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Five ways higher ed is boosting student success

Student success is about far more than good grades and a spiffy diploma at the end of two, four or more years. And higher education institutions have never had more products flung at them, claiming to deliver results at a time when college enrollment is tanking, institutions are still rebalancing themselves from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and students themselves are unsure about their academic futures.

From AI platforms and chatbots trying to offer assistance on admissions and financial aid to single sign-on platforms designed to pour the entirety of a campus’ resources into a mobile app, here are a few of the busiest trends in the student-success industry right now.

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Working with the CIO

While the rise of educational technology had already been bringing academic leaders closer to their universities’ IT departments, the COVID-19 pandemic’s immediate and overwhelming impact on learning only deepened those relationships. With campuses emptied out and courses shifted to virtual settings, CIOs had to help professors and students adjust to the new reality.

At Arizona State University, which has more than 51,000 students at its Tempe campus, Mark Searle, the provost, said last year that his working relationship with the CIO, Lev Gonick, was crucial in setting up tech training for thousands of faculty members within 24 hours of coronavirus restrictions being put in place. Gonick’s team also outfitted more than 900 ASU classrooms with webcams, so professors could reach students sent home, Searle said at an Educause event last October.

And University of Florida Provost Joseph Glover said that UF’s tech office furnished university leaders with data on campus public health and student engagement.

“Without the work [IT staff] are doing, we would not be surviving today,” Searle said.

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AI sometimes makes the grade

Can a computer program be taught to measure student success in terms beyond a grade-point average? That’s one goal of the growing use of artificial intelligence across universities, many of which are increasing their use of AI to help with admissions, financial aid and campus safety.

At SUNY Empire State College, New York State’s online public university where more than half of students are between 25 and 49 years old, an AI-powered chatbot installed earlier this year has cut down calls to the student information center by nearly 30%, with more questions about course selections and financial aid packages being answered by a bot named “Blue,” after the university’s bluebird mascot.

Other AI-based software is designed to scan the internet for students’ social-media content and help university officials identify students who might pose at threat to themselves or others. Sprinklr, a customer-management software company, is selling a version of its social-media monitoring software to the higher-ed market that’s capable of identifying keywords in what students post on platforms like platforms like Reddit, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, flagging suspicious content for closer review.

But AI in higher education has also run into some of the same bias issues found in other settings, like law enforcement. The University of Texas, Austin, abandoned an AI-driven admissions system developed by its graduate computer science department that reduced staff time spent reviewing applications by 74%, but was found to have the potential to reinforce historical biases based on superficial criteria.

One important fix, said JC Bonilla, the chief analytics officer education software publisher Element451, is that AI processes are only as good as the humans who train them. “We need administrators to be better at understanding what student success is so that AI can pick it up,” he told EdScoop last month.

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Can chatbots bring students back?

One of many coronavirus-era issues that colleges are still grappling with is how to regain their pre-pandemic enrollment levels. The drop-off has stung particularly hard at community colleges and other institutions that cater to adult and part-time learners, with community college rolls shrinking by 9.5% — more than twice the rate for all undergraduate programs — during the health crisis, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

But using technology to stay engaged with students disrupted by COVID-19 has helped some schools slow their enrollment declines. National University, a 26-campus chain in California that serves primarily adult learners seeking two-year degrees and certificate programs, recently expanded a chatbot, named NUton, to field its students’ questions about tutoring, financial aid, career counseling and other school resources.

The bot, which had previously been available only through the university’s veterans’ center, has been credited with having an engagement rate 50% greater than traditional communication methods, like emails, and has saved staff about 500 hours per month. The impact has been a 17% boost in student retention, said Brandon Jouganatos, National University’s vice president for enrollment management and student success.

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Universities go all-in-one

Just as states and cities are trying to give their residents comprehensive digital access to government services, universities are starting to take the same tack, offering students mobile apps containing information about campus events, athletics and academic support. Kansas State University’s Polytechnic Campus, for instance, has partnered with a company called Rah Rah to develop an app designed to help students keep up with clubs and organizations, schedule appointments with campus services and check in at nearby off-campus events.

Christopher Smith, the university’s executive director of enrollment management, marketing and financial aid, and Terri Gaeddert, the associate dean of academics and student success told EdScoop recently they’re trying to meet students “where they’re at.”

But edtech heavyweights are also getting in on all-in-one platforms. In April, Ellucian launched a new product, called simply Experience, that’s designed to be a hub where students can monitor their grades, connect with academic advisers or see their financial-aid status. The company told EdScoop at the time the platform will integrate with about 150 other education software vendors Ellucian works with, all in the name of making students’ experience more seamless.

“Particularly for students, when there’s sand in the gears of their educational journey, it’s harder to be successful,” said Stephen Laster, Ellucian’s chief product officer.

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But what do students want from edtech?

In an interview last month, Justin Reich, a professor of learning systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said “charismatic technologists” have spent the past two decades hurling products at college students with revolutionary promises — many of which go unfulfilled.

That effect accelerated during COVID-19, as college was forced to become a primarily virtual experience with campuses emptied out and lecture halls converted into video conferences. “I think for most people, remote learning has been somewhere between disappointing and disastrous,” Reich told EdScoop.

Students’ recent views on educational technology, though, is a mixture of contempt and interest. In January, the higher-ed publication Intelligent found that 57% of college students felt their ability to learn suffered during the pandemic, with a majority also saying it became more difficult to get academic help. The survey also found that 60% of students felt their social lives were worse off for having to study from their bedrooms, and more than half reported experiencing mental-health issues.

But those results do not mean students are distrustful of edtech. A majority see it as fundamental to their success, according to a survey published in April by Inside Higher Ed. That poll found that of 1,413 students enrolled during the 2020-21 academic year, 73% said they’d be “somewhat” or “strongly” interested in some of their courses being fully online in the future, and 68% said they’d like to see more classes follow a hybrid of in-person and virtual instruction. And 68% said they’d like to see more digital materials used in their fully in-person courses.

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