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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Student Retention in Higher Ed: Portals, Apps, and Connected Campus

Way back in 2002, as the IT Vice President for Field Technology and Customer Facing Systems at a large financial services company, I was responsible for acquiring enterprise portal technology. It was a critical time for our business unit. Our parent/holding company had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy – at the time the 3rd largest filing in US history (Howe, 2011) behind such infamous names as Enron and Worldcom – and had decided to pin their hopes of survival on the promise of technology.
Portal technology, it was held, would make our business unit “easy to do business with” for the independent agents, agencies, and producers distributing our financial services products to the consumer. We would leapfrog our competition, creating a 1-stop, consistent experience for our constituents, providing them with valuable tools, resources, and the motivation to continue partnering with a struggling company.
An evaluation and selection process unfolded, comparing various portal technologies, including Epicentric, Plumtree and the eventual choice ATG (later acquired by Oracle). ATG’s portal framework included a key differentiator: the ability to configure business rules by user, dubbed ‘scenario personalization’.  After an aggressive development and implementation project the outcome produced the value anticipated. 
Chalk one up for technology. The parent company emerged from bankruptcy the following year and is still doing business today. Our efforts, at least tangentially, helped the company survive and led to multiple opportunities to showcase our success and present our case study on the value of a portal. 

The more things change the more they remain the same

Now, over a decade later, I am still involved in discussions daily regarding portal-like solutions and the need to be a difference-maker through technology. Across higher education the race is on to address student engagement, student retention and to renew the focus on the student experience. The recent annual Educause conference was home to many conversations about improving the “user experience” and the need to redesign campus portals. Likewise, “student engagement” has earned distinction as the latest buzzword in higher Ed and is near ubiquitous in the marketing terminology of education technology vendors. In fact, “student engagement is now used to refer to so many different things that it is difficult to keep track of what people are talking about.” (Gibbs, 2014)

Student engagement in higher education 

For good reasons, schools are coming to understand that their student-facing technologies are scattered and disparate; that too many of their solutions are single-purpose; and that the digital experience of their students is too often an after-thought – inconsistent and fragmented. Concurrently, the criticality of student engagement has come to the forefront – as it, more and more, is understood to be the glue that links learning, persistence, and retention. The correlation of these factors continues to grow with studies emerging from schools, vendors, and research entities alike. Whether by design or happenstance, higher education is looking to technology to alter the fragile pattern of student engagement and retention.
Portal solutions still offer the promise of making access to resources easier – with single sign-on, aggregated content, and a unified ‘experience’. 
But it is the concern for the student experience that has also given rise to numerous “student engagement” apps. App creators certainly understand the need to connect with today’s “digital natives” where the smartphone is part of the student DNA. Schools of all shapes and types must meet the growing expectation that technology is ubiquitous and connection to school resources is anytime, anywhere. 
In looking across the landscape of portal solutions and engagement apps, several observations stand out:
  • The need for a unified, digital student experience is long overdue
  • The need for meaningful student engagement solutions is essential  
  • Higher education is necessarily receptive
  • No solution – whether independent portal provider, SIS portal extension, or engagement app – is dominating
Significant opportunity exists for the solution(s) that identifies and delivers the right combination of benefits to the student and school. 
Throughout my career as a technology leader, I have always been very cynical of a “solution looking for a problem”. Technology vendors are routinely guilty of this malaise. And in today’s higher education climate, where discretionary funds are limited, and where immense pressures are being applied to schools from regulatory efforts, accreditation bodies and local stakeholders – it is imperative that solution providers address a very real and specific problem while simultaneously offering demonstrable benefits. 
The challenge for portal providers is to quantify the value derived from a unified, digital student experience.  The challenge for student engagement apps is to help schools & students overcome app-fatigue and quantify the student retention improvements that result from their student-engagement claims. Engagement app marketing slogans demonstrate the challenge: ‘unify the experience’ --- ‘enrich the experience’ --- ‘create the ultimate experience’ --- ‘create a unique personalized experience’ --- ‘drive engagement to the next level’ --- even ‘revolutionize student engagement’. 
It’s lofty. But will it translate to improved retention?
Which brings me to the solution I am most intimately familiar with.

Connected Campus

Connected Campus is a student engagement and retention solution. It differentiates itself from the education marketplace in the following ways:

The Student Experience.

Yes, students have many resources available to them online. Pulling them all together in a consolidated framework is the domain of the portal industry. Students at schools without any portal or consolidated gateway to resources continue to be burdened by the confusion and disassociation. So, like a portal, Connected Campus removes this challenge by serving as the single digital interface to the school and its resources. But, unlike the tendency of portals, Connected Campus is aesthetically designed as a student-facing platform, maximizing student interest, with navigation simplicity, and – by creating a personalized experience based on the attributes of each unique student – distinguishes itself from similar others.

Private Online Community.

Schools offer many ways for students to connect socially – public social media networks, LMS chat rooms, campus events. Connected Campus, however, gives all students a unique opportunity to participate in dialogues on academic, administrative, and social topics. Inspired by Slack, with all the features of a robust chat engine, the Private Online Community lets students engage in topical discussions – in private, in small group conversations, or on a campus- or school-wide basis. Staff and faculty participate as well, enabling the student to have ready-access to human resources at the school. The opportunities created for peer and staff mentoring are powerful and unmatched, enabling students to thrive through the power of a digital social structure. Portals and Apps typically do not provide this kind of synchronous communication capability.

Academic Management.

Academic management is not traditionally a benefit of portals and engagement apps. When it is present, it tends to be in the form of a one-size-fits-all push of information. Academic management, however, is a critical ingredient for effective retention. Connected Campus supports the student in the management of academic and administrative tasks through its proactive Integrated Advising Services based on configurable business rules determined by the school. When at risk behavior is recognized, intervention tasks are assigned to the student; not to an over-burdened staff or faculty member. These intelligent nudges delivered by Connected Campus are personalized to each student, configured to match the unique needs of each school, and facilitate items that are academic, administrative, and enrichment in nature. Examples of advising nudges include: tasks to complete coursework, attend class, register for class, order books, make a tuition payment, complete the FASFA and other financial aid paperwork, reach out to a tutoring service, complete a questionnaire or survey, contribute to a discussion forum, prepare a resume, etc. Nudges are delivered through Connected Campus notifications, or via email and text. 

In Summary

Connected Campus provides a digital campus experience to all students – whether full time, part-time, commuter or online. It enables schools to address the full student life-cycle, from admission to graduation. It brings the utility of a portal (single sign-on, aggregated content, consistency), the distinction of an engagement app (mobile, appealing, intuitive, captivating) – while adding substantial and powerful capabilities in the form of a Private Online Community and proactive Integrated Advising Services.  
As such, we do not attempt to "insert verb here" student engagement. Instead, we focus on helping schools retain more students, thereby expanding workforce readiness while increasing institutional revenue.
The students, the school, and the stakeholders of the school will all benefit from the increased persistence and retention brought about by Connected Campus. 

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