Student Centricity and the Modern University: Rooting the Student Experience in DataJames Broomall | Associate Provost for Professional and Continuing Studies, University of Delaware
Student centricity for today’s institutions means more than having an advising office or offering online courses. Today’s students have immensely high expectations, and to meet them, institutions need to design every aspect of the institution to meet their needs. That means the entire institutional bureaucracy—even down to course registration dates—needs to reflect the needs of students. And that level of student centricity requires institutions to be able to root their decisions in data. In this interview, James Broomall shares his thoughts on the critical role data plays in supporting student centricity and the personalized student experience today’s learners expect.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the core “ingredients” that combine to define a great student experience?
James Broomall (JB): If you look at any teaching and learning opportunity, there are several ingredients that make up the experience.
First is the content. What is the subject matter that’s under consideration? Is it exclusively a discipline subject like physics or history, or is it interdisciplinary, where you’re bringing a lot of different fields together to study a particular problem?
Second is the context. Is it a traditional classroom? Is it informal learning in the continuing education parlance? What’s the delivery system here? Are you using face-to-face learning or is it online?
The third is the personal element. That’s how the professor, the teacher or the facilitator and the students engage.
It’s like a trilogy of those three elements—content, context and the interpersonal dynamic—that compose the constant ingredients you’re beginning with in building a student experience.
Evo: Traditionally, what have been some of the most significant challenges leaders face in trying to deliver this kind of experience?
JB: One of the challenges—and I’m speaking more specifically to continuing educators—is in practice, there has always been a distinction between what the continuing educator can manage and control and what’s really out of their hands. By that I mean going back to those ingredients, we have nominal impact in terms of the content, so we rely, of course, on the subject matter expert. We have more control over the context, how it’s delivered, how it’s designed, what’s the climate for the educational experience. The challenge has been trying to ensure that we create a climate or context that is conducive to a successful learning experience with the realization that we don’t control all aspects of it.
The second piece is that we do have varying degrees of influence in terms of the interpersonal dynamic. To some extent we can make the decision as to the subject matter expert we use and other times that’s dictated by our home institution. At a university, the history department determines who’s qualified to teach history. On the other hand, if we develop a certificate program in social media marketing and communications we can have more input on it. It’s a challenge as to what we can control and what we can’t control as part of the educational experience, and that varies from institution to institution.
Sometimes the content expert doesn’t realize the importance of the context and climate, or how the interpersonal dynamic works because their role pertains primarily to content. But the best subject matter experts also understand climate and context. Trying to get that balance is the challenge, and that’s particularly true in continuing education because our adult learners are such a diverse group.
Evo: How can leaders leverage data analysis to help improve the personalization, relevance and timeliness of information being delivered to students?
JB: First of all, it’s important to recognize the tension within institutions when we start to talk about students as customers. While consumerism of education, especially adult education, has always been there, the issue is becoming more magnified than ever before because people are comparing their experiences to client-centered enterprises like Amazon.
Second, we’re almost overrun with data, and we have to figure out what to do with it. If you have 30 people in the class, does that mean there are 30 personalized experiences? What you’re really trying to look for are trends, or repeating data. Relevance and timeliness are both also critical today, especially in programs that teach rapidly changing material.
The key is to look at all the data and then, from a management stand point, see how it affects the actual experience. It’s culling through all that data that’s out there to find the right variables.
Evo: What are a few other ways that postsecondary leaders can leverage Big Data to establish a more student-centered institution?
JB: When you look at data, particularly evaluation data where you’re basically looking at assessing the student experience, you have to look at that along a couple of vectors. We need to look at different elements separately as opposed to looking at an aggregated experience. For example, you may do an analysis of a course and find that the content expert was great and students felt the knowledge was there, but you used an e-learning delivery system and the student response was that there were a lot of disconnects in that process. The key, I think, is to go back and look at it and say, it’s not a content issue, it’s a delivery system issue, so how can we modify the delivery system to better deliver this content?
Evo: How can data be leveraged to really create a student-centric institution?
JB: The challenge that we face in continuing education—and we’ve always face this—is that our business model is based on market economy. To survive, we’ve always focused on getting students enrolled, but now we have to focus just as much on the quality of the experience once they’re here, and data can help us do that.
The other thing we look at pretty closely is repeat customer data. We find that we’re pretty successful in retaining customers but we have a bigger challenge getting new customers. We looked at the data and we find that we have a high percentage of repeat customers, which suggests to us that they’ve had a positive experience. We have students who took our certificate in business analysis and then come back and they’re enrolled in an online MBA. This is the case in other professional disciplines too. In our medical faculty I’d say about half our students become repeat customers.
When we’re talking about repeat customer data, the challenge is that the larger providers have the resources to look even more discretely at these student experiences. One of the reasons why in our online program we went with a third-party enabler is that they can track a student who’s enrolled in an online course throughout the learning experience. So when the student successfully completes their first three modules and then lies dormant for two weeks, the university can intervene.
We don’t have that kind of discrete analysis for our data sets so we have to look at gross data. We look at things like the retention rate in our certificate programs, the completion rate, if people do drop out, at what point in the cycle they drop out. In studying front-end student decision-making we have also learned that those who inquire about a program later are more likely to ultimately enroll.
Evo: How does that information inform the approach you take to managing a division?
JB: Because of that data we’ve changed our marketing approach. We hired a new marketing manager in the summer, and he tracks analytics every single day across our 12 certificate programs, looking at traffic and other factors. A couple of weeks ago we had a social media piece that appeared on a particular website, and the traffic the next three days was off-the-charts positive, much higher than when we ran the same item in print. That’s a concrete example of how we’ve been using the data. Another example has to do with the timeline of our marketing strategy. For these programs we have two major enrollment cycles—spring and fall—with start dates staggered over six weeks. By tracking everything, we found we were under-performing in the first four weeks of the enrollment cycle and over-performing in the last two weeks. Now we roll out our marketing plan in the final two weeks, rather than across the whole six-week period.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to use analytics to drive the student experience?
JB: What I’m learning from this new fellow we hired who worked in industry is the value of the data. He tracks our certificate performance every single day and he can tell me which pathways and delivery mechanisms are performing best at any given time. The whole thing about data-informed decision-making is not getting overwhelmed by the data and using that data strategically.
Author Perspective: Administrator