Guest post by Michael Staton

Whether or not you’ve recognized it, there’s a battle for the student experience. And for the most part, Higher Ed professionals are on the sidelines and getting their ass handed to them.

Sites like Zinch, College Confidential and Unigo now increasingly own how students discover and perceive your school brand. Facebook Groups and Ning own student socialization and virtual orientation. Sites like uRoomSurf and Roombug now own how housing is allocated. MyEDU owns how courses are selected. Chegg and Bookrenter already ate your bookstore. Facebook now owns your events. Foursquare and Facebook own your places. Notehall, Koofers, and Quizlet own how your students study. LinkedIn now dominates career services and to some degree alumni-networking. As more and more services pop up, more and more of the student experience moves online.

Nearly all of these companies are not intent on serving the best interests of institutions. They are out to grow and expand. They already dominate much of the student experience. Chegg, for one, has already stated outright that they are out to own the student experience. They even just launched ways for students to choose and collaborate in their courses, after their acquisitions of Cramster and Courserank. The CEO, who largely led Yahoo’s acquisition strategy, said in a keynote address that change will start with the students, it will force change on institutions from the outside in. Professionals everywhere need to perk up to the fact that your organization is becoming increasingly irrelevant to whether or not students are getting a good education, as the student experience has been inadvertently outsourced to third parties that have no obligation to you or your colleagues.

Is this a bad thing? I’m not sure. It’s scary, of course. But technology companies that have traditionally served institutions, like Sungard, Oracle, Blackboard, etc have shown that they are relatively incapable of maintaining relevant products, much less innovating. Sure, they’ve worked, but they’re on an old and crumbling infrastructure, maintained by small and Precambrian engineering teams that are dominated and outnumbered by aggressive salesmen. They’re sales companies, they treat their products like cash cows, and they see institutions as sheep.

Institutions themselves need to own their own failure. They’ve had trouble keeping navigable websites. They’ve passed up innovators of all types in preference for the status quo. They’re scared of start-ups. They shun new possible vendors and find refuge in companies that have no understanding of higher education and are not prioritizing their needs. They dismiss student created software. They label instances of transformative forces as passing fads. They have extraordinary trouble making decisions of all kinds, and for the most part have extreme committee arthritis when it comes to technology adoption. My alarm isn’t just about technology adoption though, it’s about the fact that market forces and budget cuts are gnawing on education as we know it, and very few institutions seem capable of making tough choices that will allow them to shape their own destiny.

Michael Staton is the Co-Founder and CEO of Inigral. Follow him on Twitter at @mpstaton
Want to be a Higher Ed Live guest blogger? Email us at
Disclaimer: Inigral is a Higher Ed Live sponsor. That relationship was not a factor in the decision to publish this post.


Article Author

Seth Odell

Founder and Advisor


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  • Joe Sabado

    Great post! Institutions need to keep up with student needs/wants or outside entities will provide it for them. Students have choices and so do organizational units who no longer have to depend on the IT group to provide some of their needs. Gartner’s prediction of increased adoption of social media, cloud computing and mobile should be a wake up call. Actually, just look around the campus to see how consumer IT has become more prevalent.

    • mpstaton

      Yes, Joe, it is funny that the IT group on campus is getting danced around by consumer technology. They’re going to wake up one day and realize that most student needs are found outside anything they do.

  • mpstaton

    well, I suppose I need to own my inflammatory language here. this has gotten a few “Oh Snaps” on Twitter so I feel the need to contextualize this post.

    Let it be known, this is simply a call to action. It’s not meant to be a scathing post, though the language and point-of-view is quite strong.

    I see more and more of the student experience get put onto consumer tech. And the thought leaders in Higher Ed seem to be more eager to talk about how to use duct tape and super glue with consumer internet companies than they are to evaluate companies that are out to serve higher education. Even Higher Ed Live has this strange disease where worshiping consumer internet companies is more exciting than taking really deep looks into how institutions and the companies that serve them work and where they fail.

    • Anonymous

      First off, great post. We need more people willing to step up and engage in these kinds of convos. I do want to add one thing in response…

      The reason so many higher ed folks (HEL included) focus a lot of our energy on duct tape and super glue approaches that utilize consumer internet companies (as you mention above) is because that is the only part of our destiny we control. Conversations in that vein are almost exclusively focused on companies that offer free (or nearly free) services.

      For the consumer tech companies that come with a hefty price tag (ex. Blackboard) that is almost always a conversation that excludes mid-level administrators that actually work with the product. I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself – the folks that will use the service on-the-ground are never the people that sign the contracts. There is a huge gap between contractual-based strategy and actual implementation.

      So what are we left with? A dialogue that only focuses on what we as professionals can control or change.

      You’re still right though. We need to own the conversation. We need to own the student experience. But how do mid-level administrators own a conversation they aren’t even a part of? That’s the thing I’m stumped on. HOW.

    • Joe Sabado

      I work for a central student affairs IT group and the challenge we, as a department, and as an institution is that we need to manage enterprise systems including network infrastructures, servers, student information systems, productivity tools(e-mails,…), home- grown systems that’s hard to change on a whim. At the same time, we also need to respond to the ever-changing needs and expectations of our customers. Given budgetary constraints and ever- increasing reliance on IT, it’s hard to keep up. I can speak for our team in that it’s hard enough to maintain our existing systems and also have to implement new ones. It’s hard for sure:)

  • joelgoodman

    I deal with this every day at my current school. In an industry that is dominated by “proven systems” and has been by those same systems for the past 20 years, a change in top level leadership might be what has to happen.

    Michael’s closing statements in this post are dead-on. What this doesn’t go into is the effect all of this has on retention. If a particular institution can’t live up to the expectations these 3rd parties are creating (even as a byproduct of just having a cool service), what’s going to happen? At best students will leave for another, cooler-looking school, always in search of a better experience. At worst they’ll do that and tell their network (and the world) of how lame their experience was prior. It’s a dangerous business we’re in when we refuse to adapt, grow, and embrace.

  • Jay Steele

    Great post Michael! While some folks may feel that your statements are coming on too strong, it is absolutely vital that organizations realize what is going on.

    The first step in the process is to admit that our environment has changed. I read through the comments before I posted this and there are hints as to what is keeping institutions from seeing the storm that is all around them – they are already swamped with the other stuff that they have on their plates. Unfortunately, this is no valid excuse and it doesn’t change the circumstances.

    When I was working with SociaLens on developing our digital fluency framework, we saw how many organizations (not just higher ed) have failed to recognize that the changes in culture and technology have broken things that once worked just fine. For example, buying lists of 200,000 names and bombarding them with postcards, brochures, and emails seemed to deliver the enrollment numbers and quality that institutions were looking for. However, when a prospective student gets 60-75 emails and mail pieces in the same week because every school in the country used the same lists, well – that model is broken, whether the institutions know it or not.

    I am a big fan of Clayton Christensen and his disruptive innovation model. Institutions of higher education are in the midst of the disruptive innovation perfect storm. Several, apparently unrelated, events have all converged at this moment in time. The higher education landscape is in the process of being radically transformed before our very eyes. While this talk sometimes makes it sound like the situation is hopeless, the “solution” is one that has been repeated throughout history.

    Each time some disruptive technology has come along, whether it was the steam engine, electricity, solid-state transistors, the internet, or web 2.0 – the thing that has allowed organizations to adapt is an increased fluency of the people within these organizations. In the case of our current technological disruptions, that would be digital fluencies. And it is not as simple as hiring fluency experts, it needs to be pervasive – top to bottom and across all departments. A great example is to look at each of the companies that have “invaded” the higher ed institution’s territory. They have all demonstrated a high digital fluency in the areas they are focusing on. Most folks within higher ed institutions and the vendors you referred to that they work with, however, still don’t get it. They may be literate, but they are far from fluent.

    The landscape has changed. The rate of change is accelerating. The first thing we need to do is look up long enough to see it and acknowledge it. Only then can we start to make the tough choices you allude to and re-direct our course to get back on the right track. Hopefully, your post will set off enough alarms that a few more institutions just took notice. Thanks for being willing to put it out there and saying it like it is.

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