Want Students Focused on the Pursuit of Knowledge? Stop Making Them...

Opinion | Digital Learning

Want Students Focused on the Pursuit of Knowledge? Stop Making Them Chase Information.

By Mariana Cavalcanti     Apr 22, 2018

Want Students Focused on the Pursuit of Knowledge? Stop Making Them Chase Information.

Too often, the words “knowledge” and “information” are used interchangeably, despite the fact that they mean two very different things. In most situations, the distinction is so nuanced that we never give it a second thought. But in the context of education—and higher education in particular—it’s a semantic misstep that can lead to students spending time in the pursuit of the wrong thing.

Take a story The Economist ran in April 2014 entitled “Is College Worth It?” The piece detailed the difficulties recent college graduates were confronting in the job market—and it questioned the value of a degree in a digital world where all the information we could ever want is just a click away.

Though it contradicted popular sentiments about the value of college that have stood for generations, the piece rang true for some prospective students who no longer saw the return on a college education as worthy of the investment.

But the article was rooted in fallacy. While information was indeed much easier to come by in 2014, knowledge is another animal altogether—and that point was driven home by St. John’s College President Christopher Nelson in a spirited rebuttal in the Washington Post.

Nelson argued that “the educated college graduate is not simply the same person who matriculated four years earlier with more information or new skills.” Rather, “The educated college graduate is a different person—one who has developed the innate human capacity for learning, to the point of controlling it.”

Nelson reminded us that there’s more to the college experience than mere information collection; and that true knowledge is only achieved when we learn how to use the information we’ve acquired in productive ways.

But if this is true, why do students still spend too much time chasing information tangential to the pursuit—such as the data needed to register for courses, secure financial aid, leverage campus services, or chart a path to graduation?

A recent study issued by DJS Research found that 40 percent of U.S. college students say dealing with administration is so complex that it cuts into study time. These results align with an Ellucian survey of 1,000 students during the fall semester of 2017, which find that 97 percent of students believe technology outside the classroom is just as important to success as technology inside the classroom. (Disclosure: I am a vice president at Ellucian.)

Clearly, today’s students are demanding a modern experience that makes the maze of administrative chores easier to navigate. Still, that same survey finds that 58 percent of students say their institution lags behind every other business or organization they regularly encounter when it comes to delivering the on-demand, mobile, self-service experience they’ve come to expect.

So at the very moment more prospective students are asking themselves “Is College Worth It?” we find ourselves undermining Christopher Nelson’s rationale for dispelling that question altogether. Even in this digitally-driven era, the information chase stands as an obstacle to the pursuit of knowledge. And to date, the technology solutions we’ve provided haven’t adequately addressed the issue.

Still, the introduction of mobile access, self-service capabilities, and other innovations have helped ease students’ administrative burden in recent years. And today, three developments in particular stand poised to take those advancements to the next level. Through better pathways to integration and new approaches to analytics, institutions can deliver precisely what today’s students have grown accustomed to in other walks of life.


Perhaps the most stunning finding in our student survey is that the average student must log on to four different platforms to access student-related information, services, or activities. For large institutions with enrollments of more than 15,000, one in four students have to access five platforms or more.

The culprit here is an outdated integration model that is so brittle, so expensive to maintain, and so incompatible with system upgrades that many institutions choose not to devote significant resources to the effort.

But in the last two years, we’ve seen the introduction of a universal higher education data model that involves a standard language by which systems can now communicate. Now, detached administrative systems for financial aid, housing, advising and other services can be centralized on a single platform thereby reducing the number of virtual stops students have to make when tackling their administrative to-do list.


New approaches to integration have led to leaps forward for higher education analytics. That’s because real analytical value isn’t locked in any particular application, but in what’s revealed when data housed in a variety of applications work together to provide a comprehensive view of all the information needed to answer critical questions.

From the students’ perspective, this means they don’t have to visit multiple applications to answer complex questions, such as how taking an additional class might impact tuition or financial aid.

At a time when 68 percent of new students who have access to a centralized campus app say they are “overwhelmed” by the volume of information available, integrated analytics can introduce a new organizing principle into the equation—and make the student the center of gravity around whom institutional data revolves.

We don’t need a survey to tell us that high-performing students are happy students. And we don’t need statistics to tell us that students perform best when we limit the tasks that distract from real learning. But the facts and figures do help us better understand precisely where we can do more to improve the student experience outside the classroom, and they demonstrate that digital transformation has an important role to play.

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