Intelligent digital technologies can help create personalized experiences that foster increased engagement that helps students.

How creating personalized experiences can help colleges retain students

Intelligent digital technologies can improve the student experience and foster increased engagement that benefits students and institutions

With a sharp two-year decline in undergraduate enrollment and a dropout rate that stands at around 40 percent for four-year institutions, colleges are urgently searching for new and creative ways to retain their students.

While the causes behind those figures are myriad, from Covid-19 to financial, academic, and social challenges, the effort to reverse prevailing enrollment and retention trends is now laser-focused on understanding, measuring, and improving the student “experience” in the broadest sense as a means of bolstering student engagement.

As the nonprofit Institute for Evidence-Based Change (IEBC) notes, “Research shows that students who feel connected to their college are more likely to succeed in their courses, persist from term to term, and achieve their educational goals.” Another organization, NSSE, points to research that draws a solid link between student engagement and retention.

How, then, can institutions increase student engagement? The IEBC is helping schools do that with a “caring campus” faculty and staff coaching program. Others are eying targeted strategies around increased parental involvement and scholarship money, for example. And some are taking a cue from the B2C world by focusing on delivering the kind of personalized experiences that consumers of every kind, students included, increasingly demand.

Personalizing how students experience an institution at various touchpoints across their curricular and extracurricular lives could well be the key to countering the pervasive sense of isolation that came with the pandemic and remote learning, and to heightening the sense of connection that leads to student persistence and retention. Doing so is going to take a progressive, multi-faceted, and well-resourced retention strategy that involves the entire university — every department and every level of faculty and staff. Here’s where data and digital technology can play a critical role, supporting the kinds of personalized experiences that encourage greater connection with an institution and its campus, history, resources, and people.

The first and most important step toward personalization is to create a holistic, 360° view of each and every student. Oftentimes, the vast amounts of data an institution collects about a student — regarding their curricular and extracurricular activities, their finances, their health, their housing preferences, technology needs, eating habits and so on — are scattered and siloed across five, 10 or more departments within a university organization. What you want is to create a single source of truth about the student, a unified, trusted, and comprehensive data-generated profile that’s accessible to any of the institution’s credentialed staff or faculty.

By applying machine learning- and artificial intelligence-driven analytics and automation capabilities to that student data, an institution can begin to personalize the student experience. It can use those capabilities to identify a student that hasn’t been attending classes or using the dining hall to trigger a counselor to check-in with the student about their mental or physical well-being, for example. It can generate an automatic text notification to a student that there’s room in a course on their wish list that’s been particularly difficult to register for, or that there’s a new grant for a summer program in which they have expressed interest.

The deeper an institution’s understanding of each student is, the better equipped it will be to develop rich personalized experiences tailored to the student’s preferences, priorities and pathways. Creating a constant feedback loop between school and student is one way to deepen that insight. Through digital channels, institutions can find timely, non-intrusive ways to gather feedback and information from students at various touchpoints. Using quick, in-the-moment surveys, they can gather insight from vegetarian students about how food options in a dining hall could be improved, for example, or the best times to offer tutoring for students that live off-campus. Then, using analytics tools, they can analyze the data to identify trends that help to inform the services they provide. This is what’s called experience management, or XM for short, and it is critical to increasing student engagement with an institution. XM tools are helping businesses in a wide range of industries to deepen and sustain customer relationships, and they can do likewise for academic institutions seeking more engagement from their student “customers.”

Cognitive services are another big piece to the student engagement puzzle. Essentially these are machine learning- and AI-driven digital tools, housed on a single multimodal and multidisciplinary platform, that empower faculty and students alike to create, communicate, and collaborate. For students, cognitive services could enable them to build, “perform,” share, and receive feedback on content, akin to a TikTok-type platform, only with richer, academically-oriented capabilities. On the faculty side, giving professors the ability to modularize online lectures into smaller, more consumable micro-lecture pieces of content that students can interact with digitally helps personalize the learning experience. With AI-driven chatbots to field and respond to certain student inquiries related to that content, for example, professors, adjunct lecturers, teacher’s assistants, and graduate assistants can dedicate more time to higher-value, person-to-person support for students.

Used the right way, intelligent digital technologies like these can be a force that breaks down barriers, reduces students’ sense of isolation in favor of connectedness, and fosters the engagement that ultimately benefits student and institution alike.

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