Determining Effective Digital Strategies to Enhance At-Promise Student Success
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions of higher education had started to rely heavily on digital tools to supplement the services they offered their at-promise students—that is, students from historically minoritized or low-income backgrounds (formerly referred to as “at-risk”). Texting platforms had gained popularity as a means to disseminate information and send reminders; websites had grown in significance as repositories of information and key tools for recruitment and student service provision; and learning management systems had assumed key roles in supporting students’ navigation through coursework and campus services.
When the pandemic forced many institutions to shut down in-person services, digital tools took on an even bigger role. Even though most campuses have resumed operating in person, universities are still investing heavily in their tech infrastructure. This investment makes sense given that according to the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are online “almost constantly” every day (Perrin & Atske, 2021). Yet despite the prevalence of digital tools, few institutions of higher education are critically examining how their digital tools best serve students, in particular those from historically marginalized backgrounds. Key questions to consider include the following:
- How do programs respond to a rapidly evolving digital realm that provides seemingly endless content and constant innovation?
- How do universities determine where to invest resources given fluctuating consensus about best practices?
- How can digital tools incentivize students to take advantage of brick-and-mortar services on campus?
- How do colleges and universities ensure that all students have access to digital tools, regardless of socioeconomic status?
Recently, our research team collaborated on designing, implementing, and evaluating a digital intervention to support first-year at-promise student success at California State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). Findings illustrated the potential of digital tools to engage students who might not easily connect to campus resources as well as important pitfalls to consider. The intervention sought to create various digital pathways to information and support. It also aimed to move beyond simply sharing information and to incentivize students to act on what they learned through the digital platform. The intervention involved three digital components:
- A website with evergreen and evolving content organized around digital badges. Each badge contained eight to 10 pieces of content (e.g., videos, articles, quizzes, games) focused on a topic selected by CSUDH student success practitioners; topics included financial tips, self-care, studying for finals, and making the most of summer opportunities. Badges were released periodically according to corresponding academic calendar milestones.
- A texting campaign that included tailored and interactive elements. CSUDH practitioners drafted messages to be broadcast according to deadlines and opportunities they hoped to share with students. Beyond this passive dissemination of information, the text provider regularly posed questions to students (e.g., how is the semester going?), and a real person responded within 24 hours. The interactive component allowed practitioners to provide tailored information to students, assist students in troubleshooting, and alert practitioners to students in need. Due to the responsive quality of the text line, students started to pose questions of their own. In one instance when there was a power outage on campus, students reached out via the text line for more information.
- A gamified structure that was designed to incentivize students to consume online content, reflect on lessons learned, and take action. Gamification took two forms: (1) once students completed badges, they could earn micro gift cards, such as $5 ride-share or food certificates; (2) students could also enter a raffle for larger prizes (i.e., $1,000 scholarship) upon completing each badge or following through on a badge directive (e.g., visiting the career center).
Our mixed-methods research suggests that the intervention added value to participants’ first-year college experiences. Below we outline common challenges to identifying and implementing digital tools in postsecondary spaces and offer considerations—based on our work with practitioners and students at CSUDH—to guide practice.
Core challenges to implementing digital interventions include the following:
- Digital equity issues. High-quality access to devices such as laptops, tablets, printers and/or smartphones remains a serious issue for students from low-income backgrounds. Relatedly, lack of access to broadband or the need to share data plans with family members can make accessing resources outside of campus Wi-fi challenging. Underdeveloped digital literacy skills can hinder potential benefits from interacting with digital resources.
- Information overload. Throughout the day, students receive numerous emails and texts from their professors, success programs, central administration, and other individuals and offices on campus. Then in addition, most students engage with personal digital messaging, social media, games, and apps. Consequently, they continually have to sift through information, determine what to prioritize, and respond accordingly. Students can easily mistake time spent in front of a screen with effective digital engagement.
- Lack of coordination. Digital tools are frequently adopted without systematic communication across programs or with the institution. If a student success program decides to introduce a new tool, they run the risk of competing with a different tool adopted by central administration. As one example, students might be confused if they receive messages from both program-specific and institutional texting application. This issue is particularly important to scrutinize given the impromptu nature of digital resources adopted during the pandemic.
- Inconsistent evaluation. Often digital tools are adopted without strategic evaluation of what’s working and what’s not. Given a crowded market, practitioners struggle to locate and test out new tools to meet specific program objectives. Once implemented, metrics tend to focus on superficial outcomes (e.g., number of users or click-throughs) rather than how the tool is working and for whom.
- Training. Reluctance to use digital tools and insufficient digital skills can pose significant challenges to how practitioners and faculty make use of digital tools, which has a trickle-down effect on students. Programs and institutions seldom provide training specific to digital tools.
Points to consider when implementing a digital tool
Despite the challenges of implementing digital tools, the digital realm is, after all, where students spend a large portion of their time; it thus merits consideration as a valuable space for engaging and supporting students. Furthermore, the nimble nature of digital tools enables practitioners to respond to changes in state or university policies in a timely fashion, thereby sharing information with students in a relevant way. In the case of CSUDH, we found that students appreciated that they could engage with the digital intervention at any time of the day—an issue particularly important for students who commuted to campus or worked during the day. The below recommendations address the challenges outlined above and stem from our research-practice partnership at CSUDH and prior research-practice partnerships with a wide range of California high schools (see here).
Remain vigilant about digital access issues. Students from low-income backgrounds tend to face two types of digital equity issues. The first pertains to access to devices (i.e., laptops, smartphones, printers) and broadband. Without adequate machinery, students struggle to complete work and have reduced time to explore online resources. Lack of broadband access can cause significant challenges to students’ out-of-school scholastic activities. Libraries (both campus and public) and nonprofit organizations can serve has helpful partners to address digital access issues.
The second key digital equity challenge pertains to skills. Not all students will have received adequate digital literacy training prior to attending college. If programs assume that all students know how to use technology (e.g., editing documents online) and fail to nurture digital skills, they run the risk of alienating students and creating deeper participation gaps. Offer tech support, tech mentoring, and drop-in opportunities for students to learn more about how to navigate digital resources. Include digital literacy learning in orientation and support programs.
Be aware of technology overload, strategize about content, and invest in high-quality graphics. Students are bombarded with emails, texts, social media, and online learning tools. Use messaging sparingly and strategically. Make sure your language, graphics, and interface are “on point.” Video resonates with students who identify as Gen Z; translate messaging accordingly.
Students are savvy as to when they are interacting with a “bot” versus a real person. When staffing a text line, use language and graphics to indicate to student consumers that a real person is responding to texts and creating content.
Consider meaningful incentives to boost engagement. While the effectiveness of gamification tactics is not yet widely understood in the college success field, our research found that providing small gift card incentives served as a gateway to initial engagement with our digital intervention and, in some cases, as a primary reason for prolonged engagement.
Capitalize on technology’s ability to tailor content to students’ needs. Research points to the value of tailoring information and outreach to particular students’ needs. Work with students and practitioners to ensure that the content and aesthetics of digital materials resonate with the students they intend to serve. Pay attention to how you communicate with your audience in ways that are culturally, regionally, generationally, and class specific.
Be clear about desired outcomes for digital interventions, and evaluate results accordingly. Employing digital tools can appear to be a simple way to amplify or supplant an existing resource. But effective adoption is complex and entails identifying and evaluating appropriate outcomes as well as troubleshooting digital access issues in a systematic way. Consider how you will assess engagement and outcomes: Will you measure success by tallying how many students log on to a site or click on links? Or are you able to connect tangible actions to learning that was initiated online or via text (e.g., when a student completes the FAFSA after receiving a reminder via text)? If your goal is to support at-promise students, how will you determine whether the content and approach resonate with your target audience?
Invite students, the digital consumers themselves, to vet new tools. John Palfrey and Urs Gasser (2008) explain that digital natives are constantly connected and learn by engaging in a process of “grazing” information online, doing a “deep dive” into content, and a participating in a feedback loop (p. 241)—quite different from how previous generations learned. Students can play a key role in helping administrators think through how to share, maintain, and evaluate new tools. Invite students to pilot-test and provide feedback on outcomes, challenges, and how tools are effectively used.
Dedicate resources to hybrid approaches. While digital tools are fairly easy to scale, broad outreach doesn’t always equate with effectiveness. Analog one-on-one guidance and interaction is expensive to staff, but it also tends to work really well. Explore ways to use technology to amplify on-the-ground efforts and strategize about the most effective use of staff time. For example, can you send reminders about deadlines through a texting platform but hold more complex conversations face-to-face? Incorporate training about how to effectively use digital tools when planning with and training practitioners; offer ample opportunities for follow-up training and answering questions about tech tools.
 See Tierney et al. (2017) and Tierney et al. (2018) for extended discussions of challenges and opportunities when using digital tools in educational settings.
 As one example, see Ben Castleman’s (2021) work for a detailed reflection on the efficacy of texting campaigns.
Castleman, B. (2021, May 3). Why aren’t text message interventions designed to boost college success working at scale? Behavioral Scientist. https://behavioralscientist.org/why-arent-text-message-interventions-designed-to-boost-college-success-working-at-scale
Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. Basic Books.
Perrin, A., & Atske, S. (2021, March 26). About three-in-ten U.S. adults say they are “almost constantly” online. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/03/26/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-say-they-are-almost-constantly-online
Tierney, W. G., Corwin, Z. B., Fullerton, T., & Ragusa, G. (Eds.). (2017). Postsecondary play: The role of games and social media in higher education. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Tierney, W. G., Corwin, Z. B., & Ochsner, A. (Eds.). (2018). Diversifying digital learning: Online literacy and educational opportunity. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Zoë B. Corwin, PhD, is a research professor at USC’s Pullias Center for Higher Education whose interdisciplinary research on college access and success has a particular focus on games, technology, and historically minoritized students who do not fit traditional categories.