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Creating Connection: Driving Learner Success with Smart Machines

Co-written with Darcy Janzen | eLearning Support Manager, University of Washington Tacoma

The EvoLLLution | Creating Connection: Driving Learner Success with Smart Machines
New, smart technological tools help coordinate and strengthen relationships with students at every level of the institution.

New-traditional students are older, working, diverse and often unprepared for the rigor and self-regulation of college.[1] This is the majority of students attending our campus at the University of Washington Tacoma. They are time-stressed by jobs, families and complex responsibilities seldom seen in previous generations of learners. How does a campus change to accommodate learning needs and preferences of students now in higher education? How do we leverage emerging technologies to provide meaning and value to the learner?

The Personal Matters

At the University of Washington Tacoma, we struggle to reinvent ourselves in ways that ensure the success of our students. Like many universities relying on old models and multiple, independent data systems to track and serve students—online application systems, student information systems (SIS), learning management systems (LMS), financial aid systems, early alert systems, university gradebook—these systems store single-use data and can lead to a disconnect with the student somewhere along their academic journey. Students are unaware or perplexed regarding the data available to them, when it’s available and how to access or to make meaning of that data. Faculty and staff are perplexed by how to use the data available for best support of the student … and that’s only when we actually remember the sites, structures and security needed to access each system.

By focusing on more personalized and meaningful use of data, and exploring effective and personalized practice in that use, we can collectively take shared responsibility to enhance student motivation and persistence in a diverse student population. By changing the cultural model for personalized learner support, we move towards greater student satisfaction, increased retention, and ultimately higher graduation rates.

Creating a Culture of the Individual

Technology will be the game changer in higher education. It can break down the silos and division of data and move us from parallel business operations to cooperation and partnership among faculty, advisors, student support services and business operations.

The shift to student-aware technology enables a culture of deep and attentive action through all staff and faculty engaging in personalized interactions (communications, alerts, targeted support) with students from enrollment to graduation. Personalized engagement with the learner, as well as target analytics, coupled with intentional institutional “tag team” practices creates a new “We see YOU; We care about YOU” web of support for students at every step of their academic life and beyond.

Smarter Machines

Technology has afforded our campus new and seamless ways to be proactive in the academic lives of students, to enhance student persistence and to rethink our roles. The challenge is to find and effectively leverage tools and data now available to personalize the learning experience. A few examples we’re exploring at University of Washington Tacoma to nudge students to success include:

  • Better, more personalized outreach to students by faculty through the “message students who…” feature in our LMS. We’ve created a shared template of both praise and warning messages to help faculty identify and use levers to keep students on track.

  • We’ve partnered with a mobile messaging platform to send at-risk populations (online math, first year, summer drift students) reminders, links, encouraging messages and behavioral interventions.

  • We’ve partnered with an education analytics firm to maximize pattern analytics that enable insights and inquiry into our diverse (antiquated, siloed) student data and we expect the platform to be ready for use by summer 2015. When the massive data stores are linked in the cloud, and our advisors, administrators and Institutional Research Office have access to data previously impossible to make meaningful, we expect new services and faster turnaround in removing obstacles to learner success.

Smart systems will aide faculty in identifying potential red flags in student performance within a course in a much more efficient, effective way. Advisors will be able to see a student’s progress and where they struggled over time – allowing them to prepare students for courses ahead or for majors that are a better, faster fit for that student. A system’s ability to provide early alert to advisors for any student performance issues, students will receive individualized care targeted to specific areas of concern to include steering the learner to support services such as tutoring, counseling, mentoring, registration and financial services.

Collaboration across the silos via smart systems means our student success center can do outreach on tutoring services based on the data patterns, instead of wishing/hoping that the student comes to them or the instructor manually sends an alert. These types of combined efforts matter and have a profound impact on a student’s outlook and feelings of belonging within the University.

“We see YOU, We care about YOU.” Emerging technologies for teaching, learning and support can make this a promise, instead of a slogan.

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[1] Judith Ramaley and Andrea Leskes, “Greater Expectations,” Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2002. Accessed at

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