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Delivering the Experience Modern Learners Expect

The modern learner wants an institution that cares about them. To deliver on this mission, institutions need to be intentional with programming to ensure the high quality that students demand.

In the world of Amazon, students demand a personalized experience that makes them feel unique to an institution. This means giving them choice and flexibility when it comes to their future. In this interview, Thomas Cavanagh discusses what the modern learner expects from an institution, the challenges that comes with delivering on this mission, and the technological infrastructure it takes to implement this experience successfully and to scale. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What do modern learners expect from the experience offered by their post-secondary institution?

Thomas Cavanagh (TC): Most modern learners expect the institution first and foremost to care about their success and to manifest that care in a variety of ways. That could be everything from ensuring really intentional and robust quality course design, to empathetic and responsive faculty, to individualized instruction. It even includes the systems in place designed for the student’s success—whether that’s advising, digital access to library materials, tutoring or supplemental instruction—different services that might be available. It’s about knowing that this institution is invested in my success and that that attitude infuses everything in the student experience.

Evo: How do modern learner expectations affect their relationship with the institution and the way they perceive their place within it?

TC: Online learners, in particular, tend to be more transactional in their relationship with the institution than a traditional student who spends four or years on campus and has a coming-of-age experience. Traditional students have a more deep-rooted, formative experience with the university, and it becomes a part of their story. Many times, non-traditional learners have a different, though no less important, relationship with the institution. And, as a result, they may have different kinds of expectations.

For example, if I’m a 40-year-old employed parent looking for a credential to get a promotion or career change, that’s different than an 18-year-old’s experience. That adult is willing to pay and invest their time, and in return, expect a credential and increase in skills and knowledge that allows them to accomplish their goal.

The two age groups want different outcomes from the university. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s entirely just an Amazon relationship. It’s much more complicated and nuanced than that, and that analogy tends to be a little reductionist. I understand where it’s coming from, especially because it’s online and everybody seems to live their lives online now, but the university experience is much more complicated than that.

Evo: What are some of the challenges that a leader will face when investing in or upgrading their infrastructure to create the experience that’s going to be contextualized to different learners?

TC: Infrastructure has multiple dimensions, and one obviously is technical, but the other is more human and systemic. From a technical standpoint, a couple of key things have to be considered. One is security. You have to ensure people’s data are secure and that you can ensure that kind of compliance. Accessibility is also important. You want to make sure you’re serving learners of all abilities, and that you’re not just complying for the sake of legal compliance, but because it’s the right thing to do to serve all these learners.

On the human systemic side, it’s about having the right supports in place to assist students,whether that’s learner support or access to digital materials for an online environment. One that combines both a human systemic kind of process with a technical process is the ability to serve at scale. What you can do for just a couple of learners and a couple of classes is very different from what you can do for thousands without a degradation in quality and service.

Evo: Why is it important to take the technological infrastructure seriously when it comes to personalizing at scale?

TC: It’s important because you want it to work. At a school like mine, we love starting with pilots and doing experiments. But we always have to think through the end state to make sure that it can support scale. We are a very large institution. Last year we had about 73,000 students. Online learning is a huge part of our strategy. Pre-COVID, about 50% of our credit hours consisted of online and blended learning, and it’s going to increase. We have to think about what will happen if something works and scales, and if we want to deploy it in a great way. Can we afford it and what kind of technical and human investments are necessary to make that work?

Then there’s personalization. That’s really important to us because as a large school, we don’t want students to feel like a number. We want the educational experience to be as personalized as it possibly can. It’s one reason why we’ve made such a major investment in adaptive learning. In fact, we call our specialized adaptive learning team the Personalized Adaptive Learning (PAL) team.

Evo: What are some best practices to overcoming obstacles to create the space needed for relevant technology investments and cultural shifts required to transition to a more personalized ecosystem for learners? 

TC: My previous boss, Joel Hartman, said that adding technology without changing the fundamental process is only going to add cost and expense and frustration. You have to look holistically at change management. It’s not just saying a tool will solve all your problems. There are tools that can have impact, but you need to change the process around them in order for them to have it. 

One of the things I’ve tried to do in my role here is to align the work and mission of the Division of Digital Learning with the goals and objectives of the president and the board. We have our own internal metrics, but what we really try to measure ourselves on are the things that the president and board get measured on. Things like time to graduation, student retention, student success within courses. How can we impact those things? We can draw a line from a lot of the work that we do directly to a positive impact in many of those areas.

The more we can align and tie our activities to the university’s overarching strategic goals and mission, the more those obstacles get lowered. When you’re looking at the iron triangle of quality, cost and access, you can impact multiple bars of that triangle strategically. You don’t become an expense. You become an investment at that point. 

Evo: What impact does personalization have on the larger purpose of serving learners as measured through their retention and persistence through a program and their outcomes?

TC: We measure everything. In fact, we’ve got a team here within the division dedicated to doing nothing but assessment and evaluation. The Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness, which is led by Chuck Dziuban. One of our directors, Patsy Moskal, who is part of that group, is in charge of digital learning impact evaluation. She evaluates all of our initiatives and pilots. One of them is personalization and adaptive learning. We saw some early success, enough that we felt like we needed to establish this PAL team and start investing a little more broadly in it. That led to some strategic investment by the board of trustees, and then to some very specific things related to digital learning, blended learning, but also adaptive learning. 

The results of that have been really encouraging. The majority of our adaptive learning courses have resulted in overall improvements. Not every class, but most classes that used adaptive learning have improved. That’s been fuel to the fire for us to continue pushing personalization, cutting across all kinds of disciplines. It also took a great effort on the part of our faculty and our instructional design team collaboratively to redesign these courses in a way that is iterative. You don’t solve all the problems the first semester, but that ultimately has, at least through our evaluation, shown definite improvements for students.

Evo: How are you leveraging personalization pre-enrollment? 

TC: With UCF Online, which is our virtual campus, we’ve established what we call the Connect Center for UCF Online students. It begins with our very first inquiry with an inquiry specialist. They’ll take the inquiry and call the student back and answer any general questions they have about joining UCF. Once they have decided to apply, they go to an enrollment specialist, who works one-on-one with them, to make sure they have everything they need. It’s not technological, so much as it is human, high-touch interaction with somebody.

Once they’re enrolled at the university, those UCF Online students are assigned a success coach as their point of contact to this large bureaucratic university. They mediate this university for them, but they also provide coaching services. They understand their motivation for coming to school here. Maybe it is to get that job that they were looking to transition into, to get a promotion or maybe to accomplish a lifelong goal. That gets recorded and the student gets reminded of their motivation as things progress and times get tough. This coach can facilitate that and serve as the point of contact to keep them motivated and to eliminate friction within the university.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about developing a personalization strategy and executing on it at scale?

TC: It takes a commitment and investment, but it should be informed by the data. If it’s not working, then you need to tweak it. We’ve done that over time. We didn’t expect to change the world in the first semester. Faculty and students were navigating a new thing. And as a result, you have to expect a little bit of transition there. But over two or three semesters, we have found that it does work. It’s just a heavier lift than even building a regular online class. It requires a lot more content, a lot more design, many more questions. In the end, we have found that it it’s worth it.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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