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3 Ways IT Is Impacting Student Success

Three CIOs talk about technology's role in student success and the wide-ranging ways that the IT organization is contributing to institutional goals.

Over the past several years, student success initiatives have burst onto the scene as academic officials have sought to respond to pressure to improve retention and graduation rates. Philanthropic groups such as the Gates Foundation and state legislatures have made student success a point of emphasis. Many universities don't have the technology infrastructure to respond to the needs of these new programs, which raises the question of the CIO's role in designing solutions.

Why should CIOs be proactive on the issue of student success? "It is important to be engaged in things that are important to the overall mission of the university," said Scott Winslow, practice manager at EAB, a consulting firm and technology platform provider. Winslow recently led the research for a report about optimizing IT's role in student success (see "4 IT Priorities for Student Success" below). "In many cases CIOs and their teams aren't viewed as strategic partners on campus," he said. "They are viewed as keeping the lights on." Student success is an area where they can contribute to longer-term institutional goals.

Campus Technology asked three CIOs how their IT organizations contribute to student success initiatives on campus and the areas they have chosen to emphasize.

Oral Roberts University: Enterprise Integration to Lower Friction for Students

Mike Mathews, who has been CIO at Oral Roberts University (OK) for three years, has spent that time focusing on an enterprise integration project called "ORU GeoVision" to unite more than 30 IT systems under a single login for students, faculty and staff.

"We understand that students live in a fluid world," Mathews said. "We wanted to make sure students didn't have to think about the learning management system [LMS] as a product or logins and passwords for the student information system [SIS]."

Mathews worked closely with Kathaleen Reid-Martinez, provost and vice president for academic success, to convert that concept of fluidity into a technology plan.

"We started three years ago and made quick progress. Here is the evidence: This semester we finished with 95 percent retention between fall semester and spring semester for freshmen," said Mathews, who also claims that the technology has helped lead to comparably high retention rates between on-campus and online students. "We try to make things easy for students — whether it is getting their assignments or finding out where things are located, we want to make it simple for them. We believe that is what GeoVision has done."

He added that faculty members have bought in, too. "They no longer have to enter student grades into the SIS when they are already in the LMS. This is pure integration," he said. "Nobody has to touch anything. When faculty love something, the other pieces fall into place."

Mathews noted that unlike many universities, Oral Roberts is not interested in hearing about analytics. "I cannot go to other university executives here and talk about analytics. That is 10-year-old terminology. It doesn't resonate. They are tired of hearing from ed tech companies about analytics. We have stayed away from using that term. We talk about intelligence, fluidity and seamless integration."

Washington State University: Personalizing Education the Amazon Way

Sasi Pillay, vice president of information technology and CIO at Washington State University, is investing in WSU's business intelligence capabilities with an eye toward personalizing education in much the same way that online retailers such as Amazon personalize the shopping experience.

"When you are flying and you miss your connecting flight, it is one thing to know as soon as that happens, but it is even better to know what your choices are," said Pillay, who came to WSU in 2015 after serving as CIO for the University of Wisconsin System.

"If you extend that analogy, to make that work in an academic environment, you must come up with tools and early alerts to students and couple that with the ability to deliver services," he said. So if a student is having trouble with a math concept, the idea is to nudge that student to do something proactive. Maybe they haven't read the assignments for the class or gotten together with a project team. "We can couple that with the idea that previous students who were having those kinds of problems and took these steps improved their grades," Pillay said. It is the Amazon approach: People who have shopped for this also shopped for that. "How can we mimic what people are doing in the commercial marketplace? We have piles and piles of data, but how do we find the needle in that big haystack?"

In the short term, WSU has partnered with EAB to use its student success management system and participate in its Student Success Collaborative. "But our long-term strategy is to build that business intelligence expertise in-house," Pillay said. "We are investing in people to grow that practice within the IT organization." He predicts that WSU is about two years away from being able to develop those Amazon-like features to help nudge students to succeed.

Pillay said looking at the student experience holistically is key. He said WSU must do a multi-domain analysis of academic performance, financial acumen and the student's sense of community and social structure. "These are important elements that make up the functioning of a human being and how they are going to behave and how it is going to lead to success," he said.

"To look at students from a more holistic perspective, we have to be able to mine data around several things. One of these days we will be able to know half as much about our students as Target knows about you and me now," he said. "I am confident we will be able to predict, even before they arrive on campus, how successful students will be in our environment. At the end of the day, it is all about behaviors and the more good behaviors we can instill in freshmen, the more they will be able to be retained. The question is connecting the data points in a way that is statistically significant. That is where the data science and data mining come in. We are deploying the pieces of it, but haven't hit on the secret sauce. Some of that is coming from EAB now, but we want to create our own secret sauce."

University of Maryland, Baltimore County: Focus on Data Warehouse to Increase Agility

Jack Suess, vice president of information technology and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, noted that it is often the case that if a campus hasn't developed the infrastructure to be able to move on a student success agenda, the solution tends to be buying a product. "That is not bad. Companies such as EAB, Civitas and other third parties are coming up with valuable products," said Suess, who last year co-authored an article on this topic for the Educause Review with Hank Childers of the University of Arizona.

"What Hank and I were saying is that IT leaders need to be thinking about how to set up the infrastructure to be able to support this longer term," Suess explained.  "Often these initial forays into buying a commercial product are addressing a part of the student success initiative, but no one vendor has a fully 100 percent complete solution that is going to be the be-all, end-all," he said. In many instances, the decisions to go buy third-party systems are happening, rightly, in the chief academic officer's office, he said. "The provost is saying, 'We have a mandate from the legislature to move on student success. We can't wait for IT to deliver some solution three years from now.' What I am trying to say to campuses is: You might buy a solution, but you should also be building an infrastructure that is going to allow you to take advantage of other solutions in the future in a more efficient way."

The biggest problem Suess sees is that vendors such as Civitas and EAB want to interface directly to your enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Problems can crop up when the numbers coming out of one of these systems do not match the numbers being produced by the institutional research (IR) team. That makes some people on campus suspicious of the risk calculations, which has stymied some of the success efforts, he said.

Suess believes campuses should create a data warehouse that interfaces with these success systems. "That is what we do at UMBC. I have EAB, Civitas and Blackboard Predict," he said. "All of them get fed from our business intelligence system, not from our ERP. My IR department also uses the BI platform to do their official reporting. The validation of data is much easier because it is all coming out of the same system that has been normalized. IR is working with us to make sure the data that goes into the system is as accurate as possible."

Suess said more and more companies are going to come into the success space with point solutions. "What you want to do is have this abstraction layer that allows you to add any vendor that can bring in significant value quickly and effectively. That is only going to happen if you get to the point where you abstract it through this BI system. And in the short term, most campuses can't do that."

The future is going to require agility and flexibility, he added. "You aren't going to be agile if you are integrating these things directly into your ERP system."

4 IT Priorities for Student Success

Scott Winslow, practice manager at the Education Advisory Board, recently co-authored a paper called "Optimizing IT's Role in Student Success." The paper identified four key areas for structuring a proactive IT approach to student success. Campus Technology asked Winslow to describe them.

1) Embed faculty expertise in risk thresholds. "Faculty are closer to students and closer to what goes on in the classroom," Winslow said. "You need to engage and extract that real-world experience from faculty and make sure you use it, because then your risk threshold will be much more attuned to the realities of classroom learning." He added that faculty members need to feel enfranchised and like they have ownership in this process. "Otherwise, the people you are dependent on to carry forward a lot of your student success strategies won't be helping you and in some cases might be actively undermining you."

2) Identify and remove course bottlenecks. When EAB looked at root cause factors of students' lack of progress toward completion, the issue of bottleneck courses came up in a number of instances, Winslow said. A university might have a requirement that students take organic chemistry to complete a chemistry major, but there are only a few sections offered in the fall. If a student can't take any of those three due to personal or academic conflicts, he or she can't progress. How can universities more effectively distribute their classes for those key juncture points? "A lot of schools didn't have the data on this or haven't examined it as an issue," he said. It gets back to trying to find ways that IT is engaged in advancing the university mission, Winslow added. "If the CIO and his or her team are trying to surface data that leads to better outcomes, one of the things they should be doing is gathering information about which courses are bottleneck courses, analyzing and standardizing that information and pushing it out to the decision-makers on campus."

3) Segment risk-based interventions. Because advising resources are quite limited on campus, there is a need to make sure universities can use their advising talent in a way that is going to be most effective, Winslow said. If a student is actively reaching out to her academic adviser and has a 3.8 GPA, does the university need to spend advising time with that student? Or is advising time better spent with a student at risk of dropping out or not completing the semester he is in? "Many schools decide they need to find the most at-risk students where they have the highest probability of improving their trajectory and ensure that they spend their resources as wisely as possible. There are a lot of things you could do in a self-service manner for low-risk students."

4) Provide assessment data to advisers. At some institutions, advising loads are very high — 500 to 1,000 students per adviser. "Frankly it is impossible to build personal rapport with that many individuals," Winslow said. But there are constituent relationship management tools that can capture data on students — classes they have taken, grades, how long they have been on campus, but also whether they have followed through on recommendations to go to a writing center or math problem help sessions. "Academic advisers are more engaged in helping students when they can see that the advice they have given is being acted upon."

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