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Diagramming Success with an Integrated Student Ecosystem

When Cory Stokes set out to diagram how his department interacted with others at the University of Utah, he ended up with a groundbreaking, data-driven vision for student success.

by Jeff Dominguez / January 9, 2018
University of Utah

Cory Stokes is unfailingly modest when it comes to taking credit for the Integrated Student Ecosystem, a diamond-shaped diagram that he developed when the provost at the University of Utah brought him in to assist in developing more strategic footing for online offerings.

“I would say it was half serendipity and half opportunity that kind of led to the diamond and the way we use it at the University of Utah,” he explains. “It originally started out as a tool just for me, so that I could begin to understand how everything lines up at the university and how things work here.”

In order to chart the future for his own department, Stokes, digital learning officer and associate dean of Undergraduate Studies at the university, felt the need to understand exactly where its function fit in with the other elements of the university. He began to feel that knowledge of a bigger picture, rather than simply the departments with which he most commonly interacted, might result in a higher level of effectiveness in their dealings with the students. At that point, he decided to bring together key representatives from each of the departments to explore their functions, what they do, how they do it, how each impacts the other and possible modifications to routine processes that might benefit one another.

What ensued was a chart, of sorts (see main story photo), a diagram sketched out to illustrate the interdependent relationships they each share. “The diamond, really is a chance for everybody at the university who is involved in the student journey to understand who’s upstream, who’s downstream from their part in it, and to make sure that we perform our functions in an integrated, smooth way,” says Stokes. “It’s about seeing the whole landscape, identifying where you have gaps, and then prioritizing effort but, as importantly, it’s about getting everybody together on the same page, to see the topography of our mission.”

In one illustration, Stokes managed to capture and convey a lesson of critical importance to any organization seeking to harness all of its resources toward one direction: the success of its students.

“After considerable thought and after talking to people from several different universities, I realized that data was the first big challenge. I came up with this notion that there’s really four areas of data that are absolutely necessary if you want a complete picture of each of your students,” explains Stokes. “Without that, he or she can never have the right conversation with the right person at the right time.”

Those four areas of data are at the heart of Stokes’ chart: the student record information; the communication relationship between the school and the student; the curriculum the student is interested in and what path is necessary to get to it; and the behaviors and performance of the student at the school.

“That’s the core of the diamond,” Stokes continues, “and on the outer edge are all the various teams and services and systems that a student actually interacts with on this journey. And for us, we know that there’s 32 plus systems that students interact with as they go around that diamond, 32 different points where we’ve got to try and move that student and their data and understand what’s getting them to their next experience.”

Far from containing answers to all questions, according to Stokes, the chart is intended to enable a much bigger conversation among all of the people whose responsibility it is to create success for the students, a feat that becomes much more possible when everyone who is party to the student’s journey understands their place and how they all fit together within the framework of the student’s experiences.

Stokes’ diamond was not only well received as a revelation at the University of Utah, but it has been viewed as a masterstroke virtually unanimously by everyone to whom it has been presented. He was recently asked to use the chart to facilitate discussions at EDUCAUSE in Washington, D.C., and, a few days later, he was asked to speak to the Adobe Worldwide Higher Ed Sales Conference in Las Vegas.
It has been suggested that the chart operates on the same level as one of those board games in which generals move their soldiers around on a map of some theater of battle, a notion immediately embraced by Stokes.

“That’s a great analogy!” he says. “And so how do you set a strategy? You look at the topography of the situation, and you get all the players in the room and make an agreement on what we’re all trying to accomplish. Then we talk about each individual part, and how they have to lay out just right to get the job done and where they fit — everybody has a spot in here.”

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