support systems may be beneficial and choosing the technology to provide that assistance are two very different tasks. Achieving smooth deployment of a new student success system can be challenging, say administrators who have tackled the challenge. Thinking about what they did right, here’s their advice for others.
Work backward from the goal
“One of the biggest problems that projects suffer from is a lack of definition,” says Joseph Provenza, chief information officer at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, Florida. Before choosing the technology, administrators must determine what they want to know or do, and then find where on campus the data resides. It’s not always obvious.
Moving beyond this stage is easy if that data is already being collected and can be easily extracted, especially from a single place. The problems, says Provenza, are inconsistent data gathering or collecting the wrong data.
For example, taking class attendance is not routine at all colleges. If you determine that attendance—combined with other data points—is an important retention metric, recording it must become part of the campus culture before success technology is purchased.
“Consider what you are trying to accomplish, such as improved retention,” Provenza says. “Work backward from that and evaluate technology products in light of that goal.” This made a difference when Flagler was developing a new advising system and wanted to have a three-dimensional picture of students to provide better guidance.
Prepare for heavy traffic
Campus leaders may successfully deploy the technology and then discover that more resources must be allocated to achieve desired results. Consider what happened at Bay Path University in Massachusetts, where an accelerated teaching schedule condenses 15 weeks of study into six for the primarily adult students in The American Women’s College.
Bay Path switched one of its success platforms, an online tutoring service, to Tutor.com in January 2016. This was done during the rollout of its new Salesforce student success system. Tutor.com provides 24/7 tutoring, including live writing feedback, a feature the previous system lacked (which was one of the big reasons for the move), says Amanda Gould, chief administrative officer at Bay Path.
After the first week of classes that semester, administrators crunched learning management system data in Salesforce to identify and contact students who could benefit from tutoring. The number of students who then sought assistance bordered on overwhelming, Gould says.
In the first few months, total usage of Tutor exceeded the entire prior year’s traffic on the previous system. Fortunately, Bay Path was able to work with Tutor to scale up.
However, other situations might not be so quickly and easily remedied, which can interfere with the progress made through your technology deployment.
Consider system integration issues
System integration failures are tough to overcome—but most issues can be dealt with. However, in some instances, system integration cannot occur until all the component systems consist of digital data that serves as input to other systems.
Consider course catalogs, for instance. Some are still printed as hard copies or reside in their own data silos, unconnected to other information systems—requiring that information be converted, says Melinda Karp, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“When your course catalog is a mess and you can’t align courses to program planning tools, you have to clean up the back end first to make it align with the front-end systems,” she says. Deployment then takes longer because you “have to stop integration, update the course catalog, and then continue.”
Remain flexible on timing
The University of Missouri concluded a few elements were missing from its student success system and invested in the Connect and Early Alert modules to provide a better communication tool for advisors, coupled with the ability to document academic progress in one early alert platform.
Integration “ebbed and flowed,” without many technical issues, says Tina Balser, student success technologies coordinator.
However, timing did become a challenge, she says. “Units had different needs. Some departments wanted more [features] while others were just piloting,” says Balser.
Keeping all departments informed and engaged, when they were at different levels of implementation, took a larger effort than anticipated. “The software was so popular and many excelled with it from the beginning while others needed more time to get started, due their own organizational culture,” she explains. Meeting everyone’s needs during the transition took extra effort.
“While we did our best to forecast the needs and timelines, there were internal and external pushes and pulls that sometimes got us off our targeted times,” Balser says. Some offices were going through a reorganization, others were waiting on a new leadership member before they could get started. Security and privacy issues also arose. Working through it all took added time.
But there were signs of change almost immediately. “When we got an entire advising team up and running, we would celebrate that,” she says. That fueled interest in other departments—showing them what was possible and how the new process was a change for the better and kept them moving forward, Balser says.
One message Balser’s team also shared repeatedly with departments: “Our goal was to support and enhance them, not tell them how to do their jobs.”
It was an intentional and steady deployment with few major issues, but Balser notes the importance of constantly monitoring progress: “There’s a big difference between implementation and adoption.”
Get faculty on board early
When integrating its new success system, Colorado State University-Global Campus focused heavily on the people side of the equation, with frequent email messages to its community regarding training.
“We assumed the new system would be so much better for students,” says Miranda Regnitz, associate director of operations. However, to ensure students benefited, faculty and staff who would use the new system had to be trained. “We put a lot of emphasis on getting faculty on board,” she says.
Regnitz and her team hosted four 90-minute sessions to train faculty before the trimester began, and then monitored them closely during the first two terms to be sure they were using the system appropriately, such as adding comments and documenting attendance.
While faculty already has input regarding courses, the training sessions were designed to show them how to interact with students through the system and complete administrative tasks, such as submitting grades.
Involve students in product development
While students are certainly the focus in the deployment of any success technology, they are often on the periphery, participating only once the system is up and running. Whatcom Community College in Washington flipped the process, allowing students to help design the system and serve as campus advocates for its usage, says Tawny Townsend, director of student success and retention.
“It was a role change and we had to shift our mindset and process,” says Townsend.
In one-to-one meetings with advisors, students provided input as the new system was being integrated. They crafted messaging around the roll-out, with a graphic design student creating promotional materials explaining how the system worked in language that students use.
Students also helped draft the early alert messages sent to classmates who are struggling academically. “They helped create the change,” says Townsend.
Have the desire for change
Student success technologies provide the architecture for other institutional changes. To do implementation right is really hard, says Karp of Columbia Teachers College. The key is to stay focused on how to change the student experience.
“Launching tools often isn’t enough,” she says. In many cases, new technology can help make existing processes more efficient, but not necessarily any better, she adds. “If you keep doing the same things you’ve always done, only faster, from a student perspective, nothing has changed.”
Marcia Layton Turner, a Rochester, New York-based writer, has been covering student success programs for University Business’ Models of Excellence program since it launched in 2015.