Interview | Christoph Knoess

Christoph Knoess is founder and president of Engaged Minds Inc. He was Senior Vice President, Sales, Marketing and Strategy, at Jenzabar Inc., a higher education administrative software company. While at Jenzabar Christoph built a consulting group focused on helping colleges and universities in the areas of enrollment, retention and advancement. With his years of higher education experience, Christoph specializes in helping senior administrators through his keen understanding of academic and administrative processes and the IT systems that support them. Before Jenzabar, he was a change management consultant with Ernst & Young LLP in Boston and with Hamilton-Boston LLC. At Ernst & Young he developed and facilitated large-scale change management workshops with Fortune 500 companies. With a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the Technical University of Munich and an MBA from INSEAD in Fontainebleau, Christoph has served as a visiting scientist at M.I.T., where he did graduate research in thermo- and fluiddynamics. His company, Engaged Minds, is a Boston-based group of consultants and technology executives focused on helping both K-12 and higher education institutions improve student retention and graduation rates.

Victor: Why did you create Engaged Minds?

Christoph: I founded Engaged Minds because I saw that the low freshmen retention and under-graduate graduation rates were a big and growing problem for higher education institutions. There very obviously is a similar problem in K-12, where 29 percent of high school freshmen fail to graduate. I had worked in education long enough to realize that institutional student support initiatives were not limited by a lack of student data or support resources, but by a lack of institution-wide processes. The massive investments into IT systems and support resources had left a gap that we could fill relatively cheaply with an SaaS (software-as-a-service) platform.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Christoph: As a company we are entirely focused on student success, and graduation rates are the most common yard stick for student success. Hence we are branding our product under the name “Graduation Booster”. But we also realize that there is more to student success than “persistence until graduation”. Student Engagement is a powerful notion that captures the idea that education is a joint endeavor of instructor and student, and we wanted to reflect that in our company name.

Victor: What is it? Who created it?

Christoph: Graduation Booster is a web-based application for K-12 districts and higher education institutions that provides end-to-end support for drop-out prevention programs. The application automates all steps of supporting at-risk students, from identifying them, making sure they get immediate support through the best resources available, and “closing the loop” by measuring the effectiveness of every support intervention.

As a hosted solution it works as an overlay that is compatible with all student information systems, course management systems, student assessment systems, data warehouses and any other system that stores student data that is indicative of their future success. The Engaged Minds development team built the system from scratch using open source technology, and we host it in a highly secured third party data center.

 

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Christoph: The benefits are immediate and significant reductions in drop-outs: Our launch clients have seen reductions in student drop-outs of about 25 percent in the first year of usage. In higher education this translates into a very significant revenue gain. And our customers expect to achieve further gains based on the knowledge and intelligence gained during the first year.

The application aggregates all relevant information on every student from a large number of disparate data sources, such as student information system, admissions system, cafeteria cards, assessment databases, etc., to automatically score the academic and social engagement of every student every day. Once a student is identified as being at-risk, the system triggers a retention intervention through a designated staff or faculty member, who is identified based on rules defined by the district or institution. The application supports collaboration between all academic and student service departments through referrals and tracks the referral path and completion of every intervention. And since the solution continues to score students after each support intervention, it collects valuable statistics on usage and effectiveness of every support resource to systematically improve drop-out prevention programs over time.

In a typical installation there are several hundreds of faculty and staff members who coordinate their support activities on our platform. It provides them with all data their institution’s interpretation of FERPA allows them to see and thus saves them an enormous amount of time searching for information or passing on information to colleagues. This results in a significant increase in “face time” spent with students instead of with systems and bureaucracy. Also, our system directs their focus to the students who need help the most, rather than the students best at asking for help.

Executives benefit from the application in several ways: The system aggregates data in dashboards that inform them in real time about the current state of student support activities on campus and enable them to interfere when needed in an informed fashion. In addition, the application provides important data on root causes of student problems, usage of resources and their effectiveness that for the first time allow districts and institutions to systematically improve their drop-out prevention programs over time.

 

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?

Christoph: There are a number of products and solutions for drop-out prevention in higher education, a lot fewer in K-12. Companies that offer student retention solutions in higher education are Hobsons, Starfish, Education Dynamics and GradesFirst. However, the solutions offered vary quite significantly, since this is such a young field.

There are three steps in drop-out prevention: identification of at-risk students, triggering of interventions and outcome measurement. There is a fairly high degree of commonality in the first step, the automated identification of at-risk students. The second step is addressed very differently by the various vendors. Some don’t trigger any interventions at all. Most vendors define the automated triggering of an e-mail or text message as an intervention or they provide scheduling software or web content to re-focus at-risk students on their studies. In our experience institutions need to be much more forceful in their support of marginalized students to affect drop-out rates. Graduation Booster is the only application that triggers person-to-person interventions, that tracks their completion and provides the capability for institution-wide or district-wide collaboration. And when it comes to outcome measurement, our application is the only one capturing the data necessary to do it.


Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Christoph: We developed the solution in 2008/2009, based on some consulting work we did for higher education institutions in the area of student retention. One of the biggest challenges was to find the right database engine and Extract-Transfer-Load processes to capture data from virtually any data repository on campus or in the district, from flat files, to relational data sets to Excel or Access databases. We went through the painful process of rebuilding on 3 different engines before we got it right. But now our application is a real “omnivore” that ingests data from virtually any data source.

The second challenge was that it is not enough to create an application that is “FERPA compliant”. We found that we had to build an application that is compatible with 20,000 different interpretations of FERPA, since no two districts or institutions agree on how FERPA should be implemented. But with the help of a few Higher Ed institutions we have accomplished that.

 

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Christoph: We built the application from scratch, since using existing platforms such as Salesforce.com or even Sharepoint is very limiting in usage and licensing.

The application is available by directly contacting us at www.engagedmindsinc.com . We are also in the process of signing up resellers who will soon distribute the product to K-12 districts in some of the states we target. It is a hosted application, so clients only need to configure the system on the web and implement the data transfers with our help. In a matter of a few weeks Graduation Booster automates all of their drop-out prevention efforts without buying hardware or software and without having to wait for their IT departments to schedule a project or any capital outlays.

 

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Christoph: We charge a subscription fee and offer the choice to pay per month, per semester or per year. The subscription fee is enrollment driven and set at a level that every client should expect to see an immediate revenue gain from state funding and/or tuition that exceeds the cost of using the system. In higher education we target revenue gains of 10x our fees, in K-12 the revenue gains are smaller, since less of the funding is headcount driven.

 

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Christoph: Our launch client was the Catholic University of America, who has used the system for the entire academic year 2009-2010. CUA embarked on a very ambitious restructuring of their undergraduate experience that includes a more challenging undergraduate curriculum and improved student support. And their results in the first year of running the program in terms of increased student retention are nothing short of spectacular. We are very proud and encouraged to provide the administrative backbone of their student support efforts

 

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it NOT for?

Christoph: Graduation Booster is an enterprise application, designed to be implemented district-wide or institution-wide. It is not (yet) a departmental application, but we are working on a trimmed down version. It will yield most benefit when embraced and used by senior administrators, such as superintendents or provosts, who realize that in order to strengthen the academic performance of their institution they need to strengthen its processes. It is not designed for individual instructors or department managers.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Christoph: I see K-12 and higher education in the U.S. as being at very different stages. Both perform quite poorly if measured against education systems in other OECD countries and deliver mostly mediocre learning outcomes at—particularly in the case of higher education—ridiculously high costs. But K-12 is further down the road in addressing its underperformance. Unfortunately, K-12 has become very compliance driven in the process. But the heavy hand of the government has created a culture that is completely focused on student success and learning outcomes and that has become quite open to innovation and experimentation. All other concerns of K-12, such as teacher pay, tenure and training, high stakes testing, privatization through charter schools, etc. are being discussed from the viewpoint of “what does it do to learning outcome”, and that is promising in terms of future improvements.

Higher education still has a long way to acknowledge its poor performance. There are several thousands of institutions that ignore their poor learning outcomes and try to wrap themselves in the mantle of two dozen institutions that stand out internationally. And while virtually every higher education institution is embarrassed by its retention and graduation rates publicized in IPEDS, very few go beyond paying lip service and put student success above all other concerns, such as institutional development, research, faculty interests etc. If the traditional institutions remain as intransigent as their trade associations currently are in providing accountability for the value they add to their students’ lives in terms of student learning, career prospects etc. and at what cost, I expect some of the hostility currently directed towards for-profit institutions to shift their way.

 

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Engaged Minds?

Christoph: I started out with Master in Science in Mechanical Engineering and ended up as a change management consultant to large companies. One thing I learned during that journey is that at the executive level the soft considerations of politics and fear of change almost always trump the quantitative considerations. So even though our solution is based on quantitative data and statistics, at its core is a configurable workflow engine that can be configured and adjusted to our clients’ appetite for change. There is no single right approach to drop-out prevention – client context always dictates what is best.

 

Victor: How does Engaged Minds address some of your concerns about education?

Christoph: The pressure to improve student success will only increase at both the K-12 and the higher ed levels. For executives interested in going beyond superficial changes such as automated e-mails and facebook pages and in actually “moving the needle” we have a proven solution that changes the institutional culture around student success. So we think we are where our market is moving.

 

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Christoph: K-12 will follow the lead of the federal government in addressing poor learning outcomes at the building level with whatever strategies work. The common core standards are an important tool for keeping states and districts honest. Incorporating these standards into their curricula and teaching all students from Kindergarten on will create a lot of work for years to come. But some of the shackles of the past have gone away, and more are to follow. This is an exciting time to be in K-12.

It looks to me that higher education is determined to fight a rear-guard battle and resist the demand for accountability and change from students, parents and tax payers. Change will probably have to be forced by state boards and the federal government, which controls a big part of higher education finances through direct lending and loan guarantees to private lenders. That is a big stick that it seems ready to use more aggressively than in the past. The days when it was more exciting to be an executive in higher education than in K-12 might be coming to an end.

 

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Engaged Minds? What makes you say that?

Christoph: Educators and administrators are in a difficult position. The public discourse in this country puts the responsibility for learning outcomes squarely on their shoulders and absolves students of their responsibility. That is unfair and not very helpful. But there is sneaking suspicion that the education system is not doing all it could do because the concerns of other constituents trump those of students. Systems like ours enable schools to support every student within reason with the most appropriate support mechanism available and to do so in a very transparent and accountable fashion. I think that approach is the only way for educators and executives to escape undeserved blame for student failures.

——-

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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