Using tech to go the distance

Modern technological tools mean there's little excuse for higher education dropout rates to be on the rise, says D2L's Elliot Gowans

There are a multitude of reasons why a student might choose to end their studies early: some may feel unengaged by the course or unnoticed by their teachers, some may struggle with workload and reason that they’re not up to the task, whilst others might have personal or family issues which make course attendance seem untenable.

Whatever the reasons may be, higher education institutions have a commitment – and financial interest – in keeping students engaged and happy, particularly through the earliest portions of their courses.

Worrying statistics released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in March 2018 show that universities are struggling to achieve this. 26,000 students in England who began studying for their first degree in 2015 did not make it beyond their first year; this is the third year in a row where the dropout figure has risen.

If higher education institutions are to nip this problem in the bud, something clearly needs to change. I believe that using technology in a manner that has already been adopted by the corporate world can help universities offer the engagement, flexibility and support students may need to discourage them from abandoning their studies.

Expectation and engagement

The life of the average person in their late teens or early twenties is more closely entwined with technology than someone just 10 years their senior. This is the generation which grew up alongside the smartphone, broadband and social media, and its members rely on – and expect – technology to be a central component in managing all aspects of their life. Why, then, would we expect them to feel differently when it comes to their education?

In many ways, higher education has to take a note from the business world. Businesses are looking to engage with younger consumers with personalised offers and interactive experiences, often leveraging videos and gamification to build interest.

A learning platform that uses similar techniques and personalises learning so that it speaks to students as individuals and adapts to their needs, whilst simultaneously providing structured learning pathways, can deliver on these expectations and increase engagement. Used in conjunction with more traditional teaching methods, this blended approach is far more likely to resonate with students and ensure they stay the course.

With the added insight, flexibility and personalisation that education technology platforms can now provide, we should be seeing dropout rates reduce, not climb.

Providing flexibility

Reasons for a student leaving their course can extend further than a lack of engagement with the materials, of course.

One of the greatest triumphs of the modern university system is that it has provided greater opportunity for young people from a range of backgrounds and situations, rather than the privileged elite. That said, for students who might live in locations remote from campus, or have dependents who command a great deal of their time, or have an illness or disability, attending lectures can prove stressful or difficult.

In this regard, higher education needs to learn another lesson from the world of corporate work, where flexible working options – powered by mobile technology – have created a working environment no longer married to the nine-to-five timetable.

Mobile-enabled content can be ideal as it provides students access to course content and updates wherever they are, and across devices, whether at campus or at home. This can relieve the burden for those students whose personal situation might prohibit them from sticking to a traditionally strict course schedule.

Identifying at-risk students through analytics

Much as businesses have used advanced data analytics to deliver a more holistic view of their performance, and highlight areas of concern, the same technology can help tutors and administrators.

Whilst the personal, hands-on approach to supporting struggling students is, of course, the preferred method, oftentimes tutors may not be aware of the severity of a situation until too late in the process. Student performance metrics, used in conjunction with predictive analytics, can raise potential red flags sooner rather than later, and provide the impetus for intervention.

Technology will never replace or supersede a human support structure, but data analytics can help identify at-risk students, create a portrait of an individual student’s situation, and provide enough insight for university staff to tailor a support structure that fits the individual best.

Ultimately, universities want to provide students with engaging course material and an environment that promotes success. With the added insight, flexibility and personalisation that education technology platforms can now provide, we should be seeing dropout rates reduce, not climb. If a university is seeing a rise in dropout rates I’d urge them to consider a new approach to course delivery that blends traditional methods with the latest technologies.

W: D2L