Leveraging technology to redesign the higher ed user experience


The user experience in higher education is broken, but fixing it only requires changing a few simple approaches, according to Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

The first step in addressing the user experience problem is recognizing that there is one at all, Culatta told higher education and technology leaders Wednesday at the EDUCAUSE annual conference in Philadelphia.

He rattled off a bevy of stats: More than 40 percent of students don’t finish their four-year degrees within six years; two-thirds of students borrow money to complete their undergraduate educations; almost half of recent college graduates say they are underemployed or in jobs that don’t require their college degrees; and only about 25 percent of students in remedial classes will ever earn a degree from community college.

Some of those grim numbers, he said, can be attributed to the fact that the user — in this case, the student — is largely misunderstood by institutional leaders and administrators.

The typical college student today is less often a “first-time, full-time” student — the 19-year-old recent high school graduate many people often associate with college freshmen — and more often a single working parent, a full-time store manager, a kid finishing their senior year of high school or a member of the military. Over one-third of college students today are over the age of 25, he said.

“We have to understand the students of today, instead of the students of 30 years ago,” he told an audience of higher education IT professionals.

Understanding today’s students, and helping them reach success, can start with technology, Culatta suggested.

For example, online course registration is often cumbersome and nonsensical. Thousands of courses — ranging in subjects, proficiency levels and requirements — are presented in a single, alphabetized list at many colleges. It’s “just dumb,” he said, to expect any student to sift through the entire list, from accounting to zoology.

“Presenting something as simple as how you choose your classes in a way that’s designed around the needs of the users can be incredibly transformational for that experience,” he said.

Universities like Boise State and Arizona State offer an intuitive enrollment system that operates like Google Calendar, Culatta said. Students can plug in the times they’re available to attend class each week, accounting for their responsibilities with jobs, childcare or otherwise, and only the courses that fit that schedule will appear as options.

Another part of the user experience that doesn’t serve students, Culatta said, is the one-size-fits-all teaching approach.

As a former college instructor himself, Culatta was guilty of this, too, he said.

“I taught them all the same thing, but they weren’t the same. Why on earth we think they need the same thing is mystifying,” he said, and compared teaching all students the same way to giving doctors’ patients with different symptoms the same medicine.

The use of data is also underutilized in education, he said. Student data should function like a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, which provides real-time data users can immediately see, digest and incorporate into their behavior.

“Most of the [student] data we get comes after it’s too late — like, ‘Hey, you failed this course,’” he said. “Feedback is incredibly powerful for changing behavior. Show it back in real time how my performance is doing and where I have opportunities to change and adjust.”

Khan Academy’s online resources are especially effective at providing real-time data and feedback for students, Culatta said. As are some institutional resources, like at Georgia State University, which analyzes data through its GPS Advising system to improve student outcomes. It can eventually help students decide which courses to take, which degrees to pursue and which jobs to apply for.

“That’s the power of designing systems around the needs of users,” Culatta said.

As college and university IT leaders consider how to leverage technology to improve student outcomes, Culatta had one final message: “If we’re not really careful about what we’re doing, we will end up with an exact digital replica of all of the challenges we currently face in our traditional education system,” he said. “All those gloom and doom [statistics] from the beginning, we will have in a digital format because we’re very quickly recreating the system that we’re comfortable with.”