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Using Data Analytics (and Competition) to Reinvent Student Engagement

Being a leader in a student organization, completing a professional internship, studying abroad for a semester, participating in a business case competition — these activities occur outside of the college classroom, yet they add immense value to a student’s education.

The University of Pittsburgh has aimed to increase students’ involvement in these types of activities through its Outside the Classroom Curriculum (OCC) program that has been in place for a number of years. In fall 2014, Pitt Business took that a step further by rolling out its own version of the program, one tailored specifically to business students and featuring new elements, including a competitive component.

The Pitt Business OCC measures and tracks student participation in extracurricular activities within 10 types of categories. Students who complete activities receive credit by progressing through five different levels in each category. The categories, which include Leadership Development, Communication Skills, Career and Professional Development, are designed to help students develop sought-after professional skills. 

To give students an incentive to participate, the Pitt Business OCC has an online student leaderboard. Students are ranked based on their percentage of completion in the different categories — essentially “gamifying” the experience for students. This past fall, the leaderboard‘s Top 20 changed daily as students jockeyed for position.

“There’s a popular saying in business that goes, ‘That which gets measured gets done.’ That couldn’t be any truer than with the Pitt Business Outside the Curriculum program. By collecting this hard data and making it transparent, we’re able to tangibly quantify our students’ engagement in critically important, professionally focused activities,” says Audrey J. Murrell, Associate Dean of Pitt Business.

“I’ve been amazed at how, in just a few short months, we’ve elevated student participation rates to unheard of heights. The program has really awakened the competitive spirit of our students, and I’m certain this will continue as this program continues to grow,” Murrell says.

The proprietary software system for the Pitt Business OCC comes from MeshNet Inc., a Pittsburgh-based startup co-founded and run by Mark Visco (BSBA ’14). The company recently changed its name to TeamSuitable. 

Visco says that 281 of the 300 freshmen targeted for the Pitt Business OCC signed up this past fall, an engagement rate of almost 94 percent. Students completed more than 5,100 activities, an average of about 18 activities per student.

Now that the student side of the software platform is built, MeshNet is turning its attention to building a recruiting component into the service. The system will be able to track the number of students hired, their salaries, which companies hired them, and what their positions were.

Next recruiters will be able to build a custom profile for their organizations within the Pitt Business OCC platform. The hiring organization’s profile can be tailored to the set of extracurricular activities and skill sets that are a best match for the organization’s hiring needs.

Recruiters can also use their organization’s profile as an important marketing tool. Through the Pitt Business OCC, recruiters will have a point of contact with students beginning in their freshman year and continues up until graduation.

“This represents a very targeted marketing channel to students who are interested in working with them. Employers can brand themselves and their career opportunities, while also having the ability to see at any moment which students are interested in working with them and how far along the students are in the development progress of being ready to work there,” Visco says.

Visco credits his own extracurricular activities as a Pitt Business student for helping him get to where he is today.

In his senior year, Visco put forth the business plan for what would later become MeshNet in the school’s Randall Family Big Idea Competition. The university-wide competition awards large cash prizes and business development support to students who are voted upon to have the best business plans for new products or services.

Visco wasn’t among the finalists, but he took the lessons he learned to another competition: Pittsburgh’s Thrill Mill Business Bout Competition. His team won the grand prize. They received $25,000, yearlong office space and mentoring support from Thrill Mill in East Liberty, and a consulting relationship with the Pittsburgh firm C-Leveled.

Through this funding MeshNet was born.

“Going into Thrill Mill, I didn’t have much of a team, there was just a couple of us. We had no money, no customers, no office. Now there is a team of five of us, we have Pitt as our first customer, and a couple of other schools are interested in our platform,” Visco says.

Visco recently presented the Pitt Business OCC platform to high-level leadership at the University of Pittsburgh, who expressed interest in expanding it to other schools within Pitt. The University currently has a general OCC program but it is not tailored to a student’s degree program, it lacks the leadership board that drives engagement, and it won’t have the career component that is being built now into the Pitt Business system.

Visco says other colleges and universities are interested in the technology as well, but it is too early to share the information on which schools.

“Higher education is eager to gain more transparency into data on student engagement. Until now, there hasn’t been an easy way to quantify and track this. We’re one of the first in the market to start doing this,” he says.