Do We Involve the Students? 3 Lessons for Student-Centric Edtech

Educause has released its annual review of the Top 10 Issues in Digital Implementation of Edtech. How important is it that students are involved?

Educause has released its annual review of the top 10 issues in digital implementation of edtech. Based on a comprehensive survey of leading instructors and business leaders, it ranks those challenges at the forefront of thought-leaders' minds when surveying the massive potential of digital transformation in education.

Student-centric higher education is one of the article's big takeaways. As BibliU is a company built by and for students, when it comes to digital transformation, we have valuable insights into what institutions need to be doing to keep up with student demands.

But first, what does "student-centric higher education" really mean? At first glance, the phrase can seem a little empty.

Everyone wants to involve students, sure, but aren't students already at the centre of higher education? Isn't higher education, ultimately, built around and for them?

Well, it turns out, no.

Definition: Review Inflation

Education costs are soaring across the board. These include the overt costs, like tuition, but also hidden costs like physical textbooks with a price tag that has surpassed inflation. According to the College Board, that's denting the average student's wallet by a mind-boggling $1240 over the length of a four-year course.

Education is Costlier Than Ever

With this increase in costs, students are demanding more from their education than ever before. After all, education is no longer just a thing students do. They are demanding value for money. They are demanding employable skills. They are demanding excellence. Ever heard of review inflation?
On Airbnb, Uber or any other app, five stars now means 'satisfactory.' Four stars can be read as 'needs improvement.' Less than four stars? Well, just think cockroaches and homicidal drivers.

Students are poorer than ever, and they're asked to spend more on education. You can’t fault them for wanting a stellar experience.

Though we might like to think differently, students aren't involved in the decision-making process when it comes to digital transformation. It's a big criticism of edtech, and one that the education writer Alfie Kohn has latched onto.

The tasks in digital learning environments have been personalized for kids, not created by them. In the words of education author Will Richardson, "'Personalized' learning is something that we do to kids; 'personal' learning is something they do for themselves."

And in many ways Kohn is right. There's a confusion in the higher education sector about what empowering students actually means. Institutions claim to put the interests of the student first, but neglect what those same students need.

After all, how can you know what the student requires if you don't ask them?

How does an Airbnb host get better? They listen to feedback and adapt. Often the room only needs a little spring cleaning! Let's approach education technology in the same way.

From a Development Perspective

When developing BibliU as a Learning Enablement platform, we had one thing in mind: students. After all, when we came up with the idea, we were students. Students who were sick of learning platforms with unintuitive interfaces and inexplicable downtime. This definitely got in the way of my learning, as I'm sure it did for many others.

So we did something simple but effective. We incorporated student feedback into our development cycle. The advice in Educause's report, though a big step forward, misses this essential point. The report suggests that "key stakeholders" should "Socialize [their] platform for change throughout the institution, and adapt based on feedback."

It sounds good, but it neglects the central stakeholders explicitly in any implementation process of edtech. Students.

Here's what we mean.

In our platform, we place an unobtrusive rating bar at the bottom of our interface. Students can rank their user experience from 1 to 10 and are invited to comment on what they found helpful (or unhelpful) when using our platform. These reports are then sent straight to a dedicated Slack channel so that the whole company knows what issues need addressing and when.

Students across the world, too, can suggest features they think would be useful using an easily-accessible portal within BibliU's learning platform. Current suggestions are spotlighted and pinned to our development team's respective strategic objectives.

Both students' suggestions and rankings are then assigned a user impact score, and fed into our development timeline. This user impact score measures the importance of the issue to students and helps create a clear roadmap for BibliU's future development. What's nice to see is that student suggestions are often simple enough to implement.

Listening to students is incredibly important to our development team. They make it a point to get out there to our clients' institutions and engage with students face-to-face. To see first hand how students are using the BibliU app and coming back with real-world usage suggestions for improvement.

Students' needs can often be overlooked in higher education, but not necessarily because of any inherent difficulty in meeting those needs. Implementation is sometimes the easy part. Yet knowing what to implement is often tricky.

All of these initiatives are incredibly important to us. Why? Because student populations are increasingly diverse. Did you know that over a third of current students are over the age of 25? And that a quarter of students now take at least one course online?
With outreach initiatives attempting to broaden access to those belonging to underrepresented ethnicities and socio-economic groups, it’s essential to listen to the student.

Individual students can have vastly different expectations and needs. We all know that institutions can be accused too quickly of 'siloing' digital initiatives, hindering more comprehensive implementation.

The last thing we want to do is silo diverse perspectives. We're not claiming any massive innovation here. But it works. Some of our key features, such as our Discovery Layer Search, have been implemented in our platform because of these suggestions.

Our key takeaway? There is always room for improvement, and if you do not involve the users of edtech, you're missing opportunities for student engagement and success. You could well be failing students.

Lessons for Higher Education

Educause's report defines student success as one of its four major challenges. And within Student Success, there are engagement and retention factors which I think we'd all agree are the raison d'être of higher education. Yet student success often comes secondary to Educause’s three other key challenges to the institution: financial health, reputation and relevance, and external competition.

It’s noticeable in higher education. We hesitate. We would all like to empower students, but sometimes the resources simply aren’t there. Priorities shift in line with the market, initiatives become stale, and funding for new projects dries up. Student success falls by the wayside.

So is life in 21st century education. But some simple solutions are easy to implement. Based on our experiences in developing a student-driven learning platform, we suggest that higher education providers:

Lesson #1: Get the Students Involved

We all have memories of ineffective student-faculty engagement. Students can be involved in faculty-student dialogue, but their voices aren't taken seriously. Sometimes for the student, it can feel as though they aren't being listened to. This needs to change.

It's not just me saying it. Student stakeholders are a vital element in the Association of Public & Land Grant Universities' report on the implementation of adaptive courseware. Based on the experience of several universities across the United States, they recommend student engagement across the whole implementation cycle.

Lesson #2: Integrate Student Suggestions

Students know what students need. Integrate responsive feedback into your digital learning platforms. Consider prioritising, too, the suggestions of students. Not only can this help with course engagement, but it also saves you time.
Prioritizing student suggestions and criticism means that you can focus on what matters in development and implementation instead of features that sound good but which are secondary or (worse) redundant.

Lesson #3: Use What's Out There

Bespoke systems are expensive and require that you work out many different problems that are likely to have solutions already. #edtech is a burgeoning field, with many different technologies which are specifically created to adapt your current learning objectives. Gone are the days of one-platform solutions. Many platforms in edtech and adaptive learning are geared explicitly to plug-in to existing LMS.

One could quickly implement one platform for digital content management (i.e., BibliU) and one for data processing (i.e., AWS) and have everything the student needs, as well as rich analytics on a micro- and macro- level which allow instructors and administrators to measure course engagement efficiently and effectively.

The Wrap Up

Let's be frank, students aren't always engaged with digital implementation. This is a problem. But it doesn't need to be. With a few considerations in mind, higher education can engage students like never before. Edtech, like all things digital, can often seem overburdened by buzz-words. We scratch our heads at phrases like "student-centric edtech." But if we ensure that we are always working with goals in mind, real digital change can be effected in higher education.

Looking for more information on edtech? Take a look at our Universal Learning or On Demand Learning solutions.

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