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Using Technology and Content to Increase Student Engagement

Joe Schaefer, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Strayer Education, Inc.
Joe Schaefer, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Strayer Education, Inc.

Joe Schaefer, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Strayer Education, Inc.

Like many other industries, higher education has undergone a disruptive, technology-based transformation—the growth of online learning.

Online education attracts students from all walks of life. Many of today’s college students are what we call “nontraditional” students—38 percent of undergraduates are older than 25, 58 percent work while enrolled, and 26 percent are raising children. These students are focused on convenience and a return on investment.

Other industries have taught us that in order to innovate, you cannot incorporate a new technology into established methods of operation. You have to transform the whole model. So it’s no wonder that student attainment rates are lower in online classrooms when the typical approach of institutions of higher education is to simply offering online versions of the traditional classroom.

Along with making a college degree more accessible, convenient and affordable, online learning allows more opportunities to predict student success and intercede earlier if students are struggling. We at Strayer University have found that the most important predictor of success is based on engagement—class attendance, completing assignments, and participating in class discussion. Online learning collects data pertaining to students and faculty in a far more robust way than traditional classroom learning ever could. The results are promising.

Online universities can offer real-time and more accurate assessments of student engagement. In the past, a professor might not have known if a student was struggling until after a mid-term exam, making it more difficult to reach out and make a difference. With students needing to log-in and access cloud-based materials, websites, blogs, videos and other posts, faculty and administrators can immediately ascertain who is working and how long they study, while also grading performance. And then via email or text, immediately reach out to offer encouragement or assistance. No more waiting for an “office hours” visit.

We work with in-house and partner data science teams to track student engagement beyond just time spent. We analyze the different kinds of content and ways teachers can reach out to students in order to better understand what content is appealing and what kind of communication methods motivate them to persist.

Using data analysis, we can measure and prove how faculty can best tailor their message for each individual student, as the data showed that less overt messages worked best.

In the pilot-test of the program, against the control group, students with the lowest engagement scores were able to turn things around after faculty intervention. Strayer saw a 5 percent increase in attendance and a 12 percent increase in passing grades, while the drop-rate for those students decreased 8 percent and the overall number of students with the lowest engagement scores dropped 17 percent. The more teachers were able to get involved earlier, the fewer students needed their involvement.

What we are focused on is using data to drive engagement at the earliest possible intervention points. This learning also led Strayer to investigate how to make content more engaging for students through the creation of Strayer Studios, a fully functional film production department with the mission of taking relevant stories from the real world, and interpreting them for the classroom in their most watchable form.

 With students needing to log-in and access cloud-based materials, websites, blogs, videos and other posts, faculty and administrators can immediately ascertain who is working and how long they study, while also grading performance 

For example, instead of presenting a case study about an independent entrepreneur starting a company, Strayer Studios produces a documentary film with the entrepreneur as the star. Students heard directly from a young woman on how she started experimenting in her kitchen until she perfected her hair-care product and ended with it on shelves in Target. Along the way, students learned about research and development, sales and marketing, managing growth, projecting inventory and distribution—everything a business student might learn from a textbook or lecture. But by telling her story as a documentary, the lessons are more engaging and more authentic.

In trying to find new ways to connect with audiences, Strayer also looked at how they consume content outside of the classroom. This was the catalyst for partnering with Cheddar to develop MBA programs that speak to the aspiring millennial business professional.

Cheddar is an on-demand news network that has been called “CNBC for millennials”. Cheddar is available through multiple outlets, albeit none of them are on a traditional cable system, keeping in line with how many millennials watch TV. They broadcast from the New York Stock Exchange floor and while the shows do not exclusively cover financial news, the news they bring is targeted to a business-savvy audience, and covers major developments in technology and innovation.

With Cheddar, Strayer now offers a Digital Entrepreneur MBA. The program’s focus is toward the needs of our tech-driven, digital business landscape and the curriculum includes case studies and video lectures hosted by Cheddar’s Founder and CEO, John Steinberg. The entire program can be completed on a smart phone.

Like the rest of the world, higher education is becoming increasingly digitally focused. On top of that, as more and more students enter higher-Ed with increasing familiarity and expectations about using technology in their lives, the impetus will be on institutions to not only introduce curriculum utilizing new tech, but also to glean insights from the data the new tech delivers in order to create more compelling lesson plans that engage students and improve their chances to succeed.

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