Technology Research

Hitting an Unclear Target: The Impact of Ambiguous “Student Outcomes” on Technology

As reported by Inside Higher Education (IHE) last month, Eduventures’ survey of more than 200 higher education leaders from across the country identified the challenges institutions face when trying to improve student outcomes. Too many organizational road-blocks and a lack of clear ownership and accountability quickly rose to the top. Also at the top of the list: different definitions of “student outcomes,” a problem particularly relevant when it comes to selecting and deploying technology intended to support these outcomes. Consider the figure below. While this figure illuminates the different ways in which institutions prioritize “student outcomes,” it is more notable that there is such a broad range of definitions: Priorities for Student Outcomes Likewise, in the insightful comments that followed the IHE article, some commentators equated “student outcomes” with “student learning outcomes,” while others identified student satisfaction and the overall learning experience as key outcomes. These findings and the attention they’ve received are significant because they indicate that the first step in developing a strategy—setting a clear target—may be missing at many institutions because of the ambiguous way in which we use the term “student outcomes.” From a technology perspective, this means that there may be a costly misalignment of technology and student outcomes, where the implemented technology, though powerful and much-liked by stakeholders, does not support the institution’s view of what “student outcomes” means and how it plans to take action to improve them. Without question, there has been a lot of discussion about student outcomes, most recently on measuring institutional quality and establishing accreditation. Within this context, the definition of “student outcomes” seems to fall into one or more of the following categories:
  • Student Persistence: Students entering college persist to completion and attainment of their degree, program, or educational goal.
  • Academic Achievement: Students progress through higher education institutions and achieve superior levels of academic performance.
  • Student Advancement: Students achieve success in their career, specifically in areas for which their institutions prepared them.
  • Holistic Development: Students progress through their college experience as “whole persons” (i.e., improving their intellectual or social development).
At first glance these categories of student outcomes seem pretty straightforward. When leaders decide the best approaches for improving them, however, certain complexities become apparent:
  • Improving different student outcomes may require different strategies: Improving academic achievement, for example, may involve an increase in efforts to promote tutoring, while promoting holistic development may involve an increased focus on student engagement strategies.
  • Improving student outcomes may require an understanding of their interrelationships: If the primary institutional driver for improving academic achievement is increasing student advancement, then deploying academic achievement strategies on their own may not result in the desired improvement.
  • Measuring student outcomes may involve more nuanced metrics: While the measurement of academic achievement, for example, may seem straightforward, establishing the performance of other student outcomes such as holistic development or student advancement may require conducting surveys and other “softer” forms of data collection.
What does this mean from a technology point of view? First, each approach could require different technology to support it. For example, if student persistence is the primary student outcome focus at your institution, then your key technology could well be a student information system (SIS) to track enrollment. If, however, your primary outcome focus is academic achievement, then a learning management system (LMS), where students can access a variety of instructional resources, might be a better fit. Second, the consideration of the interrelationships among these various outcomes and the metrics selected are also important for technology deployment. Let’s assume that you have implemented a SIS to improve student persistence. You then discover that holistic development actually drives student persistence, and the best way to measure it is by tracking student engagement through social media—a functionality your newly-implemented SIS lacks. In this case, you may find that your initial definition of student outcomes, while necessary, was insufficient, and now you have to supplement your SIS with a social engagement solution—costing additional resources. To ensure that you have aligned your technology selection and implementation with any initiatives around student outcomes, we strongly suggest taking the following steps:
  • Understand your institution’s definition of student outcomes: As discussed above, without a clear understanding of the precise meaning of “student outcomes” at your institution, you may risk implementing a technology solution that misses the mark.
  • Understand the interrelationships and metrics for student outcomes: Technology solutions offer different features (e.g., analytics, online interventions, etc.), and you will need to map these features to both the actions and metrics stakeholders use to improve student outcomes.
  • Make outcomes, interrelationships, and metrics visible to the vendor market: Based on their market review and client feedback, vendors gain a sense of what features they should develop. When soliciting vendor responses—either through a request for proposal or information—you should make it very clear what student outcomes” means at your institution, as well as any interrelationships and metrics you use to measure them.
For more information, please read our Student Success and Outcomes report or contact James Wiley, Principal Analyst, at jwiley@eduventures.com [Editor’s Note: The Wake-Up Call will be on hiatus next week for Eduventures Summit 2016 and will return November 1.]  

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