Published on 2013/11/25

AUDIO | Creating Flexibility Through Infrastructure
A supportive institutional culture is more important than the latest technology when it comes to creating a system that promotes student success.

The following interview is with Kishia Brock, vice president of student affairs and advancement at Rio Salado College. Brock recently discussed the importance of convenience for students both in academic pursuits and in day-to-day administrative functions in an article on flexible academic calendars. In this interview, Brock expands on that notion, discusses the importance of implementing these systems for both institutions and students, and explains the extra steps institutions must take to ensure these systems are effective.

Click here to read key takeaways

1. What are some of the biggest roadblocks, when it comes to convenience, for non-traditional students looking to enroll in a higher education program?

In many instances, non-traditional students don’t have the freedom or flexibility to be place bound, time bound or even semester bound. One thing we have done at Rio Salado College is we’ve developed a 48-semester block calendar option, which has taken the structure of the traditional educational semester and has expanded that across the academic year to allow students 48 different entry points a year.

2. Do you students wind up being organized into cohorts or are they more distributed across time in the institutional mindset?

I wouldn’t actually call them cohorts. We manage 48 semesters for 48 academic calendars a year. And, so, the students who come to us — who want to get a degree or certificate — can pick any one of those 48 starting points and then they would progress through the program of study following that semester block.

The reason I would say they are not cohorts is that cohorts would usually imply there is some sort of intentional connection with the other learners. In this setting, any of the intentional connections would occur organically in the classroom or in the social media environment we’ve set up. It’s not an intentional cohort model.

3. What is the downside for institutions when it comes to putting student organizational systems into place?

First and foremost, you need the organizational structure or the infrastructure in place to support a model like this. So, our academic calendar was intentionally designed to provide this flexibility and the instructional model we had in place supports that flexibility. There’s really no way we could use any technological system to launch this if we didn’t have the organizational infrastructure in place and the culture — the organizational culture — in place to support such a model. So, that’s important, first and foremost.

The second piece of that is what technology you leverage to manage such a flexible system. Some of the downsides of using this technology probably relate to the investment an institution has to make initially to establish the technology and then the long-term investment in terms of training, the adoption of the system, system maintenance [and] upgrades. Another consideration would be — and I think this tends to happen with institutions — sometimes, you implement the technology that’s the newest at the time you are launching an initiative and then you get complacent with that technology; you don’t necessarily look at what’s being developed. You’re moving so quickly, but need to look at what the new technology is and figure out how you can continue to innovate.

4. Conversely, what are the benefits to putting such systems into place?

The biggest benefits, I think, are automation, scalability — and what I mean by that, in particular, scalability is the ability to serve more students more effectively and efficiently and the benefit to society is that you increase access and you contribute greatly to the completion agenda — to helping students accomplish their degree and certificate goals. It also allows you to leverage your human resources more effectively. So rather than having your faculty or your student affairs either focus on something that’s a little more routine or transactional, they can focus truly on teaching and learning or on how to support that student to successful completion of their degree.

It takes some of the manual, transactional tasks out of the equation and allows you to really leverage the strengths of your faculty and staff to serve students.

5. Is there anything you’d like add about the value of putting this system in place when it comes to helping students enroll at times convenient for their schedule, and the impact it’s had on retention and accessibility for non-traditional students?

It’s more than just the technology. The technology is important, but it’s really the culture of the organization and the infrastructure of the organization to support such a move that’s going to make the difference.

If you don’t have the people willing to do it, [create] the structure that supports it and the culture that supports it, then the technology put in place might not be successful. Setting clear goals as to what you’re trying to accomplish and making sure that everyone has that common paradigm as you move forward [is critical].

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Key Takeaways

  • Implementing new technology is only the first step towards improving the institution; culture and infrastructure must follow.
  • Allowing students to enroll and progress through programs at their own pace is highly beneficial to increasing retention and completion rates.
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Readers Comments

Cindy Lauer 2013/11/25 at 11:08 am

I agree with Brock that faculty are better able to serve students in an almost one-on-one setting with this format. However, I could see there being staffing implications in terms of faculty availability and levels of support offered. I wonder if this has been Brock’s experience and, if so, what has been done to address it.

Ian Richardson 2013/11/25 at 2:43 pm

It seems that as more institutions introduce flexible enrollment options, there will be a greater need for funding/aid application deadlines to match that flexibility. I’ve long advocated for rolling deadlines for financial aid. Here’s hoping this soon becomes a reality.

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