Talkin’ About a Revolution

Smart phones as lighters

[This post was originally published in Ryerson University’s #RyersonSA blog]

Student Affairs is on the cusp of a revolution. We have experienced at least two interrelated waves of change during the past 30 years and are in the midst of a third that will transform how we do our jobs and our role in the academy.

The first wave—the Assessment Movement—began in the late 1970s. Higher education faced its first enrollment crisis as the tail end of the Baby Boom generation passed through high school and college. Suddenly, the unending enrollment growth that started in the 1950s and continued unabated in the 1960s and most of the 1970s ended. This caused several changes. Among them was the “invention” of Enrollment Management. With a decline in the number of high school graduates, institutions needed to find innovative ways to recruit students and, more importantly, how to retain them. Institutions began to recruit more broadly (older students, first gen, etc.). This focus on retention also fueled the first wave in question here: the Assessment Movement. If we were going to do a better job of retaining students, we needed to know more about the quality of their experience and understand the reasons why some students choose to leave.

Additionally, higher education (and, in turn, Student Affairs) started to be challenged by a variety of external constituencies in the 1980s to do a better job of assessing student outcomes and assessing for organizational and service improvement. The value of a college degree was no longer being taken for granted. The movement towards assessment was a slow effort that engendered a great deal of resistance on the part of Student Affairs staff. However, through the relentless effort on the part of many assessment leaders and visionaries and continued pressure from outside of higher education, the expectation that staff assess their work and the outcomes of that work has grown to be more of an accepted practice.

The second wave emerged in the early 1990s with the publication of the Student Learning Imperative (SLI). Prior to the SLI the presumed focus of Student Affairs work was the enhancement of the psychosocial, cognitive, and moral development of college students. Student development theory was (and continues to be) the primary framework of master’s preparation programs. Student learning was assumed to be solely the jurisdiction of academics, and this wave changed the course of this dialogue to recognize that other campus entities were also responsible for learning.

With the emergence of learning as an accepted focus of Student Affairs work, this wave supported the goals of the first wave—assessment. Prior to the emergence of the focus on learning, Student Affairs as a field struggled with the nearly impossible task of assessing the impact of our work on the developmental outcomes of students. Assessing the impact of our work on cognitive or moral development was especially challenging. Most of us basically did not try—mainly because we did not have the tools to do so. We were, what I termed at the time, a “faith-based” profession. We did the work and took the actions that we believed would enhance a student’s development, but we could not measure or confirm the assumed positive impact on their development.

Focusing on learning changed all that. We could teach and assess, for example, leadership, listening skills, group skills, conflict mediation, public speaking, resume writing, interviewing, program development, task management, etc. This dramatically shifted the focus in many student affairs units as the assessment of learning outcomes was so much more accessible and doable than the assessment of developmental outcomes. The focus on learning has only grown stronger in the two plus decades since the publication of the SLI.

We are now in the midst of a third wave that is building on the efforts and outcomes of the first two, and this wave involves the technological advancements of the last decade or so.

The notebook is replaced by the tablet.

Prior to the emergence of this third wave, students were treated as fragmented entities during their college experience. They had experiences in residence halls, in the career center, in recreation, in advising, in academic support, etc. However, other than those few students who emerged as visible across campus for either good reasons (multiple, visible leadership positions) or bad reasons (disruptive behaviour), we had no manageable way of viewing students’ experiences holistically. We were only seeing a piece or two at a time of the mosaic that comprises a student’s life.

We recognized the importance of developing an integrated student experience. For example, there were efforts to develop co-curricular transcripts to track students’ out-of-class experiences and accomplishments, but most of those efforts faded due to the difficulty of implementation and the challenge of tracking students’ experiences on an on-going basis or relying on students to do it themselves. Another example of trying to view students’ experiences holistically is the proliferation of behavioral intervention teams. They began to emerge fifteen years ago because staff realized that if there were concerns in one area of a student’s life, they might show up in others and this would be a way to possibly intervene earlier than might otherwise be possible.

Technology is catching up to our desires to understand and track our students’ experiences holistically. Much more powerful and pervasive enterprise resource planning (ERP) software (especially Banner and PeopleSoft) are replacing legacy systems and providing powerful, integrated databases from which information on students’ actions and activities can be drawn. Other third party solutions (e.g., Campus Voice, OrgSync, iModules) offer even greater opportunities to operationalize and track students’ activities and engagement in their collegiate experience.

These technological advancements are being integrated into our work and are ushering in an era of data-driven action and evidence-based decision-making. We will know before students arrive on our campuses which students are most at risk of leaving and how best to intervene. We will know earlier who is struggling academically or socially and offer to help sooner. We will know more quickly who is attending and not attending events on campus. We will know sooner and more clearly what works and what doesn’t in our programs and services and be able to adjust accordingly. We will know who is learning what and be able to provide students ways of easily tracking their accomplishments and providing them with powerful ways to communicate their holistic learning to employers or graduate schools. These tracking mechanisms also allow us to create and implement early alert strategies that are key tools in retaining students.

In short: welcome to the revolution! How are you participating?

Follow me at @pglove33.

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