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2020 Educause Top 10 Issues: #6 is Student Retention and Completion

The Top 10 Issues of 2020 for higher education technology were announced at October’s 2019 Educause conference. Each year I share my thoughts on the issues, from #10 to #1. Feel free to review all of the issues on the Educause website: 

#6 Issue: Student Retention and Completion
Developing the capabilities and systems to incorporate artificial intelligence into student services to provide personalized, timely support.

The last issue discussion on improved enrollment read a bit like a written version of the Titanic sinking photo. I won’t apologize for the tone as I’m certain most of our minds fleetingly go ‘there’ during these unprecedented times. A former colleague, great friend and enthusiastic Mexican food date of mine, Dr. Kate Burkes, shared an article recently which outlined higher education’s 15 Fall Scenarios. Clearly uncertainty abounds. Amidst all the possibilities, here is what I know.

The dedication to and support of students on their path to higher education completion has only been strengthened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there may be a fraction of a fringe that uses higher education as some money-making machine, the vast majority of us serve for one reason – to support teaching and learning. The art of delivering knowledge is more important than ever and not simply to bolster job satisfaction and security. Today’s increasingly lemming-like trajectory demands more skills like critical thinking, insight and independent research to effectively combat this current trend determined to dumb down our population. We are better than the rhetoric of today; we are here for it, it is literally our job.

So, systems? Yes. Sure.

From an IT perspective, we need to develop and deliver technology solutions that allow our campus to spend less time on transactional tasks. Increased automation takes a drop/add experience from ten steps to one. Increased automation can, in the click of a button, save a student considering a change in major from adding two additional semesters and thousands of dollars to their educational experience. Artificial intelligence (AI) features like a well-designed chatbot can calm a student’s middle-of-the-night fear by answering a simple question on demand. These are three of thousands of opportunities we have in IT to directly impact student retention and completion. An island of one simply won’t cut it among a sea of individualized student struggles. On the flip side, too many non-integrated one-off automations and AI features will only confuse a campus and create noise, not service. Satisfying for the individual technicians? Of course! But useful for the majority? Almost never. Our comprehensive IT strategy needs to involve a cohesive, continuously-improving, wholly integrated suite of solutions that refine, eliminate additional effort and connect our campus processes and interactions.

This also applies to the classroom.

We need to be ready for anything and everything. Our classrooms need to deliver the same experience face-to-face and via online. If not the same then the gap needs to be smaller. Though this is fairly easy to do via technology, let’s remind ourselves that the method of delivery is not the education itself. Never forget the reason for our season – supporting teaching and learning. If the technology works, ask the questions. Speak with the faculty members and find out their needs. If there’s a gap or concern, let the the dean or department chair know. That is helping an institution, not simply delivering technology. IT is more than technology these days. We are all on the same team. And if we see a faculty member struggling, don’t let that continue. The last we need if for excellent teaching to get muddied by the technology in between the professor and student.

But success is beyond than systems.

Student retention and completion require the connection. It’s the reciprocal respect and supportive confidence in each individual, whole person that chooses an institution. Because more than enrollment numbers, more than trying to lessen this fall’s certain financial shortfall, the University of Tulsa cares about the success of every student. We care about our students. We want to meet them where they are no matter where they are – location-, mindset-, mental health-, confidence-wise. Where are you and how can we help? THIS will always be the focus.

Higher education is a breath of fresh descriptive air in an, at times, far too prescriptive-heavy world. In the past two weeks we (collective we) have called and had conversations with 2,663 TU students. And the calls continue. A call for volunteers was sent out by our Senior Provost Casey Reed and – guess what – she got volunteers. As someone within IT I need to remind everyone: In addition to our faculty, these are the people we support, the people that develop the lifelong connections with our students. In IT, our solutions are certainly valuable as they facilitate smoother operations and delivery. But never forget WHY we do these things. It’s to support the university and, specifically, those seeking, making and finding the connections.

As such, my view tends to be a dissenting one from some technology professionals. As technology teams, we are a service unit. Whether that be providing a valued technology service, driving a change culture or helping set long-term strategy at the executive table (or all three!), our focus should be on supporting teaching and learning. When you are leading change you tend to get quite a bit of recognition within an institution. The focus on teaching and learning is a wonderful centering opportunity. Your job in IT is to support the institution, not take attention away from the pedagogy and students.

Our role as institutions of higher learning is to deliver education and increase a person’s capacity to learn. Supporting and keeping our students then carrying them through to graduation is a basic responsibility. And in technology, we have the power to facilitate success for all within each student’s educational universe. At no point should we lose sight of that. Regardless of what the bigger universe throws at us. Keep pushing.

Until next entry…

This year Educause introduced something new into their Top 10 write-up. They have added forecasting and tangible steps to improve in the issue areas. It’s more than a list now – it’s a learning tool! See for yourself: