I just finished reading Charles Duhigg's very interesting book, The Power of Habit. In Chapter 7 ("How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do") he relates the story of Andrew Pole, a data expert who helped Target develop a process for identifying which of its customers were pregnant, sometimes before their families even knew (This NY Times article by Duhigg essentially tells the same story). Target then could mail customized books of coupons featuring the exact products a pregnant woman would be shopping for at that point in her pregnancy. It's a story that is both fascinating (what kind of statistical genius comes up with this stuff) and slightly disturbing (what else does Target know about me?).
Although Duhigg's method is very sophisticated and allows Target to market to customers in ways many companies cannot, the practice of collecting and analyzing data which illuminates customers preferences and habits is not all that new. I have been listening to Pandora since 2004 and, at this point, I rarely hear a song I don't like (even if it is a song I haven't heard before). Pandora knows what I like because it has analyzed my likes and dislikes for the last 8 years and it can recommend songs to me that I will like, but wouldn't have been aware of otherwise. Similarly, Amazon tracks my purchases, compares them to their vast database and then suggests other titles I might be interested in. In some sense (theoretically), everyone wins in these situations--I make better choices and am more satisfied with my purchases, listening choices, etc. and the company makes more money (because I am more satisfied and more likely to make future purchases). So, what might this mean for institutions of higher education?
I typically hesitate to transfer business practices to educational settings because of what I see as very different value systems at work in the two areas; however, Target and Amazon may have something to teach higher ed, particularly those who are involved in enrollment and registration processes on their campuses. While higher education isn't "selling" a product to students in the traditional sense, it is true that students "purchase" a particular type of experience which is provided by an academic institution. This experience is multi-faceted and includes a host of sub-experiences including co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, a residential experience (in some cases), and many others; however, at the core of the educational experience "purchased" by students are courses. Students pay for the right to enroll in, attend, and complete courses. And, ultimately, these courses lead to graduation (disclaimer: what I have just described here, clearly, ignores the learning we hope occurs for students on a campus and is a good example of what John Tagg has termed the instruction paradigm. I don't espouse this paradigm and do value learning; however, from a purely economic perspective, students at the vast majority of institutions are indeed purchasing courses, rather than paying for learning. I say this because students can buy a course and eventually graduate, without learning very much at all).
One of the problems facing many institutions is the lack of a clear path from admission to graduation and the resulting problem of time to graduation measures which are much higher than we would like. This is particularly true at institutions like mine where students are given nearly complete freedom to "purchase" whatever classes they wish and in whatever sequence they wish. Of course, that is an over generalization and there are some constraints placed on registration choices (e.g. prerequisite courses, limited enrollment programs); however, in most cases (particularly in a student's first few semesters) they have very limited guidance and even less constraint when it comes to course selection. Not surprisingly, students often make poor choices when it comes to course registration--choices which (a) they are not satisfied with and (b) delay time to graduation.
Institutions, long ago, developed a human solution to this problem and began hiring academic advisors to provide students with assistance in making these decisions. And, clearly, these advisors have an important role to play on campuses (and one that extends far beyond the mechanics of course registration). However, the impractical "loads" of most advisors, coupled with the lack of mandatory advisement on many campuses (yes, these two issues are linked) means that very few students receive the type of advisement we would hope for. No technical solution could or should ever replace the human and high-touch work that advisors do, but in today's economy the chances of an institution hiring more advisors isn't good. Consequently, technological interventions are becoming more and more of a necessity. This is where Amazon and Target might be able to help.
Virtually ever campus has an online registration system and, feasibly, could track student's registration choices. Additionally, campuses know where students are from, how many AP/IB/Concurrent Enrollment credits they brought with them, what their major is, their age, marital status, and probably many other pieces of demographic data. Additionally, campuses know how long it takes students to graduate. What if the Andrew Pole's on our campuses could, first, identify the most efficient pathways to graduation on their campus and, more importantly, identify the unique pathways for particular types of students (e.g. engineering majors, non-traditional students, or History Teaching majors with minors in coaching)? The wisest campus leaders would also find ways to determine how to balance time and learning outcomes such that these ideal paths take into consideration both time and quality of learning (through analysis of learning outcome data and other evidence which helps determine how much and how well students are learning).
But, identifying these paths alone isn't enough to change student behavior; campuses need to find ways to use this data to inform student decision making at the very time they are making the decisions. At each step along a student's path to graduation (e.g. first enrollment as a brand new first-year student, 5th semester, etc.) unique and specific suggestions could be made within the registration system so that a student logging in to register for classes sees a "students like you have registered for . . . " message at the very moment and in the very electronic space where they will be making their "purchase." However, when we say "students like you" we really mean students like you who also have had a good experience on our campus and graduated in a relatively short amount of time (so, maybe we're lying just a bit, but it's for the greater good).
Could it be done?