How Chaffey Gets More From Its Existing Technology
When you think of Los Angeles – or Southern California, for that matter – finding accessible higher education typically isn’t what comes to mind. Outside of top-ranked institutions University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles, it’s also home to the UC and Cal State systems. With nearly 900,000 students currently enrolled, there’s no shortage of options for students to get a post-secondary education.
The Inland Empire (also known as San Bernardino County) is an exception. Located over 60 miles from most of Los Angeles — an eternity if you dare think about driving that distance in traffic — the options for higher education are much more limited once I-10 leads you out of LA County. UC Riverside and Cal State San Bernardino are viable options, but these schools require potentially long and disruptive commutes.
Many students seeking a higher education experience are first-generation students, with little context of how to navigate the ins and outs of college or university. In other words, without proper support, higher ed just becomes another avenue for stress and insurmountable debt. Chaffey College seeks to change the narrative for students in the Inland Empire.
Chaffey is home to 29,000 students with high school graduates from as far back as 1982 to as recently as 2022. The institution is conveniently located with three campuses in Chino, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga, with 28 degree programs to choose from.
Robert Rundquist, Dean of Institutional Effectiveness, leads the Guided Pathways program at Chaffey focused on improving the student experience. In the last few years this also means creating an optimal environment for distance learning. Creating an online-first environment was an aspiration for Rundquist’s team prior to the pandemic, but the need to pivot the campus online on a dime accelerated that initiative.
Given the circumstances, Rundquist felt Chaffey effectively met their students’ needs, but many of those solutions offered new problems for the future state.
“The nature of [the pandemic] was very disconnected, so different programs came up with different solutions to solve their media problems, which I think benefited students, but also created a very wide landscape of technology solutions,” Rundquist said. “That’s been difficult from an institutional level to make sure we have cohesiveness and from a student perspective it’s made navigation difficult and challenging.”
As Chaffey looked to turn the page, Rundquist sought a strategy for amplifying his institution’s new technology without requiring students to create several logins in order to access these resources. The challenge: create a cohesive student experience through a single pane of glass.
Centralizing the Student Experience with Pathify
In June of 2021, Chaffey selected Pathify to help the institution move its various technology investments into a streamlined user experience on the co-curricular side. Prior to using Pathify, Chaffey achieved the desired result on the academic side by centering the academic experience directly in Canvas.
Chaffey appreciated Pathify’s ability to provide a single point of access to students while also allowing the institution to cohesively manage secondary platforms used throughout the student lifecycle. Pathify also played a pivotal role in helping staff better connect with each other and students by surfacing exactly what they need, when they need it.
“What we found with some of those earlier vendors is, although they curated content, they didn’t create a lot of the connections,” Rundquist said.
Implementing Pathify was an iterative process at Chaffey. Much like previous portals, the Engagement Hub originally stored a variety of electronic resources with links to various services on the dashboard. But with further adoption of the platform, Chaffey collected valuable user data to learn what users wanted most from the Engagement Hub.
After all, the last thing Rundquist wants is to acquire a piece of technology that fades in value over time. And the best chance of preventing this is to create content based on students’ desires.
For instance, in the Spring 2022 semester, students searched “payment” and “transcript” more than any other term. This insight showed how students use the Engagement Hub to answer more transactional questions, and provide information proactively on the dashboard. Now, the Engagement Hub is a destination for students whether they’re in-person or online.
“I think the insights tell us what students need, but also what they are challenged to find through our current navigation,” Rundquist said. “The next iteration of what we’re trying to do with Pathify is to figure out how to make the landscape more intentional.”
With 60% of Chaffey students being first generation and a large number of adult learners enrolled, the college experiences a variety of unique needs. Therefore, anytime Chaffey implements technology, it needs to be comfortable for learners with varying degrees of technological literacy.
Rundquist says Chaffey accomplishes this balance through Pathify, which highlights where they need to go by prompting notifications and tasks in a can’t-miss location.
But what students really appreciated about Pathify was its community focus. Prior to implementation, the only opportunity for online community came through social media networks.
Naturally, this created limitations as it required students to belong to a certain social channel and have connections to the right people. Pathify broke down those barriers to creating community and allowed students from all walks of life to intuitively get the social media-like benefits of Groups, including the ability to find relevant content.
“For people like myself, there’s a baseline assumption that we can only make those connections in an in-person environment, but for folks more accustomed to technology online and social media, our primary connections to other people often open up bridges to communities or people that they can never meet face-to face,” Rundquist said. “I think students really gravitated to some of those features naturally. That was eye-opening to me because these were functions we never even talked about when we rolled out the Engagement Hub. But they started doing it because there was such a need to connect to people and Pathify made that easy for them.”
Despite spending significant time in an online only environment, Rundquist expects Chaffey’s campus will take the best of the online and in person experiences to give students what they need to thrive.
Although several programs require in-person learning, Chaffey prides itself on flexibility so adult learners, commuters and first generation students alike achieve their learning objectives without feeling like they’re missing out on the campus culture.
In addition, Pathify gives students an easy mode of communication to connect with academic advisors and faculty on their terms without taking time to drive to a physical office.
“What we’re finding as we emerge into the post-pandemic moment is that it really is going to be a truly hybrid experience where students need to seamlessly toggle between in-person services and online services,” Rundquist said. “It’s not this false binary of in-person versus online, but it’s really a fluid exchange and it depends on what their individual needs are.”
Reframing the Technology Fatigue Mindset
Rundquist gets it. Higher education is well known for its aversion to change, especially when it comes to investing in technology.
“Technology fatigue,” as Rundquist calls it, sets in when institutions adopt a number of different solutions only to find they’re difficult to maintain, require resources the institution doesn’t possess and isn’t well-adopted by students. Institutions suffering from technology fatigue often resist change and have little interest in experimenting with new solutions — even when they dramatically improve the student experience.
According to Rundquist, the genie won’t go back in the bottle. Institutions need to get accustomed to being nimble and making changes as needed to keep pace with industries outside of higher education. In fact, the pandemic proved the potential for what higher ed is capable of achieving.
“In a matter of weeks we completely transformed our institution, so the idea that it’s not possible just doesn’t hold water anymore,” Rundquist said.
There are a variety of reasons institutions resist change. Rundquist believes much of it traces back to the pandemic when departments quickly had to find tools serving as band-aids when trying to go remote.
Yet, there usually wasn’t a person charged with ensuring a fit between different platforms. This puts an immense burden on students to become familiar with several different softwares, many of which institutions mandated in order to perform basic tasks. And whether it occurred due to pride, sunk cost concerns or just plain stubbornness, each stakeholder purchased their own point solution and became attached to their platform, regardless of its effectiveness.
“I think every department fell in love with a certain feature of their preferred platform,” Rundquist said. “But then, all of a sudden, you had 20 different platforms. Instead, we really need a more seamless experience for students, because they’re the ones who will be at a disadvantage when we don’t have a real cohesive virtual landscape.”
Another important point is streamlining technology doesn’t necessarily mean old software goes by the wayside. One of the major problems with legacy systems isn’t their ineffectiveness, but they provide a poor UX or make information difficult to find. Investing in a system like Pathify helps pull meaningful information forward to help students find what they’re looking for without the treasure hunt.
Implementing an Engagement Hub like Pathify helps Chaffey provide better guided pathways to getting students what they need without eliminating existing services. Adopting new solutions that amplify existing resources ensures institutions protect their investments while continually building on the existing tech stack.
While this may help drop a department’s resistance to change, Rundquist believes a different mindset plays an important role in making change happen. One way for institutions to adapt their attachment to legacy software is to reframe their thinking about how they’ve tried to solve a problem in the past. Rather than dwelling on how much a department already invested in specific point solutions, they should look back at the progress they’ve made and use it as inspiration to continue innovating their campus.
Creating this new frame of reference is exactly what got Rundquist on board with championing Pathify, and he hasn’t looked back since. While he empathizes with the challenges his peer institutions face, he’s hopeful in their ability to shift from the technology fatigue mindset, to actually becoming technology innovators. And Pathify is just one example of how institutions make that leap.