“We’re using technology in ways that duplicate traditional practice; we’re not using it to transform education,” he said. “If you go through it from a user-design experience point of view, you’ll see where we take a traditional approach and use technology to digitize it, such as turning paper textbooks into digital books. If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with an exact digital replica of the challenges we currently face in our education system. We’re very quickly recreating them in a digital format.”
Culatta summarized a number of red flags pointing to a use-experience problem in higher education, indicating that institutions can improve to better serve students:
- More than 40 percent of students who start a four-year degree don’t finish after 6 years
- Over 20 years, 31 million Americans started college but didn’t finish
- During the last 10 years, average tuition and fees at 4-year public colleges increased 51 percent
- 66 percent of students borrow money for undergraduate education
- More than 60 percent of incoming freshman require remedial instruction; only 1 in 4 of those students will ever earn a community college degree
- 46 percent of college graduates say they are underemployed or are in jobs that do not require their college degrees
- Most recent college grads say they need additional education or training to secure the jobs they want
“If we pretend these problems don’t exist, it gets harder for us to address these challenges,” he added. “Our current model is not serving students as well as it could be.”
Looking at those challenges from a user-design perspective leads to solutions.
1. Start with users. More than half of today’s college students do not fit the first-time, full-time student stereotype. Education leaders should keep this in mind as they build out solutions and form policy. Culatta recommended getting to know students and having institution leaders shadow a student for a day to understand how the institution’s design and policies impact that student.
2. Identify misalignments between students’ expectations and the expectations of the people who create solutions and tools for the institution. Do students feel that the value of their education doesn’t match what they pay for it? Do students feel they were not prepared for a job upon degree completion?
3. The most important part is to identify how users interact with the system. What is it like to learn in classrooms and how easy is it to sign up for classes? Do students have easy access to their own data? For instance, Culatta said, most universities list available courses alphabetically. But some institutions are turning to a different format that recommends courses and times within various constraints identified by students, such as work or family obligations. Data also enters the picture, because users (students) typically cannot interact with their own learning data until they’re already falling behind. But when students see their own data visually in real time, they have time to change their behavior or performance before it’s too late.
“As user-experience designers, we need to understand users, their expectations, and how they’re interacting in our institutions,” Culatta said. “Doing this is the most powerful way we can redesign education for the future–for the students we have today.”
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