How the great fragmentation ushered in the loss of community in higher ed — and how the right tech can help bring it back.
Written by Brian Alexander, Chief Product Officer at Pathify
Let’s start with a story.
A long time ago, I was a college student at the University of Texas. When I was in college in the ‘90s we didn’t have all of these fancy tools that we have these days. What UT had back then was a phone enrollment system called TEX that was really horrible. It would hang up on you all the time when you were midway through your call. At the end of your call, TEX would very famously say, “Thank you, goodbye and good luck.” Sometimes you would hear that “goodbye and good luck” at really inopportune times and have no idea if TEX did what you needed. So most of the time when we were enrolling in classes or looking for clubs we went to campus fairs. I signed up for classes in the gymnasium after standing in line. If you wanted to sign up for clubs you went to the quad where people set up tables once a month for you to sign up.
There weren’t a lot of tools and you had to wait in line, but there was this real sense of us all being in it together because we were literally in the same room. You could see how popular classes were by how long the lines were. Or you could see which clubs people were signing up for by which tables they went to. It was a cool experience to build this community and feel like I was part of the University of Texas. I knew the people around me.
As tools came into place and replaced a lot of this, we went from the SIS, this one monolithic system that managed everything and knew everything that was going on, to dozens of fragmented systems. The SIS broke apart into things like dedicated enrollment tools or CRM tools to manage your prospects and students, risk management, event management, etc. The LMS became your homework component — you would go in there and participate in discussions.
Then the LMS fractured to a certain degree and other homework systems came along, becoming the homework for the homework tool. I like to call this “the great fragmentation.”
We ended up in this place where none of these systems were talking to each other. We had these great point solutions and all of them were better at their specific purpose than what came before them, but none of them really talked to each other and shared information. Not only that, students now had the responsibility for self-service. They had to figure out which of these systems they needed to go to.
People started thinking about this concept of “we need a map” so students can find their way around all this technology. That’s where higher ed came up with a portal. Your traditional student portal was a map to all of these systems. If you need to enroll in courses here’s the link to go to the enrollment tool. Once you’re enrolled, you need to go to the LMS and take your courses and actually do your work. Students would come to the portal, they would find the link to the LMS and they would go to the LMS. There’s links to all these tools and many more like tutoring, advising, events, etc. But in researching early portals we found that students were really only using two tools — enrollment and the LMS. They weren’t taking advantage of all the other tools available to them because we’re in this self-service world where they have to find these things themselves.
WHY STUDENT PORTALS FAIL
We were giving students a really good map that showed them all the amazing tools that were available, but that map didn’t have any waypoints. Students didn’t know where they were supposed to go. A map without any waypoints or without a destination doesn’t do you a whole lot of good. You don’t get a lot of benefit from having this beautiful map if you don’t know where that map is supposed to guide you.
I’ve been a lifelong video gamer and early video games that first came out with maps did exactly this. They’d give you this great world map and you could see everywhere you could go, but they wouldn’t tell you where you were supposed to go or what you were supposed to do. In the video game world that’s a lot of fun. You discover and you talk to people and you figure out what you’re supposed to do. But in your higher education experience it’s a little less fun.
I realized that while I was in school I found out where I was supposed to go from interacting with other people. Whether it was other students, my peers, advisors or going to the administration building, those people were telling me where I needed to go and then I could use the map to get there. These days we’ve gotten so focused on self-service that we’ve started using technology, and specifically edtech, to replace interactions instead of facilitating the right kind of interaction.
That works really great for the right kind of student, if you’re a very self-service kind of person. If you’re a person like me who goes through the self-checkout every time you go shopping then this self-service is very beneficial to you and it does what you need it to. But if you go through the self-checkout enough, every once and awhile you come up with an item that won’t scan. If that person’s not standing at the end of self-checkout to help you, you’ve probably never felt more hopeless than that moment when all of this self-service technology fails you and now you don’t know where to go or what to do. Our students are ending up in this situation a lot.
The technology works great when it’s working great and when it’s doing everything it’s supposed to do, but as soon as it fails, they need a community to fall back on, they need people to ask questions to.
That could be peers, it could be advisors, staff, teachers, it could be anybody, but they need that help so that they don’t get stuck.
Edtech built cool tools that we’ve become dependent upon. We feel like they take care of our problems and we can solve problems with tools.
But tools don’t solve problems. Tools HELP you solve problems.
If you have a process problem, a tool is not going to solve that process problem. If you have a community problem, a tool is not going to solve that community problem. It can be a really important asset in how you solve it, but they aren’t magic bullets. They’re not silver bullets that you drop in and it fixes everything because you’ve installed this piece of software. We’ve come to rely on tools and moved away from community.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY
At Pathify, we started thinking about what comes next after the portal? Where do we go? How do we get away from this link farm, or this map with no waypoints? So we released the Engagement Hub. The Engagement Hub serves a lot of purposes and it does a lot of things, but most importantly it helps build community. Once you have people there, how do you turn that into a community hub? How does it become the new south mall or the quad or the student union so that people interact with each other and learn from each other? And why do I think community is a really important thing to focus on in edtech?
From recent research I worked on, the feeling of community and interactions in the classroom and outside of the classroom is one of the best success predictors that we found. We were doing machine learning and trying to let the machine deduce the top risk factors of student success. Typically you’d think of performance or mastery of concepts or attendance as the real key indicators of risk. But our machine kept saying that students who were engaging with each other or the instructor or with systems were the folks who were doing really well. When you saw engagement failing, that was a predictor that a student was going to drop a class or drop out of the institution.
We watched over the course of a semester and kept seeing patterns develop where a student would reach out through threaded discussions in the LMS or email or direct messaging to the instructor. They would reach out and no response would come back. And they would reach out and no response would come back. You’d see three or four of these outreaches with no responses and their engagement tracker would get smaller and smaller and move further away and that student would eventually just pop right out the door. They would disappear, they would fail the class, they would drop the class, they wouldn’t come back the next semester. This became one of the best risk predictors. We saw remarkable retention lift by looking at those students, not just focusing on academics or attendance or those traditional factors.
I started doing exit interviews for students who were dropping. A common thread came up where they weren’t struggling academically, they were attending their classes, they were doing the things that you expect them to do, so risk models weren’t picking them up because those are your traditional risk factors. They looked like they were totally fine. They were high performing students, but they were dropping.
When I interviewed them, I heard the same things over and over again:
- “I was struggling and I felt like I was alone.”
- “Nobody was helping me.”
- “I didn’t know who to reach out to.”
- “I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do.”
And so they dropped.
If that student had someone who could help them get through a bad week or two, they could get over that hump. It would turn them around and keep them in that class and maybe they’d graduate from that university. That two weeks of having community support would have fundamentally changed that student’s life.
We brought these students back by building community and by just having someone reach out to them and have a conversation.
WHAT COMMUNITY LOOKS LIKE
You have to think about community from day one and build community at the beginning because by the time a student needs that community it’s too late. You may have services, you may have counselors, you may have advisors, you may have TAs who will reach out, you may have all of these people who can help in different ways, but when a student’s in a time of crisis, they’re going to lean on the support community they already know, the people they trust, the people they’re aware of. Some students with a certain personality will reach out and look for assistance, but too many of them only reach out to people they trust. If you haven’t fostered that community before the time when they need it, it’s too late to build it.
During my research we ran a lot of experiments. We’d have the instructor reach out and try to pull them back in. We’d have a TA reach out and try to bring them back in. And we’d have one of the best students in the class reach out and try to bring them back into the conversation. The success rate was almost double if a student did it.
Students respond to students. They respond to their peers. They respond to somebody who’s going through the same thing they’re going through — they really understand and can help bring those students back in. When we’re building community we always want to think about peers. Having peers in the community is very important.
If you think about that student who’s struggling and how that sense of community helps them feel like they’re part of the school, they become a more engaged alumni later. It also has the exact same effect on the person who’s doing the helping. The person who’s reaching out and responding and helping lift that person up, they feel like they’re part of the institution as well. The tide raises all boats, everybody is highly engaged. So there’s lots of reasons to focus on building community.
HOW TO (RE)BUILD COMMUNITY
If we agree that community has gone away a little bit in the world we live in and that we want to bring it back, we can talk about a few ways to build community
Pathify just launched a Prospects portal. Prospective students come in and join the community by logging into the same system your students use. You can segment them away from your students with permissions, but you can also make a certain group of students your prospect ambassadors and give them access to talk to prospects. This way prospects can ask questions of current students — back to that idea that peers have the most impact.
These prospects feel like part of the community from day one. If they’re admitted, they bring that community with them. Other prospects they talked to on the prospect portal are their connections when they become freshman. Someone who just went through the same process, advisors who helped them, alumni who helped them, that community comes with them. In the really core first couple of semesters, they’ve got a prebuilt community because you started it when they were prospects.
Focus on Student Needs
Always focus on student needs. You have this community hub, it’s a great place, it’s the student union, everybody can come hang out and talk and collaborate with each other. But if students don’t go there, you’re not able to build a community there. Your first goal should be to get eyes on the platform, bring people in and have them engage in some way.
I was reading John Green’s latest book “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” which is fantastic. He talks about how since humans came to dominance, by far the highest predictor of a species’ success is how useful they are to humans.
If a species is useful to humans, that species is going to survive. If you can’t be useful to humans, your second best survival mechanism is to be cute. If humans think you’re cute, you’re probably not going to go extinct either. These apply directly to the success of software in your institution as well. You need to either be useful to your students or you need to be really cute. If you can be both, all the better.
When I interview students and ask what’s important, they say, “My grades, my money and my food. Those are the things I care about the most.” So being able to see my upcoming assignments, the recent grades I’ve gotten, my GPA, what classes I need to take so that I graduate on time, modeling to show what I need to get on my midterm to keep a B in this class — those things are critical, they need to be there. They’re not building community inherently, but they’re bringing people to the platform so you can leverage that platform for community. Dining menus is one of the most high engagement widgets we’ve ever built. If you’re telling students what’s in the cafeteria that day, they’re going to go look everyday. If you can find things that deal with grades, money or food, you can bring people to your platform. Then once you get them to your platform you can leverage them as part of the community.
Keep it Novel
Another way to bring people back to the platform is thinking about novelty. There was a book a few years back called “Hooked.” It’s a great book but scary in a lot of ways because it talks about how you build products that people basically become addicted to. It’s ideology and psychology you can use for evil or for good. Fundamentally, it teaches you that there’s three pieces to building this cycle to get someone hooked — a trigger, action and reward. Something happens that makes you want to take an action and when you take that action you get rewarded. As long as that happens over and over again you’re going to be ingrained and you’re going to use this product over and over again.
In a lot of our cases, the trigger is a notification. You’re notified that there’s a new message, there’s something new in this group you participate in, someone posted something new that you might want to see. Your action is to go to the platform and look at it and your reward is you’re seeing something good. This is what Facebook does better than anyone else. Every time you open Facebook you see something new — one of your friends posted something, you see a memory from 10 years ago. You’re getting an endorphin release basically by going and looking. If your primary student platform only has things like current courses, get your transcript, things that change once a semester, students aren’t going to come back and engage in that platform. It may link to good tools or have stuff they need once a semester, but they’re not getting that reward. One of the primary ways to deliver that reward is UGC — user generated content.
Don’t be afraid to let your students create content on the platform. A lot of people shy away from it, but any platform that does this well allows for moderation. Students can suggest groups and you can approve them or reject them. You can even do it at the post level, giving you control of which posts stay on the platform and which ones are removed. But letting students create content is a really important part of their ownership.
Another important thing to think about when you’re building community is synchronous versus asynchronous communication. Threaded discussions are very asynchronous — I post something today, you respond tomorrow, I respond next week. We’re having a conversation, but it’s not in real time. There’s a very different feel to a real time conversation versus an asynchronous conversation.
They’re both important and you want to support both. Look for tools that support both asynchronous and synchronous communication because being able to communicate in real time is a critical part of building a strong community. It’s fundamentally different and people don’t think about that enough.
We do all this work and get people on the platform, we even have groups and communities people can join. But students don’t typically dig in and find those things on their own — which is the fundamental problem with traditional student portals. You need to give them some pushes to get them there. You need to give them some wayfinders.
Technology can help. Edtech can absolutely come in and say “people like you” or “people in your community” or “tell us what your likes are on your profile” and make group or community recommendations. That’s really effective.
Malcolm Gladwell has a book called “Tipping Point” where he talks about the law of the few. He says that once a product or service gets the right 20% of people engaged, the other 80% follow along. You just need to know those trend setters. Identify the people on your campus that you want to be your advocates and be your evangelists for these community platforms. Once those people are there and are advocating for it, everybody comes on and joins the platform.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
The tool and the platform that supports communities are great and necessary, but they don’t solve the problem by themselves. You need advocates and content that brings people to the platform. Never think about it as just a tool solution. Think about how you use the tool and how you leverage it and how you get people there. That’s the key to rebuilding communities in higher ed today.