This fall, postsecondary students all over the world have returned to campus, and while it may seem like things are back to normal, signs point to underlying trouble. Some postsecondary institutions are reporting declining enrollment and major challenge getting students to engage and be successful in their first year. Students are feeling anxious about the future. Faculty are burnt out, and in some cases leaving—which can be costly for students, institutions and the broader economy.
In short, we risk having a lost generation of students that have disengaged from learning. What’s to be done—and how can data help?
Recently, I joined a panel hosted by Dr. Diana G. Oblinger, the President Emeritus of EDUCAUSE, and Dr. Timothy Renick, Executive Director of the National Institute for Student Success and Professor at Georgia State University, to talk about ways that postsecondary institutions can reverse these trends using data and analytics to better engage students, academically and personally.
We agreed that participating in postsecondary education is about more than just getting accepted to study somewhere. It’s also about becoming engaged, both as a learner and socially on a pathway to growth. As Dr. Oblinger said, our goal isn’t simply ‘more education,’ but better education––the kind that closes equity gaps and enhances quality.
Data, collected and filtered correctly, can be a useful tool to help provide educators with insights that can lead to better student engagement in post-secondary life. It can be, as Dr. Oblinger said, “the voice of the student” that can ultimately help guide a student’s learning journey in a positive, rewarding way.
And the time to act is now. As Dr. Renick noted, while graduation rates for junior and senior students have actually increased at GSU, students who started post-secondary during the pandemic are really struggling—non-pass rates are increasing, and they’ve seen less engagement in coursework among that cohort. However, it can be difficult to reach students, or even know ‘where’ they are academically, socially and mentally. Often, educators and other leaders rely on anecdotal evidence, which can be inconclusive or even difficult to evaluate or fully contextualize.
This is where data can help. Data, Dr. Renick noted, can help us to interpret behavior—they can help us to place students and then guide them toward solutions that best suit them. He explained how technology can help to create a much clearer picture of how students are faring both academically and socially. For example, he noted that GSU’s AI-enabled chatbot has over 100,000 exchanges per month that, taken together, have helped students socially, reduced non-pass rates, and enhanced overall engagement.
Using intelligent agents like the chatbots I mentioned is a positive step toward creating better outcomes. They can be used to give students the nudge they may need to stay on track, spot risks, or to create better feedback methods to drive engagement. Just as important, however, is the human connection that’s built on data, as the educator and learner begin to interact in a more meaningful and purposeful manner, making the overall student experience and feedback more personal and empathetic.
It’s a good thing that students are returning to in-person learning environments, but we also know that online postsecondary learning isn’t going anywhere. In a recent D2L survey of hundreds of North American higher education leaders, less than 1% of respondents said they think they’ll return to only in-person learning in the next five to ten years. I agree with the majority: a combination of face-to-face, online and hybrid learning models are the future. In which case, we can and should embrace the possibilities that data, stored and used safely and ethically, can create in that exciting frontier.
But let’s not forget where we started: with people—students, faculty, administrators. I’m proud that, for 20 years, D2L has focused on using technology to help people. And we should never lose this perspective. After all, while data can give us information about a problem, it’s not the solution to it. The solution is always human—let’s work together to give students a reason to persist and engage them with feedback to help them be inspired to achieve more than they dreamed possible.