A (New) Bronx Tale: A Community College Embraces Edtech to Help Students Succeed

A (New) Bronx Tale: A Community College Embraces Edtech to Help Students Succeed

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Hostos Community College may be in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the U.S., but it’s cultivating an award-winning, technology-rich culture with a laser-like focus on delivering student services.

Named a top-10 finalist for the prestigious Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence in 2015, Hostos recently ranked first among mid-size community colleges in a national Center for Digital Education survey that recognized the college’s use of technology. And Hostos isn’t resting on its laurels. It's adding functionality to its myHostos mobile app and reaching out to students with Succeed@Hostos, an early warning system that enhances timely communication between students, professors and staff.

Out With Silos, in With Teamwork

Many Hostos students can benefit from a variety of interventions and outreach services. They require remedial classes or English-language instruction. Some are single parents and need childcare. Others need to make use of the college’s food pantry. Most are the first in their families to attend college. So, how did the school go about using technology to address these diverse needs?

Step one was to improve collaboration and information sharing. Originally, a comprehensive platform that could track all of the college’s numerous support services did not exist, says Chief Information Officer and Assistant Vice President of IT Varun Sehgal. Nor was there a platform allowing faculty to flag at-risk students early enough in a semester to accommodate timely and successful intervention.

“That got us looking into how do we fix this. How do we approach this from a cross-campus platform approach where it is not the silos that are doing their own things with the same goals in mind? How can we approach this in a more comprehensive and collaborative manner?” Sehgal says.

Sehgal established the planning process that ultimately would lead to Succeed@Hostos, and a dedicated cross-campus committee started meeting regularly in Spring 2014. The committee included faculty members, department chairs, all of the leaders of academic support services on campus, the vice president of student affairs, the provost, and representatives from the IT side of the campus, along with representatives from another student success initiative started in 2012, the Student Success Coaching Unit.

At Hostos, coaches are critical to the advising role, and are separate and distinct from academic advising. Ultimately, they would be students’ guides to Succeed@Hostos, proactively answering questions, addressing financial aid issues, helping set up academic plans and pointing students to the services available to them.

“The role of these success coaches is to essentially be the singular, primary point of contact for incoming freshmen, from the time they get admitted through the time they graduate,” Sehgal explains.

A Pilot Program Takes Off

After reviewing several early-warning-system platforms, the committee chose the Starfish Early Alert and Connect solutions, and organized a pilot of 25 English and math first-level, for-credit, gateway course sections that enrolled a total of about 600 students in Fall 2014.

The pilot “tested our business practice ideology and the capacity of the coaches and advisors in all the student support areas, but also made sure we understood whether or not the system was working, was it acceptable, did the students find it useful, and were the faculty engaging with the platform in a meaningful manner,” Sehgal describes. The initial results were mixed.

“There were a lot of bumps along the road, and we realized that we needed to do better communication, better marketing, better training and more frequent training for the different periods throughout the academic semester in which we expected feedback from the faculty or when we expected the coaches in other support areas to engage with the system,” Sehgal says. Persistence paid off.

“From there, we continued to improve, and the committee met regularly every two weeks to make sure the overall initiative was progressing,” Sehgal says. “We started getting some tremendous feedback, to the point where we had faculty coming to us asking how to get on the system. We were also getting student support services coming to us and saying ‘this is great, but we have more coaches who want to use the system.’”

Since the pilot started, the platform has grown from accommodating 25 sections to 320 sections with more than 7,500 students. And, the college has a 99.8 percent “tracking item closure rate” on a total of 4,800 referrals made since 2014. The rate reflects the number of interventions or referrals marked completed by advisors.

“The only challenge I am seeing, in terms of the system, is from the students’ end,” says Wendy Small-Taylor, 10-year veteran student advisor and director of academic advisement. They are getting the messages through the system; they are reading them, but sometimes they are not responding through the system.” Instead of making digital appointments and communications through Succeed@Hostos, many students physically go to the office to which they have been referred.

Overall, however, Small-Taylor says, the system “helps advisors and the students know more about the obstacles students are facing academically. For us as advisors, it helps us to seek resources that can help them before they are negatively impacted. It is completely student and faculty friendly, and it is easily accessible by all of the support areas.”

It’s More Than a Phone App, It’s a Gateway

Adding to the accessibility factor is the college’s myHostos mobile app, launched in Spring 2016. In addition to being a notification system, the app is integrated with the CUNY web portal, as well as the CUNY student information system, so students can access their accounts from their mobile devices as well as obtain information about campus events.

The app has been downloaded more than 3,500 times, and the school currently is working on a soon-to-be-launched second-phase version that will give students the ability to register for classes, according to Sehgal.

“We wanted to have a functional app, not just an informational mobile app,” he says. “We wanted another mechanism to conduct outreach to our students by using push notifications within this mobile app. It gives us a lot more flexibility and control to target notifications to our students. So, for example, the bursar can pull up a list of students with outstanding receivables, load that list into a middleware that we created, and students with the app installed on their mobile devices receive the important notification.” 

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