Technology has enabled previously unimaginable advances in the education sector. But without a holistic approach, it can become too much of a good thing. 

That’s the situation Rio Salado College, a founding member of WGU Labs’ College Innovation Network (CIN), described in a recent Partnership in Practice call. The public community college, headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, was founded in 1978 as a “college without walls.” For decades, Rio has been an innovator in distance education and one of the leading institutions in online learning. They’ve led the way in developing tech tools the marketplace didn't yet offer to provide innovative, top-class service to their students. As the years progressed, Rio’s tech stack has grown to include a range of internal and external technology platforms to meet the needs of today’s learners. 

Many technologies, however, lack interoperability, creating friction for both students and student-facing staff. Bloated tech stacks can also contribute to technology fatigue because they require users to learn and toggle between an excessive — and often redundant — number of digital tools. And with the growing popularity of online and hybrid environments, tech fatigue is only increasing. According to an EdWeek Research Center survey, 72% of students are fatigued by technology use. To address these challenges and streamline its tech stack across the college, Rio Salado formed the Student Digital Experience (SDX) committee. The group’s cross-functional collaboration not only helped improve the student experience but also empowered a more agile approach to tech decision making. 

Siloed departments result in duplicative efforts

Despite the fatigue that can come with EdTech, its use has become critical to learning institutions of all kinds, especially those like Rio Salado. The majority of Rio’s students are considered post-traditional. The average student’s age is 28-29 years old, nearly half are first generation, and 73% of those who apply are Pell eligible. Rio also has one of the largest programs in the state for incarcerated and re-entry learners. And the college was recently designated a Hispanic-serving institution. Even before the pandemic, about 50% of Rio’s learners were online. 

EdTech is necessary to successfully serve Rio’s working adult learners who often couldn’t access higher education without the flexibility of online learning options. Over time, however, several difficulties related to the student digital experience emerged:

  • Student feedback: There was no standardized approach to responding to student feedback about tech tools.
  • Departmental silos: A lack of inter-departmental communication meant teams were implementing EdTech solutions on an ad-hoc basis — without consulting other departments, confirming if a similar solution was already in use, or attempting to unify disparate systems. 
  • Product management: There were no clear owners over specific platforms, without whom there was no way to implement product management best practices.
  • Limited resources: Like many higher education institutions, Rio Salado has to work with limited resources and lacks the budget required to hire product managers or a Chief Experience Officer. 

All of these challenges exacerbated one another, sometimes resulting in not only duplicate efforts across the college but also duplicative technology.

Embracing a shared governance model

To streamline technology systems across the college, Rio Salado gathered a group of stakeholders across departments and formed the Student Digital Experience (SDX) committee. SDX is rooted in a shared governance model that facilitates agile and cross-functional collaboration. 

"Rio's SDX committee brought together resident experts from UX/UI, Marketing, Student Affairs, IT, and Academic Affairs to provide input from the student frontline, as well as backend operations," said Janelle Elias, vice president of strategy and advancement at Rio Salado College. "Our initial work was to inventory all student-facing technology across the student lifecycle to identify gaps, redundancies, and product ownership. Our committee now serves as a central location to examine new and existing technology within the frame of what students experience from the enrollment funnel to credential completion. That means the departments alone do not own the technology in silos but we can better understand how students use tech within their entire relationship with Rio.”

Key results include:

  • More empowered decision makers: A major goal was to ensure all users feel empowered to use technology, especially students. SDX conducted focus groups and interviewed students, creating a sense of belonging and inclusion in the EdTech decision-making process. The group also introduced an intake form so anyone across the college can submit EdTech recommendations, which are regularly vetted by SDX. 
  • EdTech inventory: The committee created an inventory of all student-facing EdTech to help the college understand what solutions exist, who’s responsible for them, and how they impact each other. The inventory allowed SDX to determine that Rio had many redundant technologies, as well as gaps in ownership. 
  • Product management mentality: SDX made it a priority to distinguish the role of product manager and incorporate prototyping into the project lifecycle, both of which helped technology management and rollout. Ultimately, this product management mindset enables Rio to remain agile in its ability to make EdTech decisions, implement new ideas, and pivot quickly as needed.  

Key learnings and opportunities

SDX was able to make significant progress toward unifying Rio Salado’s tech stack. But they also learned there are several areas the committee can continue to iterate on, such as:

  • Seeking best practices: Many other schools have dealt with these same challenges. SDX plans to look to these colleges for best practices that they can incorporate at Rio. 
  • Reducing scope creep: SDX may not be the right body to make certain decisions. Learning when to say ‘no’ to requests outside their scope will help the committee stay on track to achieving their goals. 
  • Incorporating product management: Working with limited resources remains a challenge. Without the budget to hire dedicated product managers, SDX needs to figure out how to incorporate these responsibilities into existing roles. 

While there’s still room for improvement, the Student Digital Experience committee at Rio Salado has already made tremendous strides in overcoming tech fatigue and empowering a more agile approach to EdTech decision making.