Technology to the Rescue

American higher education is admired around the world, with its research universities leading the way in creating the breakthroughs that will lead to yet unimaginable futures, liberal arts colleges and state universities educating tomorrow’s leaders, and its community colleges providing retraining for middle aged displaced workers. However, across the full spectrum of higher education institutions offering undergraduate degrees to students from the bottom socio†economic quartiles (including large numbers of Black, Hispanic, and first generation students), our track record is not good. The college graduation rate for the bottom two quartiles is (on average) 13 percent, 43 percent points less than the average for the top two quartiles, 56 percent.

In this article we will refer to the students in the bottom two quartiles as BSQ students (students from the bottom Socio†economic Quartiles. The widely recognized failure with BSQ students must be seen as a crisis and galvanize us to action. Best estimates are that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs nationwide will require post†secondary educationii In order to meet that need, we must turn things around and have far greater success with the very large numbers of students we currently fail. This will require all hands on deck, with dedicated faculty and administrators from all sectors of higher education working together.

In order to get our hands around the issue, we need to identify (1) the common causes for BSQ students failing or dropping out and (2) the common elements of the multiple examples of success with BSQ students. If we are to meet the challenge, what hazards must we overcome? What are the common threads of the success stories with BSQ students?

Doing this is just a beginning. Our collective goal must be to discover the necessary and sufficient conditions for at-risk students to earn, in a timely manner, a high quality education that prepares them for life and productive livelihoods.

Based on our experience and our familiarity with the experiences of others around the country, here’s our preliminary list of the most common reasons BSQ students fail to persevere and earn a degree:

  • They don’t feel that they belong
  • They haven’t developed good study habits or time management skills
  • They get behind in their courses and don’t know how to get up to speed
  • They don’t know that they are in academic trouble until it is too late
  • They do not get engaged in campus life (activities beyond the classroom)
  • Financial or family crises intervene

On the basis of our successes and those of many others, here’s our preliminary list of the necessary conditions for success:

  • Individualized orientation programs, including such things as pre†college summer experiences
  • Membership in a learning community
  • Faculty who are passionate about their field of study, care about their students as individuals, and motivate and challenge them.
  • Frequent feedback in the first weeks and months and beyond about the quality of their work.
  • Tracking to offer timely and effective intervention
  • Support systems that can provide immediate help with personal and financial crises

The basic question these two lists raise is how can we, on the one hand, overcome the pitfalls that lead to failure and, on the other, create the pathways that lead to success. The answer will require reimagining the qualifications, roles and responsibilities of faculty (something we will address in a future column). It will also require taking full advantage of all the resources at our disposal, including technology – the focus of this column. What features and functions must instructional and administrative technologies have for them to come to the rescue and assist us in meeting the challenge of providing a quality education to BSQ students? Where will be get the biggest bang for the buck?

There is no shortage of new and exciting technology tools available to us or on the drawing board. Our question, an urgent and focused one, is which of them will help with the challenge of educating BSQ students? With the lists above as our guide, it is quickly evident that the many technology tools designed to replace, substitute, or minimize the role of the instructor will not be of use in meeting this challenge. As valuable as those might be for meeting other important educational needs, they would be like using a hammer when what is needed is a screwdriver. With BSQ students success depends upon close student † faculty interaction. The features and functions of the technology tools needed are those that enhance opportunities for students to be motivated, to be actively engaged in their learning, and to be full†fledged members of a community of learners.

The sorts of technology tools that will come to the rescue are:

  1. Technologies that document academic readiness, learning progress, and skill acquisition and assist in time management and the development of study skills
  2. Course management tools that keep faculty in touch with students (frequent feedback)and facilitate “just in time” help to students who are struggling.
  3. Course management tools that handle the logistics of the course freeing up faculty to do what they do best, which is engaging students.
  4. Technologies that augment active classroom instruction (for example peer reviewed course modules and video lectures that students will find compelling and view on their own time and before class so that face†to†face time is quality time) and advance personalized learning (for example, textbooks that employ analytics to interface individually with students so that they can learn in a way and at a pace that better suits their learning styles).
  5. Technologies that support “gamified” teaching and learning (game based learning platforms and “social learning” models) that borrow from concepts and experiences seen in video and computer gaming.
  6. Virtual reality technologies that allow students to see and experience things in new more vivid and impressionable ways.
  7. Analytical tools (data mining software) that yield integrated data for identifying issues that students might have early on and providing data driven solutions. These include identifying a major or minor, creating the best schedule for a student’s lifestyle needs, and rescuing students financially at key times in their academic career.

While technology is no panacea, it does give us new and more effective tools than we have ever had before. A danger is that we get carried away with the glitz and glamor of the new and fail to keep our eyes on the urgent task of engaging BSQ students. Our question must be which technologies will help us motivate our students, keep them on track, pick them up when they go off track, engage them in active and real learning, and give them a sense of belonging and purpose. If we hone these tools for these purposes, we will have increased dramatically our chances of success. We will no longer be doing the same thing over and over again expecting better results.

—James Muyskens is former president of Queens College; Sue Henderson is president of New Jersey City University; Sue Gerber is assistant vice president of Institutional Effectiveness, New Jersey City University


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