Student-Centered Educational Software

Last year I wrote a long rant about how the Gallup-Purdue survey studying the impact of higher education on wellbeing shows that our well-intentioned desire to ensure schools are providing a “quality education” is causing us to measure the wrong things in ways that deform the whole system. Well, the latest Gallup-Purdue survey results are out. Here are a couple of summary findings that Gallup has highlighted:

Graduates who were “emotionally supported” — who strongly agreed they received support from professors who cared about them as a person and made them excited about learning, and from a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams — were twice as likely to be engaged in their work and almost twice as likely to be thriving in their well-being later in life.

What’s more, graduates who had “experiential learning” — who strongly agreed they worked on long-term projects that took a semester or longer to complete; who had a job or internship where they applied what they were learning in the classroom; and who were extremely active in extracurricular activities — also doubled their odds of being engaged in their work later in life.

These are impressive outcomes. Yet a quarter of all graduates strongly disagreed that they had any of these crucial experiences while they were at college. When it comes to providing students with the key experiences that will lead to success later in life, the U.S. higher education report card is poor.

Coincidentally, Vincent Tinto just published a piece in Inside Higher Ed on the factors that contribute to student degree completion. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Tinto is well regarded for his research on just this topic. As he explains in the piece, we know that three factors strongly intfluence the likelihood that students will complete their degrees.

First, a sense of self-efficacy:

Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their ability to succeed at a particular task or in a specific situation. It is one manifestation of how past experiences shape how individuals come to perceive themselves and their capacity to have some degree of control over their environment. Self-efficacy is learned, not inherited. It is malleable, not fixed. It is not generalizable in that it applies to all tasks and situations but can vary depending on the particular task or situation at hand. A person may feel capable of succeeding at one task but not another.

When it comes to students’ belief in their ability to succeed in college, a strong sense of self-efficacy promotes goal attainment, while a weak sense undermines it.

Second, a sense of belonging:

While believing one can succeed in college is essential for persistence to completion, it does not in itself ensure it. For that to occur, students have to come to see themselves as a member of a community of other students, faculty and staff who value their membership — that they matter and belong. Thus the term “sense of belonging.” The result is often expressed as a commitment that serves to bind the individual to the group or community even when challenges arise. It is here that engagement with other people on the campus matters. But more important still are students’ perceptions of those engagements and the meaning they derive from them as to their belonging.

And finally, the perceived value of the curriculum:

Students’ perceptions of the value of their studies also influence their motivation to persist. Although what constitutes value is subject to much debate, the underlying issue is clear: students need to perceive the material to be learned is of sufficient quality and relevance to warrant their time and effort. Only then will they be motivated to engage that material in ways that promote learning and, in turn, persistence. Curriculum that is seen as irrelevant or of low quality will often yield the opposite result.

It’s not hard to see the connection between Gallup-Purdue’s findings and Tinto’s (or with common sense and intuition, for that matter). Solid empirical evidence suggests that the best way to affect medium- and long-term outcomes for students is to give them reason to feel that they are part of an academic community of people who are committed to helping them succeed at learning things that actually matter. There are lots of ways that educational software could facilitate this, in traditional classrooms and even in scaled-up approaches (like MOOCs) that emphasize access. But it’s not the path that much of ed tech is going down at the moment.

One reason is that higher ed itself is not yet thinking this way overall about its mission (although some individual colleges and educators certainly are). I have found myself saying over and over in different conversations that many of the ed tech companies that are most successful in the next decade will be the ones that help campuses make the cultural shift toward a focus on data-informed and research-grounded teaching excellence. Gallup frames this focus as “customer excellence,” which is not a particularly academic-friendly way of putting it.

We should reclaim the buzz phrase “student-centered” to mean this. Right now it is often used to mean the opposite, i.e., having the student work alone with software on micro-tasks that the software determines are “important” for the student. While there is value in targeted skill practice, most of the benefits get washed away unless the students see a connection between that work and larger picture that both Tinto and Gallup are pointing to.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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