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Denise Swett, vice president for student services at Foothill College in California, didn’t start out as a technology expert, but that’s the direction she’s taken as she and her colleagues discovered technology offers the best ways to inform and engage students.
Students want access 24/7, Swett said, so the college partnered with several technology companies to make that happen.
In Minnesota, Inver Hills Community College (IHCC) is focusing on leveraging technology to become a “data-informed institution” to support student success and engagement.
“We’re intentional about saying ‘data-informed’ rather than ‘data-driven,'” said Christina Royal, provost/vice president of academic affairs. The goal is “use data to look at where students are now, where the pitfalls and opportunities are and how data can be used to improve learning and the collective student experience.”
Swett and Royal will share their experiences in using technology to improve student success at a session at the American Association of Community Colleges’ Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., April 5-8.
Lots of answers online
At Foothill, students can get most general information online, so their time with an advisor can focus on the most critical issues.
Sometimes, prospective students trip on basic things, such as how to apply to Foothill, that it’s open access and there is no charge to apply, Swett said. Students can easily get answers to those questions — and more than 1,400 others relating to the school calendar, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) deadline, how to make an appointment with a counselor, and much more — on an online database called Ask Foothill, developed by IntelliResponse with input from the college.
Phone and email inquiries dropped by 54 percent after students started using Ask Foothill, Swett said. The system gets12,800 hits a month, and the busiest time is 11 p.m. to 1:15 a.m. There’s also a Spanish version, as 21 percent of Foothill’s students are Latino. Foothill’s cost for the system is $20,000 a year, which Swett said makes it less expensive than hiring a staff member.
Another popular online tool adopted by Foothill is Student Lingo, a series of on-demand video workshops developed by Innovative Educators. Among the topics covered on the 20- to 40-minute videos are filling out the FAFSA, avoiding cheating and plagiarism, and financial literacy.
“Students love them. The videos are engaging and not boring,” Swett said.
Students are urged to watch a video on setting up an education plan before they come in for a counseling appointment, and if they’re on academic probation, they’re required to watch videos on learning styles and time management.
The college pays about $7,000 a year for Student Lingo, which allows unlimited use by students and monthly reports with data on how the videos are being used and when.
Another program Swett recommends is Financial Aid TV, which offers short, interactive online videos in English and Spanish that answer basic questions and can be customized for a particular college.
These programs save the college money because “employees don’t have to be answering the same repetitive questions all the time,” Swett said. “That makes a big difference.”
Foothill also makes lots of information easily accessible via QR codes on banners throughout the campus. Students can easily scan them with a smart phone and get immediate access to Ask Foothill, Student Lingo and other services.
The college has an online database, called InternBound, listing internship opportunities, including many at nearby Silicon Valley technology companies such as Google, Adobe Systems and eBay.
Foothill isn’t just providing technology resources; it’s helping to create them.
Faculty and students are working with the developers of Mepedia, a professional networking system for millennials that Fast Company described as “LinkedIn for the desperately unemployed generation.” Rather than having members develop a traditional resume, Mepedia is built around skills acquired with the goal of helping new graduates land professional jobs.
Resources for learning
Students at IHCC have access to Smarthinking, an online tutoring system from Pearson that provides extra support for general education courses. The sessions are recorded so students can replay a lesson — such as step-by-step instructions for solving a math problem — as many times as they want.
IHCC instructors have the option of using technology in their classes, and some do more than others. For example, faculty in the emergency medical services program use an online database allowing students to record their success rates for performing certain procedures.
Spanish language teachers use web-conferencing tools, several professors use Google Hangout for small group discussions and an anthropology instructor “gamified” an entire course so if feels like a video game.
Surveys and analytics
IHCC uses the Hobsons customer-relations management system for higher education, integrated with a survey program from Qualtrics, to reach out early to students when they drop a course. The system triggers an automatic email to the student’s advisor and dean, who can determine whether it’s a temporary life circumstance or a bigger problem and help the student stay on track.
Results from a student survey revealed that “most students withdraw without contact from faculty or a staff member, so that will be the focus for the next academic year,” Royal said.
As technology prices drop — while at the same time these systems are offering more advanced analytics — colleges have much more information about how students are using them and interacting with the college, Royal said.
“Our focus is on a continuous improvement cycle and integrated process improvement,” she said. “It’s no longer business as usual. That’s a common theme we’ve been hearing across community colleges.”
“The power of the future,” Royal said, is “putting analytics in the hand of the students.” That means students taking an online cours — at any institution — will be able to see how well they’re doing compared with other students who log in with the same frequency, and if they’re falling behind, they will be urged to access the tutoring center or see a counselor.
“That level of personalization is going to be incredible,” she said.
This kind of technology also presents more opportunities for collaboration, which is especially important for small community colleges in a climate of reduced funding, Royal suggested.
IHCC, for example, partners with several other institutions in the Minnesota Colleges and Universities state system to offer the Desire2Learn course management program for students taking online courses.
“Be a vocal supporter,” Royal advises community college leaders that want to step up their use of technology. “Having the CEO communicate the message that technology is really important for the institution and for students is critical.”
She urges presidents to connect technology to the college’s mission of facilitating student success.
Technology shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for important face-to-face interactions, Royal said. It could actually lead to more personalized relationships with students. When some of the routine interactions are handled online, “you can focus human resources on situations where you really need it,” such as helping students make decisions about careers and how education can help them, she said.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges