October 16, 2017

Learning as the New Competitive Advantage | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellExcepting elite colleges and universities, higher education can expect increased competition among institutions for dwindling numbers of students. Investments in learning could provide a competitive edge if, as a new study suggests, it leads to revenue gains.

Take a look at your institution’s admissions information. You’ll see a bevy of statistics about the profile of incoming students. It will praise their significant accomplishments, degree of diversity, and capacity for academic success. If your institution’s admissions office is doing all the right things, applications and acceptances may be up. However, we rarely learn the dollar amount per student invested in each new class for education-related expenditures. How much money do our institutions intend to spend on instructional quality to ensure new students have the best chance at retention and persistence to graduation? Multiple challenges, from financial burdens to mental health difficulties, factor into student success. Academic institutions can exert the most influence on what happens in the classroom by choosing to invest in resources that lead to a better learning experience. In a landscape of increasing competition among non-elite institutions for a dwindling number of students, colleges and universities will need a new competitive edge over their rivals. According to a new higher education study, a better learning experience may yield the optimal advantage.

Time to Talk Experience

At my institution’s annual teaching with technology event, we heard Richard Culatta, recently appointed CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), speak about the importance of the student experience. Calls to apply user experience practice to higher education are usually poorly received. Faculty liken it to treating students as entitled customers who expect retail store treatment, rather than adults who are there to get educated. But Culatta encouraged the attendees to simply think about their teaching from the vantage point of the student. He asked us to imagine what we could do with a user experience team, dedicated to learning what makes our students tick, to understanding their expectations and the best methods to eliminate friction from their education. What do we think we’d discover if we simply shadowed our students all day? It would likely expose all the broken processes, in and outside the classroom, that detract from the experience. Paying more attention to the learning and life experience students have now and then redesigning it from a student-centric perspective would lead to a better overall experience—and therefore to the increases in retention and persistence to graduation we all want.

Center the Experience on Learning

As an advocate for user experience in higher education, Culatta’s message strongly resonated with me. I want faculty to know that designing a learning experience that puts students at the center is not capitulation to pampering them or serving up edutainment. If it can lead to better results in the classroom, why not give it a try? Support for that suggestion may be found in a new report from the American Council of Education, “Instructional Quality, Student Outcomes and Institutional Finances,” produced with support from Ithaka S&R. Conventional higher ed thinking, states the report, finds questionable returns in allocating more money to instruction. However, the report suggests that investments in instructional improvement boost student learning outcomes, in turn increasing revenue (by way of retained students) by an amount that exceeds the cost of instructional improvement. Not exactly the way Culatta put it, but the outcome is similar. Invest in a better student experience and it’s only going to benefit the institution. It’s described in this feedback loop diagram:

Source: American Council of Education. Instructional Quality, Student Outcomes and Institutional Finances. Pg. 6

Source: American Council of Education. Instructional Quality, Student Outcomes and Institutional Finances. Pg. 6

Based on the existing research cited in the report, investments in faculty professional development lead to improved student learning and course success. I understand this firsthand as a result of my participation in my institution’s Provost’s Teaching Academy. Instructors learn numerous techniques to better engage their students, to help them learn how to learn so they stay enrolled—not to mention dealing with all types of challenging classroom situations. It makes a difference because the revenue from one student who persists to graduation is equivalent to four students who quit after freshman year. And of course, the college or university only has to spend the money and staff time to recruit one student, not four. The ACE report makes the case for instructional investment so that faculty and staff can deliver the best possible experience to students.

Where the Library Delivers

The Ithaka Study that academic librarians are paying attention to now is the Library Survey 2016. There’s a connection between it and the lesser recognized ACE study on instructional quality. According to the Library Survey, library deans predict the most growth for positions related to teaching and research support, and they are deeply committed to supporting student success. Both of those overarching goals fit right into the feedback loop between net revenue and student outcomes. While the academic library lacks the ability to contribute directly to institutional net revenue, if, as ACE predicts, better instructional quality boosts that revenue, the library can have a direct impact. The challenge, as the Library Survey reminds us, is our difficulty in articulating just exactly how the library does contribute to instructional quality and student success. In addition to doing a better job of demonstrating how information literacy initiatives and other strategies to integrate the library into teaching and learning support improve learning and success, library deans need to articulate to top academic administrators how the library fits into the feedback loop. Showing how the library contributes to higher GPAs or increased engagement with research is good, but making a case that the library helps give the institution a competitive advantage and increased net revenue, though its impact on instructional quality and improved learning, is even better.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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