In Response to ‘Who Gets to Graduate?’ From The New York Times Magazine

The conversation happening about the continued rising cost of college — and what can be done to make it more affordable for working-class families — is timely and important. But “fixing higher-education” is not as one-dimensional as solving the financial obstacles and this weekend’s story in The New York Times Magazine raises an important point — what can be done for these students after they get into college to help maximize their learning and opportunities?

The story, “Who Gets to Graduate?,” written by Paul Tough takes a deep look at why family income impacts a student’s success at learning and overall graduation rates. In the piece, the author shares the story of an intelligent young woman and student at the University of Texas at Austin named Vanessa Brewer who despite being accepted into college struggles to succeed.

Vanessa represents the thousands of high-achieving students from low- and middle-income families in the United States that on paper should be able to succeed academically and graduate with a four-year degree but are derailed for reasons other than financial issues. How to improve the experience and outcomes for students like Vanessa lies in blending learning.

What is blended learning? Blended learning combines the best of the traditional classroom and homework with new technologies and digital tools that enhance the teaching and learning process. The analogy in our everyday lives is media – we still watch regular TV, but we also time shift using TiVo, watch Netflix on our tablets, and purchase past seasons on iTunes. While most segments of our economy have harnessed digital to do things better and cheaper, universities and colleges are stuck in the analog world, and they are not taking advantage of available technologies to help students like Vanessa.

At Revolution we saw the opportunity to improve education with blended learning and we made a major investment two years ago in a company called Echo360. The company offers a digital platform called “Echo Active Learning” that uses technologies to enhance teaching and learning and improve the student experience and outcomes. Echo Active Learning enables students to interact with the lectures and materials before, during, and after classes by allowing students to re-watch the lecture and re-engage with the materials anytime, anywhere; it has been proven to increase their learning and their grades substantially.

Students with financial challenges often have part-time jobs or are older with family responsibilities which prevent them from perfect class attendance – Echo solves that. Students with financial challenges can have English as a second language – Echo helps that. Students with financial challenges can require more interaction with instructors and fellow students – Echo enables that. With Echo Active Learning students like Vanessa can view the original class materials and lectures as many times as they need from their PC and they can interact digitally with fellow students in their classes.

Perhaps the biggest game-changer for students like Vanessa is now here – data. Instructors in the traditional classroom have a handful of data points on each student on how they are doing – a few tests and quizzes. And this data is after the fact – when it is too late. Instructors using Echo Active Learning have hundreds of data points on each student – as each question is asked, lecture watched, and note taken by a student becomes a digital footprint and a data point. Instructors can see before the tests and quizzes whether a student is struggling and can get them supplemental tutoring before it is too late.

Coincidentally, Vanessa’s school, the University of Texas at Austin, is a customer of Echo360, and a great example of a large state school that attends to students from a variety of ethnic, racial, and geographic profiles. (Echo has 600 other university and college customers around the world). Echo360 researchers have found that University of Texas at Austin students that use this type of technology are better off than students who did not, and in some instances, student’s grades improved by 3.5% over their peers.

These approaches can also help make the large first-year courses — often held in huge auditoriums — feel more intimate. Through active learning mechanisms in Echo360, instructors can integrate questions and polls into their presentations, students can respond digitally from mobile devices, and if they have a question, they can “raise their hand” anonymously. A study by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor showed that students pay attention in class and increase their participation from 3% to 65% when Echo Active Learning is used.

And this week, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences proved that active learning in STEM courses improves outcomes by as much as half of a letter grade and reduces the chance of failure rates over traditional lecture courses by as much as 55%.

Higher-education is too expensive. Student loan debt now exceeds all consumer credit card debt. While we are solving this challenge — we must in parallel use digital in the teaching and learning process to improve the success of those who do get into college. It is proven that blended learning does help students like Vanessa on their path to success. There has been a lot of attention focused on getting students into college but not much on the rate of success after they get in. Technology is the key to transforming education for students, professors, and universities, and the learning experience needs to tap into the digital revolution.


Donn Davis

Donn Davis is a Founding Partner of Revolution Growth.

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