One of the key factors in creating a long-lasting and efficacious student retention and success program is utilizing technological resources to help identify underserved students. Technology can be a student success coach’s best friend when it comes to identifying and reaching out to students in need - but only if the technology has been implemented correctly.
There are several considerations that should be taken into account when implementing technology for student success and advising programs. The first, and most important, step is to assess whether or not your learning institution has the commitment and bandwidth to implement a technology program correctly and to fruition.
Advising technology often relies on the context in which it is placed. If data has been obscured or isn’t robust enough, the technology is likely to produce results that are unreliable and inaccurate. To avoid this fate, leadership at learning institutions need to ensure that there is a strong commitment to see the project through to the end, assuring that the project is set up for success.
Strong leadership is absolutely essential to ensuring a successful project implementation, and executive leaders set the tone for that implementation. A learning institution’s President and executive leadership team first and foremost need to have a deep understanding and appreciation for the role that a technology initiative has within the institution. This helps to create space for the prioritization of the work that it takes to secure a successful outcome.
Strong executive leadership at a learning institution seeking to successfully implement advising technology should include the following:
- Leadership has a willingness to evaluate internal processes and procedures in order to change and better serve students.
- Leadership promotes a common mission and values that empower all staff to act for the benefit of students.
- There is executive support for investment in advising resources and training.
- Leadership provides clear job expectations for all advisors.
- Leadership can facilitate change management processes with clear, repeated messaging.
Responsibility for a successful technology implementation does not, however, stop with the executive leadership team. Mid-level leaders are called upon to sustainably and continuously move implementation efforts forward. Successful technology implementation projects can often involve a year or more of intensive, focused work, followed by ongoing sustainability efforts and continuous improvement. This process heavily relies upon mid-level leaders to work in close collaboration with implementation teams and the team that the learning institution has put together to serve as the product procurement team.
A mid-level leadership team that can provide skillful procurement and implementation leadership typically includes the following:
- Individuals show a commitment to the value of the tool.
- Individuals show a willingness and ability to work through the implementation phases.
- Individuals are able to clearly articulate goals, including what advising means and what outcomes are sought.
- Individuals are equipped to use data effectively to build understanding and trust with frontline faculty and staff implicated in implementation.
- Individuals are able to build high-functioning relationships with senior leaders and to provide cover to those deeper in the institution by serving as a buffer and translator between senior leaders and frontline faculty and staff implicated in use of the tool.
- The institution/implementation team has clearly identified advising stakeholders and knows how to translate across groups to build shared understanding and support for quality implementation (For example: Who are your champions? Where are the collaborative relationships to drive advising services?).
While advising technology can be a boon to a student success and retention program, ultimately it is the people, and not technology, who create positive opportunities and change for students. As such, the culture of an institution has a huge impact on the quality of the technology implementation and how it is used to improve student experiences.
In order to foster an institutional culture that embraces technological evidence and data, as well as cross-departmental coordination and collaboration, a learning institution needs to cultivate the following:
- A strong understanding of the student body, and a commitment to understanding and prioritizing the lived experience of marginalized and racially minoritized students. (For example, learning institutions may ask themselves: Who are our students, really? Do “old labels”, or ways of segmenting them, still apply? If not, why not? What assumptions are being made about our students that need to be unpacked or dismantled? Are we focusing on the structures and practices that our institution needs to address? Are we consciously moving away from deficit-based language when we talk about our students? Are we finely disaggregating data and examining the impacts of our policies and practices on our students?)
- A dedication to continuous improvement, as evidenced by regular, routine courageous conversations about the data in order to identify what is effective for students and what processes or practices may need fine-tuning.
- Multiple opportunities for professional development and training around how to access, understand, and leverage data (For example: How to use data in operations; how to read data and what it means; orientation to what the software looks like, etc.).
- Established processes and bandwidth to collect and analyze data so all staff have insights that support their roles and responsibilities.
- A commitment from executive leadership, implementation teams, and other departmental stakeholders to communicate frequently, early, and often across implementation stages.
- A widely shared understanding of the difference between Retention Strategies and Student Success Strategies, and an ability to work on both.
Technology and Data Ecosystem
Before implementing a new technology program into a student advising environment, learning institutions need to take the time to identify and clean up any issues in their current technology and data system. Duplicate records, incomplete or outdated data, and inaccurate parsing of record fields from disparate systems can all slow or stall a successful implementation. Stacking new technologies onto old ones without assessing the readiness and completeness of the data can easily derail the implementation process.
Typically, IR and IT departments are best suited to help identify any issues within the current technology and data ecosystem.
When assessing the health of a technology and data ecosystem, learning institutions are wise to consider the following:
- Do we have clearly defined and broadly accepted data definitions that span departmental units and are used consistently in our existing core systems of record?
- Given our prioritized product capabilities, what kind of data will need to be pulled into the product to allow for it to display accurate and actionable information?
- Where is critical student, academic, and other relevant data currently stored (e.g., SIS, pen and paper, Microsoft Excel)? To what extent can the new product integrate with these core systems, and what workarounds may be needed if full interoperability is not possible, which is often the case?
- Given our stakeholder needs, how frequently will different information displayed in the product need to be updated to maintain the integrity of the product? (Note that while access to real-time data is ideal, it is not always possible for all data points.)
Once learning institutions take all of the above considerations into account and address any issues, they may feel ready to move forward with the implementation process. The first step in the implementation process is deciding what product is best suited to meet the needs of the learning institution and the student advising community. When deciding upon a student advisory technology program, institutions should consider some of the most important product requirements. These can be organized by how they are utilized by staff and students at the institution.
Student Advisors & Support Staff
It is pretty universal that all student advisors and support staff desire to have a “one-stop-shop” for all of their advising tools. They want a system that is easily navigable, so as to help prioritize their efforts and maximize the time that they have with their students.
More specifically, student advisors and support staff seek to have:
- The ability to track student interactions across offices;
- The ability to store conversation history with students;
- The ability to take and store notes about student interactions;
- The ability to create both automated and customizable nudges to students;
- The ability to track student progress through courses/academic plan and key student experience milestones (For example, the completion of critical advising meetings, application for graduation, etc.);
- The ability to create specific groups, caseloads, or cohorts for tracking and communicating with students; and
- The ability to create and store a library of templated email outreach to students.
Students also have a universal desire for a “one-stop shop” for all of their student experience needs. From financial aid to billing to course planning and tutoring, students would like to have this information in one place.
Students and those who support them desire technical assistance that has:
- The ability for students to use the platform for multiple use cases (e.g., planning for courses, registration, and tuition payment) rather than “jumping around” to different platforms;
- The ability for students to collaborate and/or communicate with advisor and/or other support staff;
- The ability for students to customize communications so that they only receive the notifications they need and/or have indicated they want via an opt-in option;
- The ability for students to view and navigate the product from a mobile phone;
- Alerts about upcoming deadlines and milestones (For example, an alert to meet with an advisor about a low grade, an alert about an upcoming financial aid deadline, etc.); and
- Local organization of the student journey from entry to present with a situational awareness viewpoint.
Since learning institutions need to ensure that they have both the proper data and the capability to draw accurate conclusions from that data in order to take effective action toward student success, administrators often seek to have program dashboards that may be robust or are easy to use.
Administrators and leadership teams often seek technologies that have:
- The ability for the system to pull from multiple data sources, core technology systems (e.g., SIS, LMS, etc.);
- The ability to define and track specific KPIs that leadership needs to evaluate initiative success;
- A user-friendly interface that is easy to navigate for non-technical staff;
- The ability to display data graphically through engaging data visualization tools;
- The ability to see data trends at a high level as well as data on an individual student level; and
- The ability for multiple users across departments to access the data dashboard so that it can be used broadly to improve student success.
When all impacted parties across a learning institution are engaged with the tools of a student advising technology program, acquired data and collaboration between departments, faculty and staff, students, and administrators becomes more streamlined and authentic. The efforts to successfully implement a new technology program from the get-go can help to ensure that accurate data is provided to student advisors and success coaches, which, in turn, assists in correctly identifying at-risk and marginalized students and getting them the help that they need in order to have a successful academic career.
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