Top 10 IT issues, 2017: Foundations for student successJanuary 17, 2017
The 2017 EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues are all about student success.1 Information technology in higher education continues to have many priorities and serve numerous constituents. IT service catalogs comprise hundreds of services to meet the many needs of faculty, students, and staff in various fields: the humanities; social, biological, and physical sciences; law; music; theater; art; business; and healthcare and allied professions. You name it, higher education offers it, and the IT organization supports it. Every academic and administrative area makes its own, separate demands on the IT organization, at any time and from any place. Despite the many and disparate requirements of each user and each technology, a predominant focus has risen to the top for higher education information technology in 2017, and that focus is student success. Colleges and universities are concentrating on student success to address concerns about the costs, value, and outcomes of higher education. Student success initiatives are making use of every available resource and opportunity and are involving every relevant stakeholder. Institutional technology is all three: resource, opportunity, and stakeholder.
- Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) launched a predictive analytics platform two years ago. By February of this year, the institution had seen a 3 percentage point increase in first-year student retention, achieving the highest retention rate for new freshmen in fifteen years. MTSU has been selected as one of five institutions to be profiled by the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) for best practices in implementing student success programs. Technology has a major role in MTSU’s efforts, but does not predominate. As Richard Sluder, vice provost for student success, wrote: “70 percent of success involves getting the people side of the equation correct, 15 percent involves technology, and 15 percent involves process.”2
- At Montgomery County Community College, focused work on student success has been under way since 2013. The institution implemented a Student Success Network that includes an early alert system, an educational planning tool that allows each student to map out his or her degree or certificate program, and a student dashboard that integrates financial aid, the learning management system, and early alert and education planning information. Both advisors and students have access to the dashboard. Student persistence3 has increased steadily as students have gained greater access to planning resources and as they have received more feedback on their progress. The faculty are enthusiastically adopting the new tools and processes: their participation in midterm reporting increased from 73 percent to 90 percent, and in a change faculty asked for, class attendance reporting by the deadline required for financial aid disbursement increased 30 percentage points, to 93 percent of faculty. Celeste Schwartz, vice president for information technology and chief digital officer, emphasized: “The technology is not driving this work, but it is a tool that can help us better serve our students on their path to earning their degree or certificate.”4
- Colorado State University (CSU) incorporates a student success focus into many areas of institutional life, including the institutional research office. Institutional Research, Planning, and Effectiveness (IRP&E) at CSU has restructured its work to move beyond accountability reporting: data review and reporting now enables more effective use of financial aid, more appropriate placement of students in foundational courses, and fuller information, shared with advisors, about at-risk students. Technology is a foundational component of the work. Laura Jensen, associate provost of planning and effectiveness, relies on technology to “automate as much of the reporting, both internal and external, as possible,” and to “explore new tools . . . as technology improves, adopt it.”5
These examples characterize the changing role of information technology in higher education. Technology is an enabler, not a primary driver, of institutional strategies and IT investments. Information technology provides the traction to move hard-to-move needles.
The theme of student success is not immediately apparent when scanning the 2017 Top 10 IT Issues list. In many ways, the list differs from previous years only on the margins. But in interviews with panel members—a new part of our methodology this year—we learned that the summative motivation for addressing today’s digital challenges is student success and, accordingly, institutional success. IT leaders realize that the success and potentially the future of their institutions rest on the success of their students and that digital technology is an essential foundation for both institutional and student success.
Concerns about higher education affordability and value are one driver of today’s student success initiatives. Advances in technology and data science are another. Those advances make it possible to use information technology to improve students’ institutional experiences, such as engaging technology-enhanced learning that helps students learn more effectively, data and analytics that assist students in planning and attaining their credentials expeditiously, and digital applications and experiences that are seamless and effective. Applications that collect and report student information provide the path into and out of algorithms that analyze and model student data and that help students, faculty, and advisors draw insights and recommendations for curricula, majors, courses, and extracurricular activities and support systems. Courseware that adapts its pace and pathway to individual learners helps optimize learning experiences. Technology does not lead student success efforts, but it is indispensable to them.
Student success initiatives exemplify major technology and process transformations, with all their attendant risks and hoped-for benefits. Like all transformative efforts, student success is multidimensional and requires strong foundations and leadership. The 2017 Top 10 IT issues coalesce into four related themes that colleges and universities are addressing: IT foundations; data foundations; effective leadership; and successful students (see figure 1).