The Student Services conundrum: Part 3 – graduate outcomes and the (potential) role of the service centre

20151002_162309In the first two posts of this trilogy I discussed the background of the Flinders Connect student service centre and a strategy for driving the highest value from a combination of online self-service, service centre support, and more focused interactions. In this final post, I want to explore something which sets the University context apart from that of (say) a bank, a telco or a government department.

That something is one of the goals of of all Universities: to develop strong graduate capabilities within students as a fundamental outcome of attending University.

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The Student Services conundrum: Part 1 – setting the context

FlinConSign

Me: ‘You know you can make this purchase online and you won’t have to wait in a queue here, right?’

Student: *shrugs shoulders* ‘Yeah, but I’m here now anyway, so I might as well wait’.

This was a conversation, or a variant thereof, that I had more times than I can remember during the last week of February and first week of March this year. As you may already know, I accepted a role almost one year ago at Flinders University to lead the creation of a centralised student support centre, which went live in October last year, and which met its biggest test at the start of Semester 1 last month.

It was these many conversations that, about three weeks ago (just as the smoke was clearing from the start of semester frenetics), started off a blog post in my mind that I’ve been struggling to write ever since. It was only on the counsel of two people very close to me that I realised the post (which was seeming even more long and rambling than my usual efforts) was actually three separate posts, and should be written as such.

This post marks the first in the trilogy.

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Student retention – not how, but why

For the last two days I’ve been in attendance at the Strategies for Student Retention conference in Melbourne. The conference was an interesting mix of background information on retention stats in Australian higher education, strategies to improve these retention rates, arguments around the concept of students as customers, and plenty of discussion about the challenges that lay ahead for higher education. To summarise the themes of the conference in five points:

  • attrition at universities is a thing;
  • some of it is largely unavoidable, and relates to external factors in the lives of students;
  • some of it correlates to student demographics, but to varying degrees;
  • sometimes behavioural indicators can predict it;
  • sometimes intervention strategies can help students stay on if the challenges they are facing can be worked around.

I’m not going to spend time going into more detail on the above though – there are plenty of fine scholars already doing that far more justice than I can here. I will however demonstrate the variation of opinions on the matter by sharing some responses to the following question I posted on Twitter:

If I had a dollar to spend on increasing student retention, where would it be most effectively spent, and why?

Here are some of the responses I got…

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The MOOC as a network broker

Inspiration for blog posts can happen at the strangest, and most inopportune times, and this happened to me on Thursday last week, the penultimate day of preparation for the opening of Flinders Connect and a time when my mind was flying around the many last-minute jobs we still had to knock off. The inspiration didn’t so much hit me, it was more delivered in person as I was coming back with a quick bite of lunch, courtesy of Prof Colin Carati, the Director of the Flinders Uni Centre for Educational ICT. After exchanging pleasantries about the opening of Flinders Connect, Colin mentioned the blog post I wrote a couple of weeks back which in summary posited that the next big challenge for Universities could be how best to connect their students to large, open networks as a means to improve employability (based on research from the Booth School of Business).

Colin’s thought to me was a strikingly simple one – what if the real value of a MOOC is to act as a broker for students into these large, open networks?

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The ‘work ready’ graduate and the problems of perception

RegrowthAs often happens, a valued node in my professional network friend has got me thinking, and thinking to the extent that I need to write a post to help structure out my rambling thoughts.

The background to this is a post by Techxplorer about his perspective on universities teaching ’employability’ skills, and in particular this quote from his post:

I’m not convinced that I want higher education institutions teaching students to be ‘work ready’.

On thinking through this statement I couldn’t help but feeling a general vibe of disagreement, but it took a little time to work out why.

As Techxplorer goes on to discuss, the conversations that go on around being ‘work ready’ or ’employable’ can be viewed through a number of different lenses, and I think this is where so much of my discomfort was springing from, and so I thought it was worth delving into that a little deeper here on this problem of perception.

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Employability, entrepreneurship and the future of Higher Education

As part of the lead up to the opening of Flinders Connect next month, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the concept of ‘students as customers’, and the role that Universities (and our student services team one part of that greater whole) are expected to play in this relationship. In a recent staff forum I heard our Vice Chancellor muse that students may be customers, but they are not customers simply buying a commodity – they are more like adventurers signing up for a trek through the Himalayas, with an expectation that they will need to put in significant effort as part of the deal to get to their goal.

There must also, however, be the expectation from these customers that at the end of that trek there is some sort of payoff – most likely in the form of gainful employment – and yet we see plenty of stories like this one highlighting graduate employability being at its lowest level in Australia in over twenty years. We see the terms ‘job ready’ and ’employability’ skills’ bandied about, and yet we also see the counterpoint that Universities should absolutely not attempt to ‘educate to suit employers‘. So what then do we do to ensure that our students are getting the value they expect from their education?

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Legitimising the grapevine

I stumbled across our work Yammer network the other day. I had no idea that it was there – I just logged into the corporate Office 365 portal doodad and saw a link to it, and being the curious little kitten I am I clicked on it. What I found was a fledgling collection of others from around the University, with no seeming rhyme or reason to indicate from whence they had come. Probably just other rubberneckers like me, poking their nose in to see what it was all about. A few ‘Hello World’ posts, a couple of attempts at sharing links – and not much else.

Just to test the waters, I made my first post an admission that I’ve used Yammer quite a bit in years gone past, and that I should write a blog post that clarified what I saw as the conditions for success. I even got a few ‘likes’ on it, and so I figured I’d better follow through with this post.

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How I lost my faith in the LMS (or ‘my journey towards LMS nihilism’)

It was a couple of weeks back now when I threw out a tweet asking what my next blog post should be, and as I should have predicted, it came back with the one that is probably the hardest for me to write.

Then, while all sorts of thoughts were rattling around in my head, Phil Hill’s post took quite a bit of wind out of my sails by articulating very neatly a lot of the stuff that I was mulling over. What Phil’s post also did however was to make me realise that my faith in edtech on the whole wasn’t the issue – it was far more my faith in the LMS.

What I did think was still worth doing in spite of Phil’s post was creating a bit more of a personal view of my own journey towards LMS nihilism, which is what I’m going to share here. First though, you’ll need to permit me to wander a little.

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Learning Analytics – bridging the interpretation gap

First up, I’d like to thank Simon Buckingham-Shum for his recent post on learning analytics. Rarely do I read a blog post which not only considers an ‘entry level’ question, but also then follows through multiple steps in the analysis of the topic in the way this post did. When I read the post I had the unnerving sense that the author had already thought through every question I might have considered, and answered it before I could pause to take a breath and even form the question properly in my head. I’ve been mulling the post over for the last week, and I decided that I really needed to put his post in context alongside some of my own thoughts (even if this is, in academic terms, like parking a Bugatti Veyron ‘in context alongside’ a Toyota Corolla, but never mind).

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