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60 Years of Student Success: Supporting Today’s Students in a Changing World

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2019 Faculty Retreat

Keynote address: “60 Years of Student Success: Supporting Today’s Students in a Changing World”

Dianne F. Harrison, Ph.D.
President, California State University, Northridge
January 15, 2019


  • Good Morning!  Happy New Year and welcome to the Spring Semester!  I hope you had a relaxing holiday break and enjoyed spending time with family and friends.
  • Before I continue, let me begin by saying 2018 was not an easy year.   Circumstances developed which caused us to pivot from one urgent situation to the next.  Throughout it all, I am proud to note that our faculty, staff and administrators repeatedly put students first.  Keeping our students front and center in all we do is a real template for excellence.  We may not always agree on how to accomplish this, but with a shared goal, we will find our way.  We must remember the important role that CSUN – and therefore, all of you – play in upholding values of diversity, tolerance and inclusion.  You make a difference in advancing the future prospects of our students and this region.  Thank you for that.
  • The annual Faculty Retreat is a time to refresh and recharge with your colleagues, and hopefully to engage in some thoughtful reflection on higher education, our students and our community.  This morning, I want to talk with you about supporting today’s students in a changing world.  We will consider how life has changed for our students in the 60 years of CSUN’s history and how our students have changed and how we can best address their learning needs today.  I hope to allow time at the end for Q&A with you on this or any topic.
  • When our university was founded in 1958 as San Fernando Valley State College, Northridge was largely a white, middle class community.  According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the average annual household income nationwide was estimated at $5,100.    NASA was created that year, and the first US satellite was launched.  The Wham-O company introduced the Hula Hoop and popular films included “Vertigo” and “South Pacific.” On a rather prophetic note, in 1958 Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductors jointly invented the microchip, which would later be further developed and marketed by Intel. (We know that put a lot of change in motion!)
  • Back then, our university students were older, primarily “housewives and Korean War veterans . . . . The great majority of them were employed, many of them were married . . . .”1 In contrast, we know that our students today are highly diverse and just more than half of them begin their first year here between the ages of 19 and 22.
  • Life has definitely changed since CSUN was founded 60 years ago.  Today’s students live in a very different world than we did even a decade ago.  Consider a few items which were commonplace to most of us, which are obsolete today, thanks to digital technology:  public pay phones, paper maps, fax machines, cassette tapes (or how about the VHS tape!), and even alarm clocks. The students we interact with today perceive and relate to the world differently than students of a decade ago.  As their needs have evolved, so must teaching evolve to effectively reach them.
  • Consider our recent incident on campus, the threat of a mass shooting. Combined with social media, not present 60 years ago, the speed of communication – and miscommunication – about this incident contributed to the panic and general confusion.
  • Students and others accepted at face value basically everything about the incident that they found online.  This illustrates how vital it is that we teach media and digital literacy.  But hold that thought for a moment.
  • Ironically, today’s students are actually trust misers, according to Mike Caulfield, Director of Blended and Networked Learning at Washington State University, Vancouver. They believe many sources are equally untrustworthy – for instance, they put medical advice from the “Natural News” in the same category as that from the Mayo Clinic.  How do you get students to differentiate between sources with vastly different levels of credibility, not to view all as moderately or severely compromised?
  • We need to teach students to, quote, “decompress their trust, get out of the mushy middle and make real distinctions, to ultimately put their trust somewhere . . . With the rise of social media, mass propaganda from both the left and right have discovered its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd.”  The public, including our students, does not particularly object to being deceived because it holds every statement to be a lie at some level.
  •  According to Caulfield, “Trust has to be spent somewhere, and our problem is not simply gullibility but rather the gullibility of cynics.  If everything is compromised, then everything can be ignored, and filtering is simply a matter of choosing what you want to hear.  Students will economize that lesson in a heartbeat.”2 Many already do it with their news and blogs.  They read someone’s comment in a social media forum and think this is a factual source.  Essentially, they seek the truth they want.  In this digital age, it has become our job to help them discern fact from opinion, to teach our students how to be media and digitally literate.  We have a duty to provide accurate information to our students, to guide them to legitimate, accurate news and data sources. In fact, I would say it is critical.  And, we need to remain vigilant ourselves and ensure that we, too, are discerning fact from opinion.
  • Speaking of media and technology, we all live now in a world of “code.”  How often do you see people unable to look up from their phones as they walk across campus or sit at a dinner table?  According to some studies, teenagers now average 4 ½ hours a day on their cell phones. (I think that’s low, but it is supposed to be an average.)  
  • A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, written by our own Linda Chassiakos and others found that in 1970, children began to regularly watch television at age 4, but today, children begin interacting with digital media at 4 months of age.3
  • This increased screen time and phone usage has a very real impact on the “I- Gen” students (called such for having grown up with the I-Phone, I-Pad and so on) or “Gen-Z” – those born 1995 or later.  Multiple studies are underway to better understand what the impact is.  In particular, The National Institutes of Health has launched the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD).4 Through interviews and MRIs, they are observing brain growth with unprecedented precision.    Researchers hope to find how biology and environment interact.  Early on, they have found that kids who use digital media, including phones and video games, more than 2 hours a day get lower scores on thinking and language tests.   In addition, Dr. Jean Twenge at San Diego State has found that the percentage of teens who reported they were lonely or depressed has spiked since smartphones gained widespread usage by youth in 2012.5
  • When we think about the behaviors and needs of the Gen-Z, we know that their phone or device usage is on social media, such as Snapchat and Instagram, which gives this generation a dependency on continuous feedback.  These students post photos and comments frequently, waiting for nearly instantaneous comments from their virtual community. They operate multiple screens at a time and reportedly have an 8-second attention span, compared to the 12-second attention span of Millennials.6 Their reliance on text and emojis has, in many cases, impacted their writing skills.
  • In addition to growing up as digital natives, this generation grew up during the worst economic set-back since the Great Depression. In fact, a Harris Poll showed that “always stressed” about finances is the reality for one in four members of Gen-Z.7 Gen-Z is focused on the value and relevance of a college degree and views higher education as a path to a career and financial stability. 
  • Gen-Z is also more diverse than any other previous generation in the U.S. Forty-seven percent of this generation are identified as ethnic minorities. They are proud of their heritage and want to break down barriers.8
  • Putting these pieces together, we know Gen-Z student behavior and learning needs have been impacted by technology and societal shifts.  Clearly, gone are the days of one-way knowledge delivery.  Higher education must reach well beyond the pedagogies of 1958 and our experiences from our own lives. Let’s consider some of the ways higher education can transform to effectively reach the student of today, responding to their reality.  Specifically, we will look at the effective use of technology, the importance of group interaction and the need for experiential learning.
  • As much as technology has had some negative impacts on this generation, it can be an effective tool in reaching our students.  Technology – from video to blogging to virtual reality and more – can be used to personalize the educational experience for Gen-Z students.
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation reports, “The typical higher education student has changed. . .  They [Students] are balancing jobs, family, and other priorities as they work to finish their studies.”  How well that describes our students!  Unlike Baby Boomers or even Millennials, today’s Gen-Z students are no longer “just students;” they commonly have other roles to fill.
  • The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) has just released new data from 2017-18 that seems to back this up. The report showed that of full-time, first-time undergraduate students attending four-year institutions, just 28percent completed their degrees within four years and fewer than half completed within eight years.9 These are national averages.  While much of this is related to life demands, I believe some of it is related to our teaching methods and accessibility of courses – and to how students experience information and knowledge transfer.
  • To address these changes, the Gates Foundation is studying how to use technology to help universities educate today’s students more effectively.10 Customization of the learning experience – providing education when and where a student needs it – can be achieved through online formats. Consider that the many online courses and programs CSUN offers today weren’t even imaginable 60 years ago or even 10 years ago.  Yet these programs are vital to learners who are struggling to balance the demands of work, time and family – and the way that they want to experience information and their education.  These programs cut across majors and disciplines.  Remember that we were told there was “no way” social work could be taught online, but we have done so very successfully!
  • Virtual reality has also gained a place in the classroom, as some of us here know!  Virtual reality has the ability to immerse students in an unfamiliar experience or environment, allowing students to explore or practice skills without real cost or risk.  For instance, before entering an actual student teaching environment, CSUN students can practice their skills using “TeachLive,” a virtual reality program developed through a collaboration with the University of Central Florida and implemented here by Sally Spencer and Beth Lasky that allows students to interact with avatars that have a range of personalities and behaviors.
  • Certainly, the learning experience must be adapted to the discipline – what works in a Management course may not work in Calculus.  But yet, new approaches to Calculus are also working on other campuses.  However, the approach that may work best to meet the personal needs of today’s students is a hybrid model, combining online with face-to-face or in-person instruction. A hybrid format also answers two other needs of today’s learners: immediacy and human interaction.   With shorter attention spans than students of the past, Gen-Z seeks information in shorter “chunks” and appreciates more feedback.  Online components can address this.  The beauty of a hybrid format is that it also includes the human element, so necessary for the development of the skills sought after in the workplace.
  • Many of you are already experimenting with such approaches and refining what works.  Kudos to you!  It is vital to make the classroom experience engaging and relevant.  According to futurist and educational consultant Katie King, “learners are looking for experiences that can help them build skills in problem solving, adaptability and carrying out a project from start to finish.”11
  • In addition, “The New Generation of Students,” a report by The Chronicle of Higher Education, found that Gen-Z favors a combination of group and individual activities.  Group work is key to active learning, but today’s students also prefer options and may want to “puzzle through material on their own.”  Another generational expert, David Stillman, suggests that Gen-Z likes to work alone, prefers more private social media platforms like SnapChat versus Instagram.  Their identities are also tied to their distinct social consciousness and motivates them to want to work for organizations that advance their social causes.12
  • The flipped classroom also suits the learning style of Gen-Z.  This, as many of you know and already practice, is an approach that has students explore content on their own – often through video – then uses class time for exercises and discussion.  Nearly 60 percent of Gen-Z students identify YouTube as their preferred learning method.
  • This generation gravitates to online resources for information, including social media sites that are somewhat new to me, including Reddit and Medium.  Apparently Reddit, a forum for online communities based around interests, is frequented by 42 percent of internet users between the ages of 18 to 24.13 Medium is growing as well.  Our students go to these sites to find everything, from the Coachella 2019 lineup to major news stories.  This just underscores the relentless pace of technology and how critical it is that we are able to relate to our students’ needs and experiences.  It also underscores the importance of teaching – and modeling – media/digital literacy.
  • Vickie Cook, an associate professor and executive director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois in Springfield, recommends faculty provide learning outcomes and let students determine how to reach them using technology.  Gen-Z is often engaged and successful when documenting their learning through the tech platform of their choice, whether that is a video on YouTube, a podcast, our Portfolium or other form of media.14
  • While I’ve suggested different classroom approaches, you clearly need to make pedagogical choices that make sense with your course’s desired learning outcomes.  This is truly the essence of “active learning.”  What do you want students to achieve? What strategies will help them learn?  Some of you are experimenting with the impact of room configurations and technology on active learning.  Choose the technique best suited to your course content and how this generation learns.15 The point is, explore new frontiers.
  • We talked last year at the Faculty Retreat about the importance of belonging.  I want to revisit that for a moment, particularly as it relates to Gen-Z, online communication and group interaction.  Belonging is closely associated with engagement in the classroom and has been described as a student’s sense of acceptance and inclusion by both their peers and instructors.  A study conducted in the UK developed a classroom approach to enhance student engagement, success and retention.  Three hundred students in a first-year Business Management Course engaged in a hybrid course that included traditional lecture, a “Student Folio” website resource that required blogging linked to academic achievements, and group activities and assignments. Much of this is very similar to the functionality of our Canvas system, with its chat and discussion features. Based on the results of focus groups in this  study, online communication through the Student Folio resource was deemed to help nurture feelings of acceptance, value, inclusion and encouragement.
  • The group activities and assignments in this study of a hybrid classroom also generated a sense of belonging among students.  Participants described improved quality of learning through spending time with other students and “gaining a voice in the construction of knowledge.”  Ultimately, students in this research project reported a sense of belonging to their course and identified as a scholar of the discipline (in this case, Management).  All of this is critical for retention and student success.16
  • This strategy also seems to better capture the instantaneous feedback loop they prefer.
  • As I mentioned before, one of the impacts of ever-present technology has been isolation and loneliness.  Students who spend large amounts of time alone in front of a screen do not take naturally to networking face-to-face.
  • According to Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University in Boston, the “ability to work in a team” was cited by nearly 79 percent of employers as the number one thing they look for in their employees.  The most sought-after attribute was “leadership.”  Both of these soft skills come from interacting with our fellow human beings.
  • This is where experiential learning comes in.  As Dr. Aoun wrote, “There must be a two-way street between the application of classroom learning in the context of life and the application of real-world knowledge in the context of the classroom.”   Not only do real-world experiences round out a student’s skills, such experiences add the human element missing for many in Gen-Z.17
  • While most of us think of experiential learning in terms of internships or community engagement programs, it can and does take place right on our campus, too.  At CSUN, we expose students to a wide range of ideas, to people from different countries and cultures, to opportunities to demonstrate entrepreneurship and creativity.  Consider our AI-Jam, a month-long competition where student teams solve a problem using artificial intelligence tools.  Or the annual Fast Pitch new venture competition – where 8 teams of CSUN students, selected as finalists from a competitive field, have three minutes and three slides to pitch their new business idea to a panel of judges and audience. These activities provide opportunities to apply classroom knowledge in a real-life context and truly apply to most all of our disciplines.
  • We also have some initial data just put out by our own Janet Oh, Senior Director of Institutional Research, that indicates students who are employed on campus and working in areas related to their major or discipline demonstrated higher rates of retention and graduation than students not working in areas related to their majors.18 How can we employ more students in areas related to their majors? Let’s think about this.
  • We hear a chorus from our students’ future employers, expressing that their fields – whatever they may be – are continually evolving.  Employers emphasize the need for students to be prepared for the realities of the modern work place, implying that they were not. In addition to the technical skills and traditional knowledge students learn, employers want students with skills and abilities often associated with the humanities and liberal arts, like empathy, communication, cross-cultural competency and problem-solving and design thinking. The ability to innovate is paramount. They expressed that their work – and how to accomplish that work – needed to be re-imagined continuously. What was true and routine even two or three years ago is not true and routine today, nor will it be tomorrow.
  • Students must be able to deal with change, and constant change at that.  It is our task to equip today’s students for the change that lies ahead.  So we must change our approach and adapt with them.  Are we keeping pace?
  • 60 years ago, we would probably not have received a threat of mass shooting as we did in December.  Will this occur again? It is highly likely, according to our law enforcement experts.
  • Should we prepare? Yes, of course.  For faculty, that means you must be as adaptable as our students.  If your Plan A for class assignments or exams cannot be implemented as planned – as you have always done – what is your Plan B?
  • Do not wait to figure this out.  Were the December shooting threats this year’s version of pulling the fire alarm on the first day of finals?  Possibly, but we have risks that have to be mitigated within the confines of uncertainty.  It is imperative that we model adaptability, creativity and resilience for our students.
  • On the topic of adaptability and preparedness, we had a good discussion yesterday at Extended Cabinet on business continuity planning.  Your deans will be engaging you in conversation and seeking your ideas on threat and disaster preparedness related to being able to continue to conduct our business (whether it is finals or classes) regardless of the particular emergency or situation that arises.
  • The pace of technological change has made adaptability critical for our students.  This said, it also remains vitally important that we maintain and grow our partnerships with potential employers.  By having a front-line view of the trends and issues facing businesses and various employment and graduate degree sectors, CSUN is able to ensure that it understands what employers seek and that our students receive the education and skills so necessary for career success.  Let me emphasize career – not job – success.  We must help students think in the long-term and develop not only the domain knowledge, but also the adaptability, persistence and character attributes that will enable them to respond to the rapidly changing nature of work. 19
  • In today’s digital world, the development of the whole person – which is absolutely central to the higher education experience – is the product of an amalgam of digital and interpersonal experiences, conducted not just in the classroom, but remotely and even virtually.20
  • As an educator, I understand the difficulty of this “lift” – and the criticality and urgency of it.  But I have confidence.
  • One thing has remained the same in the 60 years since CSUN was founded: the role of faculty is central in shaping the educational experience.  Students rely on faculty as mentors, subject matter experts and leaders in their discipline.  Then and now, faculty guide students not just in the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of being a proficient specialist, but in helping students achieve their greatest potential.  You – our faculty – create thoughtful citizens and leaders.  For 60 years, faculty have been the momentum behind CSUN’s push for student success.
  • Let me wind down by giving you a quote to consider.  This is from Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913:

Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.

  • I want to thank each of you for your contributions to CSUN and the work you do every day on behalf of your students and the university. Coming here today demonstrates your commitment and engagement. Please do your best to help spread your enthusiasm and dedication to your colleagues in your departments and around campus.  Together, we elevate young minds and the region.  Thank you.

# # #


1 Broesamle, J. Suddenly A Giant: A History of California State University, Northridge. Santa Susana Press, 1993.

2 Caulfield, M. “Media Literacy is About Where to Spend Your Trust.  But You Have to Spend It Somewhere.” Feb. 23, 2018.

3 Chassiakos, Y. et al. “Children and Adolescents and Digital Media.”  Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, Vol. 138 (5), Nov. 2016.

4 Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, National Institutes of Health.

5 Cooper, A. “Groundbreaking Study Examines Effects of Screen Time on Kids.” 60 Minutes, Dec. 9, 2018.

6 Putz, T. “Generation Z: 5 Tips for Engaging The Next Generation of Consumers.” Circa Interactive, Mar. 8, 2018.

7 Selingo, J. The New Generation of Students. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2018.

8 Grider, C. “Designing for Generation Z: Captivate Today’s Tech-Savvy Teens.” Capture Higher Ed, May 22, 2018.

9 Ginder, S. et al. “Graduation Rates for Selected Cohorts 2009-14: First Look.” Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Dec. 2018.

10 “Postsecondary Success: Strategy Overview.” What We Do, The Gates Foundation,

11 King, K. “The Future of Student Life: Learning.” On the Horizon, Vol. 25 (3), pp. 161-164, 2017.

12 “Gen-Z is Coming: 3 Ways They’re Different From Millennials.” EAB Daily Briefing, EAB,

13 Percentage of U.S. internet users who use Reddit as of January 2018, by age.

14 Selingo.

15 Eyler, J. “Active Learning Has Become a Buzzword (and Why That Matters).” Rice Center for Teaching Excellence, July 17, 2018.

16 Masika, R. and Jones, J. “Building Student Belonging and Engagement: Insights Into Higher Education Students’ Experiences of Participating and Learning Together.” Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 21, (2), pp. 138-150, 2016.

17 Aoun, J. Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. The MIT Press, 2017.

18 Oh, J. “Soraya Report.” California State University, Northridge, Jan. 10, 2019.

19 Swanson, J. “The Future of Student Life: Working.” On the Horizon, Vol. 25 (3), pp. 165-168, 2017.

20 Breaux, J. “The Future of Student Life: Connecting.” On the Horizon, Vol. 25 (3), pp. 173-176, 2017.