High-Tech Student Success

By Sarah Asp Olson

Collaborative and student-centered, Montgomery County Community College consistently ranks as one of the nation’s most tech-savvy community colleges.

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, Celeste Schwartz had a sign outside her door at Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) that read “Students Come First.”

The world of campus technology has changed dramatically since then, but the chief digital officer and vice president for information technology at the Pennsylvania community college still lives by that motto.

“Every project we start, we put students first,” Schwartz says. “There is not a single project we discuss where the student isn’t at the center of that project.”

It’s that strategy, in part, that has earned MCCC a top 10 spot on the Center for Digital Education’s Digital Community Colleges list for the past 11 years. In the most recent survey, 2015-2016, MCCC for the fourth time tops the list in the category of colleges with 10,000 students or more, thanks to its continuing mobile-first strategy that allows students to access a broad menu of services via a user-friendly platform.

Mobile push

MCCC students can register for classes, check grades, keep up with clubs through an online community and even listen to the college’s radio station, all with a single login. “Students can actually do all of their work through a mobile device,” Schwartz says.

When weighing what to include on the mobile platform, MCCC lets its primary mantra be its guide: “We ask students what [they] want,” Schwartz says.

MCCC is also thinking about what future students want. Building on its mobile-first momentum, the college is in the midst of rebuilding its website to be more inviting to prospective students.

“Celeste’s team has done a great job of using tech to help serve our current students, to make sure they are able to access everything they need to be successful from their mobile phones,” says Angela Polec, MCCC’s executive director of marketing and communications.

“One area where we know we have some growth to do is on our external website and the mobile-friendliness of that,” Polec continues. “We’re embarking on a website-redesign process right now, and that whole design process will be steered with mobile-first mentality, recognizing that’s how the bulk of our users are experiencing our website.”

Continued tech success

In 2012, MCCC was awarded a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that enabled the college to implement an early-alert system, in which faculty reach out to students and their advisers when the students are struggling in a class; an educational planning tool that allows students to map out their entire degree pathway; and a dashboard system from which students can access financial aid and make tuition payments, all from a single platform.

“All of these things help with both retention and completion,” Schwartz says. “Our retention and completion numbers have gone up about 3 percentage points between 2012 and 2015.”

In 2015, MCCC was awarded a second Gates Foundation grant, one of only four institutions to be re-funded. Among other initiatives, the grant will facilitate the launch of a career platform called Jobzology that will be used to assess students’ career aptitude.

Other than its students-first mindset, what are the other keys to MCCC’s successful tech implementation? Schwartz breaks it down this way: “cooperation, collaboration [and] relationships, all built on trust, delivery and respect.”

Sarah Asp Olson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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