Developing Personalized Support for Adult Online Learners

Concurrent Session 9

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This session highlights WPI’s innovative use of Salesforce to develop personalized support for their online graduate students, including successes and lessons learned from the past two years of implementation. Participants will leave the session with best practices for student engagement and retention and ways to examine their existing student-retention processes.


Stephanie Papia is a Student Success Manager for Online Programs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). In addition to working closely with over 200 online graduate students throughout the duration of their programs, she also manages long-term planning initiatives for WPI Online, including student support and retention, overall process improvement, and the analysis of annual surveys sent to students and alumni. She holds a Master of Business Administration from WPI and a Master of Arts in International Science and Technology Policy from George Washington University.
Brian has been working in Higher Education for 16 years in a variety of roles, spanning traditional graduate studies, online and corporate graduate education, and K-12 summer programs. His primary focus throughout has been identifying and implementing tools and technologies that will increase operational efficiency and enhance customer service while reducing data inaccuracy and redundancy. Most recently, Brian has been leading the effort to implement Salesforce as platform for student services that are provided to WPI's corporate and online graduate students. This includes designing and building data integrations with external systems to provide a more complete view of the student lifecycle from early stages of interest on through graduation.

Extended Abstract

How are you at juggling a 40-hour work week, family obligations, and a social life? Now, imagine adding in 15-20 extra hours of graduate school to this balancing act. This is the reality for working professionals who go back for an advanced degree: a unique population with needs, motivations and obstacles unlike those of full-time, on-campus students.

Part-time, online education is on the rise in the digital age, especially for adults in search of a graduate degree they can complete without missing work. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) saw their online graduate programs take off three years ago and faced a daunting challenge: automate internal processes without sacrificing the personal touch of a smaller program.

Enter: Salesforce. Thanks to cross-functional engagement and demand from student support and recruitment teams, WPI secured funding to develop an innovative use for the platform. The university now uses Salesforce to get a holistic view of each student’s journey with the click of a mouse, from first engagement all the way to graduation. This enables the Student Success Team to provide the personalized, proactive support that sets WPI apart.

What’s the biggest difference? A smarter, more efficient use of time. The team logs in to a high-level view of their advising population daily, along with an automated list of tasks tied to their students’ actions for each semester and overall program. Dashboards alert the team if a student has created a computer account, checked-in for the semester, and/or logged into their course site. Simple things yes, but combined help tell the story of success – if one is missed it’s a typical indication that a student is in need of outreach to help them move forward successfully. The platform even alerts the team to students with GPA concerns—a task generates for anyone who falls below a 3.0. Thanks to these automations, massive spreadsheets updated by hand are also a thing of the past.

By gaining a holistic view of each student and automating task creation, WPI’s team now saves an incredible amount of time. It used to take ten minutes, on a good day, just to check one student’s course schedule in Ellucian Banner; this meant clicking between three or more screens and manually writing down information. Now, a dashboard in Salesforce self-populates with each student’s data, from their academic schedule to any actions they take within their online course sites. Along with this, the Team. previously, had to go into each course site and check each student against their own advisee list (which could include students in 20+ courses) and then reach out. Now? A dashboard feeds login in data daily, by student, by Team member; the time utilized goes from hours to minutes.

This proactive, efficient approach now allows WPI’s Student Success Team the space in a day to reach out to every active student, every semester, with a phone call. This may seem highly unusual for an online graduate program, but most of the adult learners contacted find the conversations helpful and give them a stronger sense of connection to their university, which they may have never visited in real life. Personal touches like this have improved student satisfaction and retention and allow WPI to best help students with questions, concerns, and challenges they may have.

This session discusses how WPI developed and implemented its innovative use of Salesforce to save time and continue to provide personalized support to adult online learners. Topics covered include best practices, lessons learned, impacts on student engagement and retention, and the adoption of Salesforce beyond online education at WPI as a result of these efforts. There will be an interactive question-and-answer portion and time to share other technology, tools, and strategies WPI uses to support online learners. The full presentation will be handed out and available online.