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It’s All About Choice: Delivering the Personalization Students Demand

Modern learners demand choice. A personalized experience is critical in higher ed to attract and retain students while meeting their needs. 

Students need choice. In today’s consumer world, students demand a variety of options personalized to their wants and needs. Institutions therefore need to implement the right processes and structures to deliver on this mission. In this interview, Brooks Doherty discusses the importance of the student experience, what it takes to deliver a strong personalized experience and the impact it has on enrollment and retention. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What do modern learners expect from to their experience with the current or a prospective institution?

Brooks Doherty (BD): Personalization is about choice, and increasingly, modern learners expect choice. It makes sense to look at expectations in other consumer sectors. I’m a Gen-Xer. I’m 43 years old, and when I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of choice. Everyone walking down the hall of my school was listening to either Nirvana or Dr. Dre or both, and that was pretty much it. We had very few television stations. The internet has caused proliferation of information, which has led to a great deal of choice, such that no two kids walking down the hall today are listening to the same thing.

Higher education institutions are getting there but have yet to catch up with the expectation of choice that modern learners have.

Evo: What are some of the common challenges that higher leaders face when trying to deliver this personalized experience?

BD: The biggest challenge is assessment. While the consumer or the entertainment analogy does apply a little to higher education, it does not apply entirely—because when you’re watching a movie or listening to a song or an album, you don’t need to assess the experience afterward. And with higher education, of course, we are obligated to assess student experience and learning. 

The challenge is that institutions need to make sure all four or five of those assessment options are valid, reliable and consistent in quality of experience. That’s not easy to do. It’s doable, but it is a challenge. In my opinion, assessment is the largest challenge facing higher education right now. Personalization adds an additional layer of complexity, but it’s worth tackling.

Evo: What opportunities does technology present higher ed to create this personalization?

BD: Technology facilitates personalization. Imagine a student trying to demonstrate learning while sitting heading home on a bus or at work on break. Is there an educational technology that allows them to record a presentation? Writing a paper on one’s tablet or phone while travelling might be a challenge, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t allow them to give and record a speech that can be uploaded through an application. That’s where educational technology can really open the flood gates in the most positive ways, to allow a student to choose. We need strong educational technology partners to work with institutions and learning management systems to get there.

Evo: What are some of the characteristics of a strong personalized student experience?

BD: There’s a sweet spot, and it’s going to be different for varying institutions, based on what their missions are. One option is not enough, and 100 options is too many—you’ve been to the restaurant with few choices on their menu and then the restaurant with entirely too many. It can be overwhelming. 

So, depending on your student, your mission and your program, there’s a right number for your students. But it’s incumbent upon each institution to listen to the student voice and find out exactly what works for them. It might be three. It might be four. It might be five. But providing a reasonable number of choices to demonstrate skills and knowledge areas based on what students are telling you is critical. 

Evo: What impact does personalization have on student enrollment and retention?

BD: If the user experience is done right, it can only be positive. The last 30 years or so have shown us that choice is a good thing. We’ve gone from a world of three television networks, one type of spaghetti sauce, to a proliferation of options. What people, learners, consumers and humans have shown us is that they can handle it. Again, higher education differs from other consumer industries because learning and assessment can never be reduced to a simple transaction, but learners can not only handle choice but flourish with choice. In higher education, flourishing means more incoming students, better outcomes, better retention and greater preparedness to succeed in the workplace. And better retention means better graduation, which is what we’re all here for.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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