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Campus Technology Insider Podcast June 2021

Listen: How Tech Is Keeping California State University's Student Success Goals in Sight 

Rhea Kelly: Hello, and welcome to the campus technology insider podcast. I'm Rhea Kelly, executive editor for campus technology and your host.

In 2015, California State University launched Graduation Initiative 2025, an ambitious plan to increase graduation rates and eliminate equity gaps in degree completion across the system's 23 campuses. Then halfway through that work, COVID hit — and all those student supports and services had to shift online. For this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Dr. James Minor, assistant vice chancellor at CSU and leader of the Graduation Initiative, to find out how CSU kept students on track despite the challenges of the pandemic, the technologies and infrastructure that were needed to support students remotely, and what will remain in place going forward. Here's our chat.

Dr. Minor, welcome to the podcast.

James Minor: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Kelly: So I know that California State University is right smack in the middle of a 10-year student success initiative, working to increase graduation rates across the whole system. So what was it like to be immersed in that work — and, you know, I assume you were making good progress toward those goals — and then be hit with all the challenges that come with a global pandemic?

Minor: Yeah, it's a great question. And what I can tell you right away is that when we started this initiative, we knew that the road would be difficult. But I can assure you, none of us accounted for a global pandemic for the ages. And on a good day, student success work, retention work, closing equity gaps, it can be pretty challenging and difficult work. And now add to the mix a global public health crisis — it has been extraordinarily challenging. But I must tell you, I am both impressed and inspired and encouraged by the community of educators and professionals who figured out a way to, on one hand, manage a public health crisis, and with the other hand, figure out how to maintain the opportunities for students and to keep pathways open and alive for students to continue to pursue their degree. So it has been challenging for sure. But I am extraordinarily proud of the work that the CSU has been able to do in terms of providing opportunities for students to stay on path, stay on the track to pursue their educational goals.

Kelly: Have you needed to reevaluate the goals of the Graduation Initiative at all, or, you know, change any milestones, nudge the finish line, or anything like that?

Minor: So this is a great question and the short answer is no. I can tell you that there was quite a bit of pressure. Because the goals are ambitious. You have to remember our effort centers on dramatically improving graduation rates both at the four- and six-year level, for first-time students and for transfer students. And the other goal is to completely close equity gaps across different demographic groups in our student population. So not only are the goals aggressive, but it's challenging, and you must believe that surely we heard, you know, "My goodness, there's a global pandemic. You know, nobody knows about the budget, it's really uncertain. Surely, you can't continue to hold and maintain these targets and these goals that you've set not only for the system, but also for individual campuses." And pre-pandemic, I will tell you that the Graduation Initiative — as articulated by the then chancellor, Timothy White, and the board — was our number one priority. And even during the pandemic, we made lots of concessions in a lot of places. But our student success goals was not one of the goals that we were willing to compromise or give up. Because it was just too important. And we all collectively know what's at stake, right? So the CSU, for example, graduates a little more than 100,000 students a year. And so that's a number. That's a statistic. But what we have to remember is that each percentage point represents a little more than 1,000 students. And those are faces. Those are families. Those are individuals who rely on the CSU, to not only accomplish their educational goals, but also accomplish their goals economically in terms of their career, and what that means for those individuals and their families. Right? It's just too important to go backwards on our goal. So I'm very happy that in the face of some pretty intense calls to reconsider the goals, that the decision was made to stay the course.

Kelly: In the student success work that you've been doing, could you share some of the key areas that you found have had kind of the biggest impact on students completing their degrees?

Minor: Well, this is a great question because I, you know, along with every other professional in higher education, we're all learning at the same time, and in real time. And so we were concerned on two fronts. One, when the decision was made to go virtual, whether we could keep students connected to the university. We've all heard about the digital divide. But I think, this past year, it is taken on a new meaning at scale. And so yes, we knew that there was a digital divide. But the idea of it being the sole medium, if you will, to keep students connected to the campus, and to maintain progress towards their degree, we had to figure that out right away. So number one was, you know, this mass deployment of technology. And by that I mean devices, right, you know, 20,000-plus laptops and tablets and mobile WiFi spots and opening up parking lots, to do everything we could to make sure that students had the technology to stay connected. The other thing that we had to be concerned about was the learning environment, right? We would invite students to campus and then say, we can control, to some degree, right, the campus environment, the classroom environment, the labs, we could set up a tutoring center, we can manipulate those services and the environment on a college campus. Well suddenly, we've got hundreds of thousands of students who have micro learning environments that vary quite significantly, right? Some students are now taking class from their car in a parking lot, at their dining room table across the table from a younger sibling, right, who may be in class at the same time, while potentially managing financial hardships that may be affecting their household — the list goes on and on and on. And so we also had to figure out how to support students who may be struggling, even though they've got the technology and they're connected, but they're also struggling with creating a learning environment that's conducive to being successful in the classroom. That was number two. And the third thing that we wanted to be concerned about was a community of faculty, who were, many of whom found themselves teaching in a virtual format for the first time ever, some the first time, you know, in more than a decade, and we wanted to be intentional about the kind of support we provided to faculty to give them the very best chance to be successful in the classroom.

Kelly: I really like that term micro learning environments. And, you know, clearly the pandemic widened existing equity gaps with the digital divide, and maybe created new ones in learning environments. Have you encountered any other inequities that perhaps weren't being addressed before?

Minor: You know, we learned about some inequities. I just spoke about the variety of learning environments our students found themselves in. Some students, for example, were, you know, had strong internet connections at home. They had, you know, family members who did not experience a financial hardship and had everything they needed to be successful remotely. And we had, you know, very different circumstances. But here's the one thing that I think we learned — and maybe we knew this intuitively, but it emerged quite evidently in our communication with students — is that we didn't realize that on the one hand, some inequities could be exacerbated. While on the other hand, some inequities could be mitigated by this virtual learning environment. And so the number of students who would have said to us pre-pandemic, "It's really hard for me to continue pursuing my degree, because I've got to work, I've got a family to support, I have to drive to campus, I have to find parking, you know, the course schedule doesn't fit around my life. I have to fit my life around this course schedule to pursue my degree." And one of the things that we just found extraordinary is that the number of students who said to us, "Being virtual allows me to fit my course schedule around my life." And that was pretty telling for us. And so on the one hand, we wanted to make sure that all students could continue their education. And on the other hand, we wanted to learn as much as we could about how different groups of students, different populations of students, were experiencing college virtually. And, you know, I just think there's a lot to be said, as we're moving back to repopulating our campuses, which of those lessons that we learn will remain in play going forward.

Kelly: Yeah, you know, what kinds of conversations do you have, just as an institution, around equity, as you're planning the reopening and how you're supporting students?

Minor: Well, there are two things that I think we're going to pay close attention to. I would argue that, self included, but a number of individuals who work in higher education, supporting students, suffer from experiential knowledge. And that is, most of us went to college, right? And so we have this experience, and we know what college was like for us. And a handful of others, right, who may have been a classmate at that time. But for most of us, it's more than 20 years ago. And so one risk for us, in thinking about our equity work, is to be able to set aside our experiential knowledge. Clearly, what it means to be a 19- or 20-year-old today is very different than it was 25 years ago. What it means to be a college student today is very different than what it was 25 years ago. And so the assumptions that we sometimes make about what students need must be informed by the voices of students, not our own personal experiences. So that is one thing, because when we began to speak to students during this process, some of us, not all of us, were surprised by what they told us, right, about a) how well the services were working on the campus pre-pandemic. And our surprise at gee, some things are working even better. And the one example I give is the quality of advising. Traditional higher education institution says, you know, go online, make an appointment, walk into this physical building, between 8:30 and 4:30, Monday through Friday, if you want to see an advisor. Didn't work for a lot of students. And what we're learning from an equity standpoint is that the number of students who never would have made it to the appointment, to that office, are now engaging advisors and counselors virtually, with the kind of intensity and frequency that we have never seen when we were in-person. So the number of contacts, the frequency of contacts for students who require some kind of assistance, advice, support, has increased quite significantly. And I think that has led to a greater number of students feeling supported, feeling that they have the information they need to continue their education. So that has been phenomenal.

Kelly: What kinds of infrastructure or tools have you needed to implement to support students remotely, and in particular, kind of do advising remotely?

Minor: Well, think about this. I mean, the challenge for us all was, how do you replicate what you would do in the face-to-face environment, virtually, at scale? So you've got to basically pick up an entire advising operation and make it virtual. You've got to pick up an entire, you know, student health services operation and make it virtual. What do we do with our food pantry? You know, not something, you can't pick up food virtually, right? So we had to figure out with the public health restrictions, how to continue to support our students. Two technologies that were very important for us. One, obviously figuring out the information infrastructure for students to access. And of course, when you're talking about counseling visits and medical information, there's a lot that needed to be sorted out to make sure we were protecting students' privacy and managing information appropriately. But there are two technologies that I think I would mention that will really highlight what I think was special and what I think illustrates our learning during this time. One is the use of chatbots. And the ability for a student to text a question to a chatbot. The platform is machine learning. And to get an immediate response, right, based on the machine's ability to aggregate, sort, and identify existing information, right? It exists somewhere on some website, in some policy document that we can call up and provide it to a student in a text message. Right? So the idea that a student would have to walk into an office or to have an appointment to get this piece of information, the student literally could get it at 10:30 at night from a coffee shop, which is pretty extraordinary. And I think they're, I mean, we have a lot of work to do in this area, to really refine the tool and to expand its use. But that's just one example that we have had to rely on quite heavily during this pandemic.

Kelly: I've always wondered, do students recognize that they're speaking to a robot, you know, or like, and are they put off by that at all? Or does it seem impersonal? Or is it actually just that the value of it overcomes that hurdle?

Minor: Well, again, you're talking about a generation of students who, many of whom are much more comfortable getting a response or information from a device. I have two teenagers here. And I was having a conversation just last night. And he was describing to me at 17, describing to me the protocol for texting, right, for his generation and how that's different for my generation. And he says, you know, you can't double text. And I went, well, what's double texting, right? He says, you know, when you text somebody, if they don't text you back, you can't text them again, right, saying hey. And I said, well, maybe the person missed the text. And what he said to me was, "We don't miss text messages." And I just thought that was so telling about this generation and the relationship they have with smartphones and devices, and how they have come to rely on them for information. So that said, I don't think students at all take offense to, or are put off by receiving information from a chatbot based on machine learning, if the information is accurate, if it gives them sufficient guidance, and it resolves whatever their issue is, or sufficiently answers the question. We have found that it is quite remarkable. And if you give students the option, you know, send a text to that, you know, to this chatbot, or make an appointment, go find a parking spot, go into the office and wait to be called, most of them say, you know, jeez, if I can get the answer from sending a text message, that would be the preference.

Kelly: So you see, probably, chatbots remaining in place, even, you know, once everything reopens?

Minor: Yes, so the I think the chatbots are here to stay just because they free up the bandwidth of, you know, caring professionals. So there are a group of students who, for whom a chatbot cant resolve their issue, and they really do need to walk into some place and to meet with someone. And what we're trying to figure out is what the balance is of how much information can we provide in real time using technology to free up the capacity of caring individuals who really do need to sit down with the students. So when that need is there, they're available or more available. And so I think for that reason, the chatbots will be here to stay. The other thing that I think we will, hopefully, increase our capacity to do is to be collectively much smarter about real-time needs of our students. You know, again, I go back to this sort of experiential knowledge, "We know what students need, therefore we're going to advance this policy, create this program, based on our knowledge about what students need." And I think we have to be better at asking students to tell us frequently and regularly about what they need, and the ability to gather that information. Everything from here are the courses that I really need to take next semester or the semester after, to, here's how I really like to get information and advice. Or here's how this program is working for me, even though it was designed with good intentions, but doesn't really work the way it was conceived to operate. So I think, you know, if you ask me about our data infrastructure and our ability to have good information, real-time information about what student needs, I think that's a real opportunity for us going forward.

Kelly: How about degree planning tools? Is that something that you've been working with?

Minor: Yes. And, you know, there's a paradox here, where we're, you know, we're really excited that we're advancing our use of degree planners. And on the other hand, there's this reality that the technology has been available to us for some time. And we have not yet figured out how to deploy it, and use it in a way that really benefits students, and really improves the efficiency of course planning across our 23 campuses. So, you know, one of the chief complaints among students is, you know, I can't get the courses I need when I need them. And we're, you know, the number of students who feel at the mercy of the course schedule, and the availability of courses. You know, in some ways, it's a real challenge in terms of capacity, just sheer capacity to offer every course that every student needs and every term. I'm not suggesting that — what I'm suggesting is, could we close the gap, the gap between what students need in a given semester, and what we provide in a master schedule. And, you know, it sounds novel, but, and easy to do, but it has been complicated. And it's not just a technology problem, right? This is a problem of convention, right? How we go about creating course schedules in higher education. So the degree planner is great. If you think about it in the way that we think about GPS applications on our mobile devices, or in our cars, that you say, hey, I want to go to this store, or to this person's house, you put in the address, it calculates the most efficient route. And it gives you an estimate based on that calculation, here's how long it should take you to get there. And should you make a left turn or a right turn or you go off the prescribed path, it quickly recalculates, and say, now you have to make this set of turns. And we're going to, you know, adjust the estimated time of arrival. If you think about what that means for a beginning student who says you know, I want a degree in engineering, or physics or chemistry or sociology, we should be able to say, here's the roadmap to that degree program, and utilize technology to keep students on track and make them aware that if you make this choice, if you take this class or that class, here's what it means for your time to degree, cost of attendance, and ultimate availability of courses. So, again, the technology has been available to us for some time, we have to figure out how to integrate it into what we do so that it's available to students.

Kelly: You had mentioned your data infrastructure and I'm super curious about that. How has the pandemic changed the way you're using data or even changed the kinds of data you're tracking? Or has it?

Minor: It has, and what I mean by data infrastructure, we live in a world of big data. And I would argue that we, you know, we sit in a very large university system in the state of California, which is arguably, you know, one of the technological capitals or epicenters of the world, not just the country. And so this juxtaposition of technological innovation, and, you know, wrestling with fairly archaic data infrastructure inside of our public university systems, is really fascinating to me. And again, it's not just a technology problem, it's a people problem. But to your point about… It's a convention problem. To your point about, you know, what data are we collecting? It really begs the question of, well, what data should we collect? And what data are students comfortable with us collecting? And how do we use it? How do we share it? I would argue that today we have many valuable data points. I would argue that our challenge is integrating those data points and using them in a way and sharing them in a way that benefits students in real time. And let me just give you one example. Right now, one of the data points we have is about course outcomes. We can, we know for any cohort of students, how they performed last semester, but let's just think about an individual student for the moment. We have the data point, did you pass the course? What grade did you earn? You know, what's the subsequent course you took? Here's where the opportunity for refinement lies. If I'm a student, and I'm in the course, and I've got known risk factors, that would influence my probability for passing the course, right? I got a C in the previous course that leads to this course, right? We know the students who earned a C in the previous course that their chances of passing the subsequent course is a little different than a student who, for example, got an A in the previous course. If the student who earned a C in the previous course is now struggling in the current course, do we know that before the student, for example, fails the course? And the answer right now is no. Right? We find out that the student failed the course after the student failed the course. And I think we can better leverage technology to intervene well before the end of the term. And what that means for thousands of students across our system is significant. We should know right away for students who don't register for the next semester. We don't know that you didn't come back until you don't show up for the following semester. So you know, I think there are ways that we can refine our use of technology that if the registration period closes, and there are, you know, thousands of students who hadn't registered for the next term, can we be smarter about figuring out why? And how to, you know, get them back on track with the course schedule that makes sense for them if a student is struggling in week four, or week five, or week six of the course. Is it possible to know that and to intervene? And those are the individual examples that we use, we have to think about this not in big numbers, but what does this technology mean for individual students and their chances of being successful for a degree? So that's where I think there are opportunities for us to be a lot better.

Kelly: I think it's, the latest Educause Horizon Report covered data and said something like many institutions have more data than they even can know what to do with almost. Does that sort of feel like your experience?

Minor: Yeah, I think that that is a reality, that we collect and catalog lots of data. But the integration of those data and the use of those data and the infrastructure to integrate and to provide those data to individuals who are making decisions, who are shaping policies, who are determining resource investments here or there, is really part of our challenge. And so you're right. This is not about figuring out how do we collect more data exclusively, This is about how do we better use the data that we have currently, and how do we integrate it in a way that makes us collectively smarter about how to support students.

Kelly: So one last question. What do you see CSUs campuses looking like post-pandemic?

Minor: Well, I think there will be two major differences. I think the first is, as we begin to repopulate campuses, I think there are a number of individuals, both students and faculty and staff, who really miss the campus environment. I would make the argument that there are few places more special than a college campus. And there's something to be said about how rich and vibrant a campus community is, and can be when it is populated by students and faculty and staff who are interacting. So I think we will all return with a much greater appreciation for what it means to be a part of a very vibrant campus community. But I think the options that we learned, I don't think we will return to a financial aid office, for example, that only operates Monday through Friday 8:30 to 4:30, and you must make an appointment and you must walk into this building. So I think that what we will see is the lessons that we have learned from the pandemic, through the pandemic, will be carried over as we think about repopulating our campuses. The complement to that is that, you know, we also learned what it meant to be a vibrant and thriving and productive workforce, virtually and remotely. And so I think even thinking about how we come to work on a college and university campus will be slightly different. And that the person, if in fact the financial aid office is going to be open beyond the traditional or conventional hours, does that mean that there's somebody who's available 10 o'clock at night virtually? Right? So I think we're gonna see that sort of modality change in our campus communities, while also reviving the things that were amazing and beautiful about our college campus communities across the state of California.

Kelly: Thanks so much for coming on.

Minor: Thank you for having me. This has been fun.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify and Stitcher, or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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