Published on 2017/07/11
The EvoLLLution | Enhancing Student Experience and Success through Technology
Data and technology can be immensely impactful and transformative in supporting the success and outcomes of a wider demographic of students than ever before, but it must be implemented responsibly and thoughtfully.

As an organizational enabler and disruptor, technology neither resides wholly in physical nor virtual realms. Moreover, data is omnipresent between, on and beyond analog and digital borders. In Wanda Orlikowski’s classic paper The Duality of Technology she emphasizes that technology facilities and constrains actions, while simultaneously influencing the reinforcement or transformation of structures and interaction.[1] An essential takeaway is that the formative and transformative power of technology is typically symptomatic of one’s associated (inter)actions and experiences.

Along these lines, I was recently asked about the potential for technology and data to transform the collegiate experience—from admittance to graduation. One of the intriguing things about that line of inquiry is that an individual’s response is oftentimes influenced more by the inquirer’s exterior framing than by the respondent’s interior standpoint within a domain of expertise. In this particular case, I was predisposed to contemplate the role and impact of data and technology in supporting students’ success—from the point of being hopeful prospects to becoming skillful graduates.

Student experience is not synonymous with student success. It is common, however, for the two to be conflated. For the sake of clarity, the former is primarily focused on affect and the latter effect. Institutional effectiveness initiatives are spawning a growing body of literature and research focused on the application of data and predictive analytics to improve retention, persistence and graduation rates. At the center of these initiatives are technologies that inform and aid in achieving institutional goals, meeting system benchmarks, and complying with accreditation standards that call for higher education leaders to evince greater commitment to student success.

In the 2017 EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issue, “Student Success and Completion” ranked second. Furthermore, “Student Success Technologies” was noted by EDUCASE as a differentiating top-ten issue from 2013 through 2016. Technologies that advance student success by enhancing overall student experiences may represent a distinct value proposition, or more broadly, yield an institutional competitive advantage. Below the surface of the increasingly ubiquitous idea of student success is an essential action-triad that is being reinvigorated by technology and data analytics: engaging, teaching and learning.

Divisions of student affairs have a long history of focusing on the relationship between student engagement and learning. Professionals in these student-centered domains deliver and promote spaces, methods and activities that contribute to greater student satisfaction, persistence and program completion. In contrast, divisions of academic affairs have been intrinsically and traditionally focused on curricular subjects, objects and collectives that demonstrate the preservation and delivery of institutions’ educational missions. Professionals in these faculty-centered domains curate information and purvey knowledge that advances teaching and facilitates student achievement of learning outcomes and proficiency in students’ chosen fields of study. Also noteworthy is that business/administrative affairs contribute many wraparound services that support student and academic matters.

Realizing the transformative power of data and technology to positively affect institutional affairs is highly dependent on how each will be used, individually and collectively, to facilitate meaningful and impactful engagement between (prospective) students, faculty and staff—and to a lesser extent alumni. Moreover, there is great promise in leveraging data and technology to develop more diverse learning models and teaching methods that take into fuller consideration:

  1. Learning modalities;
  2. Learner types (e.g., dependent, interested, involved, and self-directed);
  3. Learning theories (e.g., informational learning, transformation learning, self-directed learning, and experiential learning);
  4. More systematic approaches to learning assessment and continuous curricular improvement.

Many institutions are embracing immersive technologies, such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to meet students’ learning needs and expectations, particularly those who are digital natives. AR and VR, respectively, bring digital content into students’ physical locations or transport students to virtual spaces where they can interact in digitally constructed environments. As a former chief enrollment officer, I am captivated by the use of immersive technologies to enhance the recruitment process by enabling prospective students to attain a sense of what their collegiate experience might be like at a particular institution.

Imagine you are a prospective student engaging in a condensed 30-minute VR experience that includes participating in new student orientation, taking a biology lab, walking across campus, hanging out in your learning community, working out in the campus recreation center, erupting in excitement at a buzzer-beater basketball game, and finally receiving your diploma. Furthermore, imagine that this whirlwind experience was personalized based on data you provided during the recruitment cycle. How do you think that experience would impact your sense of connectedness and subsequent decision to attend the institution?

Immersive learning technologies can greatly enhance curricular experiences. Imagine again the personalized VR tour you experienced and hone in on taking a biology lab. For today’s lesson you will be dissecting a frog. Dissection continues to be a controversial practice particularly in secondary education. However, in this particular case, there will be no formaldehyde, sharp dissection tools, or frogs involved. Alternatively, you will be using an AR technology developed by Tactus Technologies called V-Frog. While the use of such technology for hands-on learning experiences may be debatable, the capability for faculty to render course material—previously textbook- or classroom-bound—in an engaging digital space, opens possibilities for advancements in teaching and learning.

I have shared a brighter side of data and technology impacts on student experience and success. There is, however, a shadow side that should not be overlooked. First, institutions should take extreme care not to equate the pervasive availability of digital devices as an indicator of students’ access to those devices or literacy in using them. Second, digital divides and inequities still exist in the U.S. and are becoming more prominent as blended learning modalities are implemented—possibly beyond the reach of those with no or limited access to the internet in their households. And finally, on the matter of technology-enabled collection and use of big data for predictive analytics, higher education leaders must ensure the adoption and adherence to the ethical principles of analytics as to best ensure student success initiatives do not subjugate institutional ethos in matters of privacy and profiling.

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[1] Orlikowski, Wanda J. “The duality of technology: Rethinking the concept of technology in organizations.” Organization science 3.3 (1992): 398-427.

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