Embracing Change and Transforming the Student Experience Through Data Analysis
Data collection and analysis has the capacity to be a transformational force in higher education—one that changes the way institutions understand and respond to the needs of their students. Unfortunately, many colleges and universities tend to stop at the “collection” part of the data question, never fully leveraging that data to change the way they operate. In this interview, Hector Sanchez reflects on how the effective leveraging of data has helped his institution transform courser scheduling and how this approach could be further expanded to completely revamp the student experience.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What were the most significant drawbacks to the old, faculty-centric approach to course scheduling?
Hector Sanchez (HS): Course scheduling has always been based on a combination of guesses and “doing things the way we’ve always done them.” This approach probably worked back in the day but as we’re offering more, different and increasingly complex programs we’ve seen some issues arise.
The most significant drawback is that, since you’re guessing, you’re really not sure if you’re offering the courses that need to be offered. Looking back on my own experience, which mirrors the experience of a lot of students, in my last semester I needed to come back for just one course that was only offered that semester. This happens to many students: They have to enroll in additional semesters because the course they need is only offered at one specific time. In other words, we’re asking students to wait to graduate. Since students don’t understand the nuances of scheduling—which is to say, why we only offer courses at certain times—it sometimes ends degree plans. That’s a big drawback because nowadays we’ve not only been asked to graduate more students, we’re being told that we have to do it in a certain, very quick, time frame. State legislatures are not going to wait for ten years or twelve years for us to graduate students, and they’re tying our funding to these outcomes.
Course scheduling plays a huge role in this. We could be in a situation where we’re not offering a critical course or where we don’t have enough seats to serve the students who need them. This delays students from taking the course and, most importantly, delays them from graduating as quickly as they can. That’s one of the biggest drawbacks of the way we were doing scheduling in the old system and we need to move past the “maintaining the status quo” mentality.
Evo: How does this outdated approach to scheduling impact the student experience?
HS: This approach impacts them by not allowing them to take the courses they want when they want. Students today are different than students 20 years ago in that they have come to expect on-demand services. Students don’t want to wait—they want service now and when they don’t have it they get upset, which translates to a poor student experience.
Delivering a positive student experience is a priority for us because students have so many choices today, given the proliferation of online colleges and courses. Students today have many choices that if they can’t get the courses that they want, or the experience they expect, sometimes the option is looking elsewhere. Institutions have to be sensitive to that because this generation of students is so geared to getting things on demand.
Evo: What was the “Eureka moment” that led you and your colleagues to invest in a more analytics-driven approach to scheduling?
HS: I don’t know if there was an explicit Eureka moment. We have always known that we were not giving students what they needed when they needed it. But we couldn’t figure out how we could meet that need with what we had to offer.
We knew we needed an analytics tool to tell us what students were looking for because it’s really a no-brainer that the old way of doing things—of guessing and letting faculty determine what would be offered based on what they wanted to teach—wasn’t working. We needed to be a little bit more analytical and use the data that we had to gauge what to offer. The analytics tells us trends and historical information.
I’m involved with the degree audit system, which tells students what courses they need to take, providing us real-time information on the students currently enrolled and on the pathways they’re travelling. We decided to leverage the two systems together to get us the information we need on student demand on course offering requirements. It’s still an evolving system and nothing is perfect. We’re trying to gauge a lot of the data that’s coming out.
However, with this analytical data we can start offering courses based off what students need, not what we think they need or what’s been offered in the past.
Evo: How has improving analysis of data changed the philosophy of the management at the institution?
HS: There have been a number of changes across the institution related to the improvement of data and data availability. The positive impact on faculty has been significant. Across every institution, faculty tend to be very conservative when it comes to course offerings and curricula. It can be difficult for faculty to understand that the most important reason we’re here is to serve students, to give students the ability to take the courses they need when they need them and when they want them. That this is in the best interest of the whole university and, most importantly, the student. This change has helped in making it clear what courses are needed and when, because it’s difficult to argue with the insights the data provides.
I think faculty understand the importance of creating access for students to the courses that they need when they need them, but our old way of doing scheduling meant we didn’t have a way to know whether we were meeting students’ needs.
Evo: How do you hope to see this high-touch/high-tech approach being rolled out elsewhere at NMSU?
HS: I come from an information technology background and I’ve always believed that data holds the answers to every question that you want to know. The problem is mining that data—you have to dig and work through it. However, we ask a lot of questions about what a student needs or what a student wants, and many times the answer is already in the data.
One of the important things that we’re doing at NMSU is advising, and it has been significantly impacted by data. The administration understands that advising is the most important aspect to making sure students have a great experience and that advising can be all-encompassing. We usually think of advising as academic—where students are advised to take specific courses and programs to get into their career of choice—but it’s so much more. There are so many types of advising that we offer, like financial aid and scholarships, institutional services and healthcare, counselling and more. Taking this perspective, that everyone at this university and any university are advisors, how can we take the information that we have and integrate into one place? Such an approach would help us to understand what a student experiences and how a student has been advised.
What we’re trying to do is get that 360-degree view and use that information to make decisions and make judgments that allow us to help the students. An early alert system, for example, brings in a great deal of information but how can we gauge which variables or situations should alert us that we need to be intervening with a student? A lot of times we’re not keeping track of that information, or that information is stuck in our system, and we’re not using it well. Normally administration only finds out a student is falling behind when they’re coming into the registrar’s office to withdraw from courses. That’s not when you want to find this out. You want to see them before they get to that stage because a lot of times they’re dropping courses because they’re failing or they’re are having a negative experience that makes them want to leave. That late stage is not when you want to address it, and sometimes it’s already too late. You want to start addressing the students’ concerns early and we have that data already in our system. The question is, how do we mine the data in our information system to keep us apprised of our students? That’s going to be our next push, trying to get the whole 360 degree view of a student and using the data that we have and the data that we can collect to develop that view.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the capacity for technology to transform the student experience and help institutions more effective?
HS: It come down to mining the data, which takes work. We have the data already, and many schools have been collecting it for years. But it’s time to use that data to enhance the student experience. When we do this, and do it well, it’s a win-win for everyone. It’s a win for the faculty, a win for administration, but ultimately it’s a win for the student.
Ultimately, if there are no students, there are no jobs and we need to understand that we’re here to serve the student. Anything we can do to make the student experience the best it can be, well I’m all for it. If we can do it with the data that we have and mine that data, it will be a huge boost for us. If we don’t ask the questions from our data then we can’t help the student.
Author Perspective: Administrator