Wharton’s Sandi Hunt speaks with InScribe CEO Katy Kappler about building a safety net for students to succeed.

Collaboration has always been key in the academic setting. Students learn better when they can interact in meaningful ways with their teachers and with each other. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, it forced many students out of the classroom and in front of a screen, where engagement is more challenging. But online is where InScribe shines.

InScribe is an AI-powered app that provides a virtual community designed to help college students of all ages and backgrounds connect with the resources they need to succeed. The business, which works primarily with colleges and universities, especially targets nontraditional students who are at greater risk of dropping out. Working parents, first-generation college students, foreign-born students, older students — all of them face bigger obstacles than typical 18- to 21-year-olds.

“More than 65% of these students actually will drop out before they finish their degree or the certificate that they’re going for, so it’s a big population of learners,” Inscribe co-founder and CEO Katy Kappler said. “It’s a population that really wants and needs support.”

InScribe is the winner of the 2021 Turner MIINT competition, which is a collaboration of the Bridges Impact Foundation and the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. A team of students from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management successfully presented InScribe for its positive work, giving the business an opportunity to receive a $50,000 investment from Turner MIINT’s donor-advised fund.

Sandi Hunt, managing director at the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, interviewed Kappler for an episode of the Dollars and Change podcast. Following are edited highlights from the conversation; you can also listen to the complete conversation at the top of this page.

“InScribe is a human-first system. We’re not about replacing interaction with technology, but enhancing human interaction with technology.” –Katy Kappler

Sandi Hunt: How does InScribe plug into the educational infrastructure of the colleges and universities you work with?

Katy Kappler: We don’t believe in creating a separate destination that people have to find. We don’t think that’s particularly useful or set up for success. Instead, we have this concept that we call “community in context.” You tell us where your students and staff and faculty already go, and we’ll integrate InScribe there — so as soon as somebody hits a roadblock or feels like they need something, the community is just a click away. The learning management system is obviously a hub at many schools, but we also integrate with websites, portals, mobile apps, text messaging systems. That’s the practical side of how we think about it, and then there’s the human side.

InScribe is a human-first system. We’re not about replacing interaction with technology, but enhancing human interaction with technology. We believe that it’s still really important that students are connecting with human advisers or faculty or [other] students and seeing where those answers are coming from. We just want to do it in a space that makes that more visible and easier to access.

Hunt: Do you provide any wisdom or analytics back to the school?

Kappler: Absolutely. When you have a community in place, you’re providing different types of value to the different constituents that are participating. One of those value propositions is very much the analytics and information that you can provide back to an institution, because you will be surprised what you could learn from students if you just let them tell you what they’re worrying about or where they’re getting stuck. It is a treasure trove of information.

For example, we helped Western Governors University build a community around their enrollment process. And in the community, a huge portion of the questions and interactions were around transcripts. It highlighted back to WGU that there was this point in the process where students couldn’t tell, have my transcripts come in? Have they not come in? It became an opaque process for a period of time, and that caused a lot of anxiety for students. [That information] allowed WGU to say, “Let’s create some additional information and resources and touchpoints around this part of the process that helps before that anxiety or challenge even occurs.”

Hunt: Virtual learning and support was certainly a trend in 2019, but I don’t think anyone could have expected how big of an impact it would be in the years to come. As InScribe came into this pandemic year, what did it validate?

Kappler: I feel like it validated that students really do want and need these spaces to connect, but all of a sudden, there was a bigger student population that could benefit. Institutions often survey their students and ask about things like student satisfaction, and a lot more of that went on during COVID because so many student experiences had been disrupted. These surveys uncovered all of this information about how learning at a distance can foster feelings of loneliness and isolation.

“You will be surprised what you could learn from students if you just let them tell you what they’re worrying about or where they’re getting stuck.” –Katy Kappler

There was a research report that came out from a company called Top Hat, and they found that 84% of students last year felt anxiety, and 66% felt this constant feeling of isolation and loneliness. When I talked to one of our partners who has both online and in-person students, they said to me that it was interesting to hear the in-person students speak up and talk about that feeling because they had been moved into this online environment. What they realized is online students have always been feeling that way, and they just never really asked them. It opened everybody’s mind up to this idea that creating opportunities for connection and collaboration for all students, especially for students learning at a distance, is really important and validating.

What also I think will come out of the pandemic is that even in-person students will tell you, as they move back toward a more traditional face-to-face model, that they would like to keep in place some of the things that were put in place last year. For example, having access to technology that makes it easier to connect and gives them more flexible opportunities and timeframes to connect with their faculty and with their peers. They liked the idea that all the resources that they were trying to find were centralized in one location.

Hunt: As we all navigate what I suspect will be a bit of a hybrid world for a while, what’s one thing we can and should do to create this community where we are virtual?

Kappler: It’s really not as hard as people think. Create a space with whatever technology that you have available or that you want to adopt. Have a purpose for it — so know what the goal of that space is and be intentional about that. Put it somewhere that everywhere can find it, so they know that they can turn to it and access it easily. And then make sure that the right people are a part of that space, meaning your students are there, they are empowered to help each other and have those conversations, and you bring in the right additional resources to provide that support. That’s really the only three elements that you need to build a space like this and help it thrive.

And don’t be too prescriptive. Let the space take on the personality that the people in there want it to have. Let it be a little free form, let it develop on its own. That’s where you’re going to start to get those really interesting insights and a high level of engagement.