Published on 2016/03/15

Scaling Personalization: What It Takes To Meet The Expectations of Today’s Students

—With Shannon McCarty | Dean of Instruction and Academic Affairs, Rio Salado Community College

The EvoLLLution | Scaling Personalization: What It Takes To Meet The Expectations of Today’s Students
By leveraging technological tools and taking strides in understanding and grouping students, institutions can deliver the highly personalized experience learners expect at scale.

Personalization, customization and engagement are norms in the consumer world that have vastly shaped the expectations students have when they enroll at an institution. They expect their colleges and universities to be able to deliver the type of engaging experience that has become the hallmark of giants like Amazon, and in today’s competitive and scrutinized higher education space, institutions need to strive to deliver on those expectations. In this interview, Rachelle Clarke and Shannon McCarty reflect on how effectively leveraging technological tools helps institutions exceed expectations and personalize at scale.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has student demand for personalization changed over the past decade?

Rachelle Clarke (RC): We’re all customers and as we all become more accustomed to high-touch personalized customer service, it’s only natural for our students to expect that of their college. They’re looking for service that’s friendly, immediate, accurate and goes the extra mile. Ultimately, students want a flexible, affordable, easy-to-use product that meets their needs.

Shannon McCarty (SM): In the last five years, as higher education started moving more towards personalization, we have started to see this expectation from students more and more. Students are saying, “I really like having a one-stop-shop where I just talk with one person who knows me and knows my goals.” Students expect that more and more outside and inside the classroom. It’s just going to continue to increase even over the next decade.

RC: You can’t have people in an Amazon-like environment everywhere they go and then expect them to be satisfied with a non-Amazon experience at their college.

Evo: Why is it so important for two-year colleges to be able to deliver their students a personalized experience?

RC: Whether you’re a two-year or four-year institution doesn’t really matter; we should all be providing this high level of service.

SM: As a community college, we were really designed and we have developed to serve the community. As such, we are even more responsive to what students need and we align ourselves to the local workforce, which adds another layer to that personalization.

RC: Students often will point out that we are funded by property taxes, in part, and we used to receive funding from the state as well through taxpayer money. We have a responsibility to the community to provide the level of service they are requesting.

Evo: When it comes to retention, how much of a differentiator can the student experience be for a higher education institution?

SM: The student experience is definitely a differentiator. In some of our early projects that increased personalization through adopting a high-touch approach, we saw increases up to 8 percent in persistence. Schools will see significant increases in retention as they add more personalization and more high-touch options for students. Institutions will see a return on investment from creating an effective student experience.

Evo: How have you and your colleagues gone about creating a personalized experience for students at Rio Salado, both inside and outside the classroom?

RC: Outside the classroom there’s a basic level of customer service or personalized service we strive to deliver. For example, we use students’ names in all of our correspondence—whether it be email, chat, phone or online—rather than sending a blanket letter and we tailor the contents of that communication to that particular student. For example, instead of “Your schedule could be accessed here,” we provide them their specific schedule and put that data directly into the communication. Personalized content, specific to them and addressed to them, makes a huge difference.

We also have a huge system called Rio Compass, which is primarily an advisement tool. This is where we help students map out their unique academic pathway and track any prior credit as well as credits they are earning with us. This tool allows them to see a clear pathway to their particular goals, whether that’s earning a credential or transferring. Within that system we also have our guided interventions, which are our early alerts.

We also have the Start at Rio tool, which provides prospective students the information they need to understand what to expect if they enroll in a course or program here. It provides them with contextual information based on their needs—are they a veteran, a high school student looking for concurrent enrollment, a teacher looking for professional education—and helps them build a unique pathway.

SM: That’s part of the Amazon experience we provide. We also provide personalization within the classroom as well. We provide students with access to our predictive analytics tool, which looks at student behavior and gives them a sense of whether they’re on track for success, could make some improvements or are falling behind. It also provides specific information to students about why they received the progress marker they did. The tool also triggers some in-course outreach so we can get in touch with students if something happens that changes their status.

We also use GEAR (Guided Evaluation and Assessment Response), which helps the instructor to provide substantive feedback to students. Instead of just telling a student “You did well,” we can tell them what they did well, why they did this well and, if they didn’t do well, what they can do to learn more about the material. We are in the early stages of beginning to dabble within adaptive learning so we have a few courses that use adaptive platforms as well.

Evo: What role does technology play in scaling personalization?

SM: I would say technology has a very important role—it puts everything right at our fingertips. The manpower and hours that you would need to provide the high level of attention that we can with the tools we have in place would not be possible. I don’t think we would be able to personalize without the use of technology.

RC: We could have an army facilitating conversations with our students but they would still need the technology to be able to gather, organize, synthesize and analyze the data, and they can’t do that on the fly. Our staff needs the technology there to provide them with the dashboard and other critical information that allows them to quickly and efficiently assist students.

Evo: What more could Rio Salado do to improve the personalization of the student experience?

RC: The first thing that comes to mind is improving student engagement and the design of our services. Many of us have been here a long time and feel we understand our students’ needs, and then we march off to design. However, if we brought the students in at the planning stage we would get where we want to get quicker and we would have a better product.

I would like to see more of our transactional services—like the act of registration or requesting a transcript—become more of a transformational interaction. There’s so much more staff can do in this areas to make a connection with the student—which strengthens their connection with the institution—and to set them up for success and help guide them to their next steps. There’s still a lot of siloing in traditional departments. But by creating a clear student life cycle, we can paint the picture for student so they know exactly what to expect as they move on to our next service and how to prepare for that interaction. I’d like to see our staff take an interest in engaging with our students and feel that they can take those liberties and have conversations with students because I think that’s really what will boost our level of service.

I’d also like to have a mobile app, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that we don’t have one but I think that definitely helps personalize some things and bring in more social aspects to our courses.

SM: I would like to see more use of adaptive learning platforms that really personalize to students’ knowledge. Another area that we are looking at on the academic side is offering competency based education. It creates access to just-in-time learning but is still very personalized to what they need for the workforce and also reflects their prior knowledge so we avoid making them sit for 16 weeks. I think those are areas Rio can continue to improve upon.

I also think we can do more dynamic cohorting, which allows us to look at students’ personality traits or even life traits and then cohort based on those traits rather than start date, for example. Dynamic cohorting provides students more opportunities to interact as they move through their programs.

RC: To the point of dynamic cohorting, this would also allow us to improve our student experience. We could build services for specific cohorts and it would be much more effective to manage and work with that cohort than trying to reach every single student independently. If we could make groups of students and meet them where they are, personalization and the engaging experience become instantly more scalable.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of personalizing at scale to being able to meet today’s students expectations?

SM: Grouping and then personalizing at scale is critical. People think that personalization is one-on-one but it’s really about identifying key characteristics or factors with students and then that will enable you to scale as well.

RC: We cannot ignore the importance of delivering personalization and highly engaging experiences. Industry is going that way and if we want to be at pace with our competitors—whether it be in education or other areas of commerce—we have to move in that direction. Being able to personalize at scale is critical because, as budgets decline, we can’t afford that army of people.

We need to be able to purchase technology that enables us to do things quicker and more efficiently and to present that data to students in a meaningful way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Students today expect a highly personalized experience from their colleges and universities that matches what they have become used to with the rise of eCommerce.
  • Technological tools are vitally important to an institution’s capacity to create a highly engaging, personalized experience for students.
  • Through predictive tools and dynamic cohorting, institutions can achieve personalization at scale both inside and outside the learning environment.