Student Success, Retention, and Employability - Getting Digital

Student Success, Retention, and Employability – Getting Digital in a High Tech, High Touch Environment

Sometimes it’s worthwhile to create a post that spans a variety of inter-related topics as a way of sharing a collection of ideas. When I was outlining this piece, I was struck by the seemingly disparate lens in which these topics are often looked at from an institutional perspective. However, with a deeper glance, it’s the connections between these areas that are the strands that form essential aspects of the student experience.

Student Success

Student engagement is everything when it comes to student success. Engagement is what creates a meaningful student experience. Every interaction that a student has with a university representative is important. Admissions professionals, academics, academic advisors, career services representatives, tutors, alumni officers, etc. are part of an inter-linked chain of engagement officials.

The more engaged a student is during their university experience, the more successful they will be. Knowing this, it’s vital that engagement opportunities are encouraged via a variety of means.

And, as is often the case, digital engagement channels offer up a wide array of means to enhance and scale in-person connections. Social media are the go-to engagement channels for both traditional campus communicators and online-only education programs. Mobile devices are everywhere and the range of apps that educators can use to connect with students allow for multiple streams of engagement via educationally relevant interactions.

It’s important to note that a social media interaction or a bot-based question/answer session are not the end-all, be-all for student engagement. Rather, they are part of the overall mix of engagement that takes place during a student’s entire academic journey. These technologies are elements that make up the whole. Think of them as being like the informal “hallway conversations” that are a regular occurrence on a campus. It’s not the single engagement event that leads to success, it’s the whole of everything that comes together to lead a student from admission to graduation.

Retention – Proactive and Triage

I recently read an article about the idea that all online classes should be beta-tested before they “go live” to students. It was an interesting piece in that it presupposed that online education should somehow have an increased level of scrutiny versus traditional brick-and-mortar classes.

When institutions create first-year experience programs, they are creating foundations for future success and retention potential. It would be interesting to see a university engage in beta-testing for all of their classes…online and offline.

It might not necessarily be feasible for all classes, but it would certainly reduce some of the pressure on first-year experience programs as all classes would essentially be part of a proactive retention and high-impact teaching/learning mix.


Career services departments have a tremendous responsibility. They have to deliver on essentially all of the employability goals/outcomes of a university. It’s often about working with students to develop the skills of tomorrow during their present-day university experience.

One of the aspects of employability that’s become a cornerstone of the university experience is digital capability. These capabilities are wide-ranging and are looked at as generalized expectations for today’s learner.

While students may be thought of as being “digital natives” (a label that has been thoroughly debunked), it’s important that career development practitioners work to expand students’ digital skills. Teaching students about digital identity and presence is fast-becoming a programmatic necessity for career services offices.

High Tech, High Touch

When I was in graduate school, my mentor used to talk to me about the challenges of creating a “high tech, high touch” environment in higher education. The idea being that technology would remove the human element and that it would be almost impossible to create technology-based systems that would elevate and enhance the human experience of higher education.

That was way back in 2004. Fast forward to 2017 and user experience design, learning analytics, BYOD, machine learning/artificial intelligence, predictive data dashboards, digital learning systems, and myriad social media have all been assembled into coherent elements of a high tech, high touch environments.

Just think about all of the human-friendly technology-based services that make up the modern university. There are data sets, functionalities, and systems floating around on cloud-based services operating on a medley of devices and offering up a plethora of user functions. It’s literally a bonanza of options that help connect students, staff, and campus communities.

According to Craig Kennedy, Product Owner for SAP Higher Education, what is needed in today’s data driven higher education environment is the adoption of “fast analytics” that interface with various warehouses of data to assist academic advisors, tutors, and others who are focused on students’ academic success. It’s about using data on a daily basis to make informed decisions that guide student success projects and programs.

As I mentioned in an article in 2014, higher education needs a way to connect all of its “technology buckets” into a cohesive system/dashboard in order to make data-driven decisions that impact academic programs, transition/retention initiatives, and student success.

In 2015, Tim Bounds, Senior Director of Strategic Operations for the Division of Student Affairs at Duke University, wrote about the need for a “well-rounded student information system.” Fortunately, there are opportunities that exist today to create enterprise level connections between a variety of university information systems.

It may not sound very exciting, but to the sophisticated information technology officer/leader, this is future-sounding tech in a present-day setting. In fact, it’s a way of placing the student experience at the forefront of a university journey. All of the technological “bits and bobs” fade into the background as students are able to focus on their academic and co-curricular experience.

Getting Digital

While it’s easy to write about a high tech, high touch environment, it is imperative to consider that there are still challenges to this paradigm. First of all, the digital divide is quite real. It’s crucial that socioeconomic status and accessibility be at the center of all institutional technology conversations. If your university is students first, that means all students.

Also, resistance and skepticism to new technology is a frequent hurdle for higher education environments. This is a normal issue though as change is something that all organizations have to acknowledge.

Fortunately, higher education as a sector is thinking much more holistically about the student experience than ever before. Learning, teaching, success, retention, and engagement are core aspects of the university experience. Technology enhances every single aspect of the journey.


This post was sponsored by SAP as part of a higher education influencers collaboration.


The first post in this series:
Digital Engagement – How Technology Enhances the Student Experience

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