Why Aren’t We Adopting Next Generation Student Support Technologies?

Because they require us to change, and most of us aren’t ready or able to.

At South by Southwest EDU, I had the chance to see Michael Staton, Brian Co, and representatives of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation speak about next generation student support technologies. As the panelists explained quite eloquently how their products could impact retention and student success, I was participating in the back channel and received the following tweet:

My response:

During the seven years I’ve worked on college campuses, very rarely have I seen vendor technology successfully implemented in a way that changes how we work, or reaches the full potential impact on student success. By and large, I don’t think this is the fault of the vendor or the product. I think it’s our fault.

On many college campuses, the policies, procedure, and infrastructure that make up our student support services have not changed much over the last 15-20 years. In many cases, the people in mid-level and senior positions haven’t changed much either. Neither have the associated job descriptions. Entrepreneurs are pitching products at us constantly, some of which truly have potential to change the way we serve students. But, changing the way we serve students requires us to change how we do things.

Our day-to-day practices, which generally need to be changed when we adopt new technology, are entrenched in complicated, institution-wide systems. The common practice of implementing new ed tech in one department without over-arching change management is like putting new tires on a car with 250,000 miles on it and hoping for improved performance.

Thinking about this issue led me to a series of questions:

  • When someone comes to our campus with a great technology solution, how much responsibility lies on us to manage the implementation?

I say it’s an awful lot, and we rarely plan for this.

  • On campus, are we anywhere near as innovative as the entrepreneurs in the ed tech space?

Maybe on a few select campuses, but over all I’d argue that we’re not.

  • Is there any type of movement in higher ed to encourage innovation?

I’m not thinking about grants for innovative projects. I’m thinking about institutions changing their job descriptions to attract a different type of person. I cannot remember ever sitting on a hiring panel where we rated candidates on their ability to innovate.

  • Are current campus/university employees being trained/mentored to manage innovative change in a way that makes it stick and impact student outcomes as intended?

No, once a year seminars don’t count.

There was a lot of chatter at SXSW EDU about the preponderance of vendors in attendance. At a conference that espouses innovation in education, I’m not surprised by this. Vendors and entrepreneurs are trying to get us to change the way we do things. Often, we’re pushing back with excuses why we can’t change.

Today’s college student is not the same as the student that came through our doors when we created our current processes. Many of our students never come through doors at all. It’s time for higher education to wake up and realize we are what needs to change. As Ghandi said, “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.”

I’d love to hear stories of campuses that are truly changing the way they do business and serve students in the twenty-first century. Please, share your thoughts in the comments.

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12 Comments on “Why Aren’t We Adopting Next Generation Student Support Technologies?

  1. I got a new perspective on statements like this lately “On many college campuses, the policies, procedure, and infrastructure that make up our student support services have not changed much over the last 15-20 years.”. Basically, our systems are set up to limit change. Or at least slow it down.

    Bureaucracies are inherently conservative in temperament. They’re set up to slow change by requiring many constituencies to sign off on change. You can certainly work within the system, but any time you try to fight that tendency towards being conservative, you risk putting your neck on the line. The wise system employee realizes that change is set up to be slow in our systems.

    If someone wants to work in a fast change environment, they should jump to one of these small companies or, even better, start their own! We need people who want to force change in our society and do it quickly. But the inside of the system of higher education (ie our large established universities) is not the place for that kind of thing. I’d actually include any large bureaucracy (including the government) as places that are meant to slow change.

    • Thanks for commenting, Jeff. Do you think for-profit higher education institutions are better poised to make swift changes?

      I see the validity about the inherent structure of bureaucracy. However, your comment “If someone wants to work in a fast change environment, they should jump to one of these small companies or, even better, start their own! We need people who want to force change in our society and do it quickly. But the inside of the system of higher education (ie our large established universities) is not the place for that kind of thing” is what I’m truly questioning. Is there a place for high-paced innovation within higher education institutions? Or, are innovators better off taking a different route, as you suggested?

  2. As a campus colleague of Liz’s, I’d like to contextualize this argument in terms of our campus. I wonder if smaller campuses, like ours, have the advantage here because, for *some* changes, we have less layers of bureaucracy to go through and there can be more flexibility to try new approaches. However, because our staff and faculty tend wear many hats and have extraordinarily full workloads, there may be resistance to changes because of the additional work they require.

    • I agree with both of your points Lisa. The downside for our small & lean campus, however, is money is most often one of the biggest road blocks for us.

      That being said, please don’t think I’m making this argument only about our campus. In my opinion, it’s indicative of higher education in general.

  3. Many times change is difficult due to unrealistic expectations set by vendors that promise that everything will be unicorns and rainbows when in fact to see the benefits they can bring to the table there is a non-zero amount of upfront work. I’m not saying that work isn’t worth it, but many times I’ve see poorly set expectations kill things that in the long run would have done wonders for us.

    Expectations of existing support structures also come into play. If we keep rolling out new services with no sense of how to help people use them, we’ll fail. If we keep piling on new serves to our support staff without retiring older services, we’ll fail.

    I know these sounds like excuses, but I feel they are just realities that we have to deal with _when_ we want to bring about change.

    • They don’t sound like excuses to me – they sound like valid points. All things we need to keep in mind when trying to upgrade our services. I think part of the problem is those issues don’t always get addressed. We just buy a product, launch it, and wonder why it’s not affecting wide-spread change.

  4. Excellent, challenging questions in this post. Working in higher-ed after years in the private sector, the biggest shift for me was the focus on specialization. That’s a by-product of the scholarship and research ethos that makes colleges great, but it also makes it really hard to integrate technology and innovation across a campus. Breakthroughs using a new platform or technology remain isolated by division rather than spreading the way they often do in other environments. Some great work is being done, but it’s not always consistently applied.

  5. So true! It’s not ed tech per se, but I’ve seen this happen with database/CRM implementations, too. Instead of tackling the problem at an organization level, it usually seems easier to test a system out in one silo. However, I have yet to see this approach lead to new, innovative solutions and/or systems on an organizational level.

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  7. I think a lot of changes ARE happening but they’re occurring on small scales and particularly at smaller colleges. I’ve found institutions like community colleges are much more likely to implement new programs/technologies for student support/success, particularly when backed by foundation funding like that from the Lumina Foundation’s CC initiative.

    For example — Jenzabar’s Dashboard uses data points to forecast if/when a student is likely to be in academic trouble (and/or other kinds of ‘red flags’ like RA referrals) and several schools use it/have implemented it. Illinois Tech and Purdue both built their own versions of such a dashboard.

    If anything I’ve seen this go from highered –> k-12 in this way.

    Vendors/folks that develop emerging technologies also need to consider some important points for higher ed that I think they usually don’t unfortunately. For example, is the product/program/site ADA-compliant and accessible to people with disabilities? You’d be amazed how many new ed technologies aren’t compatible with screen readers, for example (and it’s a legal – not to mention ethical – obligation to be compliant, plus most schools have at least one potential user who uses adaptive technology!).

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