Improve Student Retention through Digital Literacy

by Alex Gay

posted on 05-13-2019

Student retention has become such a salient issue that we are hardly surprised by the statistics anymore. A 2018 National Student Clearinghouse study found that for students who enrolled in higher education in 2012, by 2018 the no-longer-enrolled rate was 46.1 percent at two-year institutions and 22.8 percent at four-year institutions. “No-longer-enrolled” people were “students who had earned no degree or certificate, and had no enrollment activity during the final year of the study period.”

While initiatives such as “learning communities and first-year programs” have been successful in increasing student retention, “institutions need to approach retention in a more comprehensive manner,” said Jennifer Graham and Lynne Nelson Manion in their study of faculty involvement in student retention. One way to approach retention comprehensively is by using digital tools to foster digital literacy at every level of the institution. Digital literacy helps students learn in a way that many prefer — and helps educators meet student goals and expectations.

Help students learn in a way they prefer

A 2016 study found that “51 percent of Gen Zers [students born as early as 1990 or as late as 2010] say they learn best by doing.”

The same study found that “when asked what teachers could do to make learning more fun, helpful, and interactive, students responded in a variety of ways. Using more technology, more hands-on learning and more individual attention topped the list.”

Digital literacy fits the bill. Including technology use, hands-on learning, the flexibility for personalized learning, and digital creative projects are right up Generation Z’s alley.

California State University Fullerton, for example, integrated Adobe Creative Cloud into their high-impact practice classes.

“Students who’ve used products such as Creative Cloud in our high-impact practice courses say they feel more confident and competitive in finding a job,” said Vice President for Information Technology at CSU, Amir Dabirian. “They also say that these products have enriched their educational experience. Given that we want to help them enhance their learning process at school and then find a job and successfully contribute to society once they graduate, we’re seeing good effects from this particular digital tool in the whole process.”

Andrew Phelps, an art and design professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, espouses the educational theory of constructionism or this idea that students learn best by doing. How did Andrew implement hands-on learning?

He “turned his classroom into a game production studio. …Students from a variety of backgrounds worked in teams on engineering, gameplay design, art production, user interface design, and sound. [Andrew] even hired students to act as production managers and team leads for the project.”

“By running the course like a professional studio, we not only helped students get hands-on experience in game development, but we taught them how to use industry-standard tracking tools, work with cross-disciplinary teams, and practice professional skills in communication and conflict resolution,” Andrew said.

Digitally literate hands-on learning is useful across all disciplines. English students can learn how to craft genre-specific content as they use Adobe Spark to create a compelling digital flyer. Math students can use InDesign to make an infographic explaining a challenging principle simply. Urban studies majors can use Photoshop to create a 3D perspective drawing of a cityscape. And the possibilities go on!

Help educators meet student goals and expectations

The 2018 National Student Clearinghouse study found that as postsecondary institutions have focused on improving student retention and advising methods, they “have become better able to meet student academic goals and expectations, which ultimately [results] in stronger retention and completion outcomes.”

That begs the question: What is it that students want? Perhaps unsurprisingly, they want a job. A Harris Poll “found that two-thirds of 14- to 23-year-old students want a degree to provide financial security, ranking it above all else when it comes to their motivation for going to college.”

The onus for educators, then, is to find out what modern workplaces are looking for in their employees. There is a long list of digital skills that employers want to see in their employees, which includes both competence with digital tools and also soft skills, like the ability to

Examine the courses your institution is offering, and see if students are learning these soft skills.

Higher education “needs to ensure that we are effectively transferring the skills that will serve students well in our tech-driven and knowledge-based economy,” said Farnam Jahanian, president of Carnegie Mellon University in a Washington Post article. “This includes reimagining curriculum by enhancing digital core competencies and incorporating human skills.”

To do this at their institution, Carnegie Mellon has embedded “continuous exposure to communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and entrepreneurship into courses.”

“Having access to Adobe Creative Cloud throughout college opened doors for me in ways that I never could have imagined,” said Vincent Fu, the digital marketing manager at ProLung and a graduate of the University of Utah.

Vincent graduated in 2017 with an honors Bachelor of Science in biology and minors in chemistry and computer science, which already made him an impressive job candidate. But he gained creative and communication skills using Adobe Creative Cloud while at school, and that is what gave him the edge over other competitive candidates.

ProLung, a medical device company that has developed a noninvasive predictive analytics solution for risk stratification of lung cancer, turned out to be the perfect fit for Vincent. “My degree in biology helps me understand the technology at ProLung, but working with Adobe solutions while I was in college gave me the marketing and design experience that helped me get hired,” he said.

When students are digitally literate, they develop practical, workplace-applicable skills as well as these in-demand soft skills. Digital literacy is not only the ability to use digital tools, but the power to use these tools to solve problems, create innovative projects, and enhance communications, all of which students can do through digital creative coursework. By doing so, they prepare for the challenges of an evolving workplace.

Institutions need to find comprehensive approaches to student retention. Digital literacy initiatives improve student learning, help educators meet student goals and expectations, and make the college experience more positive. All of these elements make digital literacy an important solution for student retention.

Learn more ways your institution can foster digital literacy to improve student retention.

Topics: Industry, Education, digital literacy,

Products: Photoshop, Creative Cloud