What Are the Five Principles That Make for a Better Student Experience?

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students-technologyColleges and universities these days are under enormous pressure to adjust to a changing education marketplace. Expectations are higher than ever, and students (and their parents) are now choosing schools that offer engaging experiences that will more likely result in employment following graduation.

Many of these institutions have learned that a transformation is necessary to remain competitive. That doesn’t just include changing systems; the schools and universities that put technology to use to enable faculty and staff to do their jobs better, to maximize resources and make smarter decisions, and to allow students to get information they need when, where and how they want it, are the ones that are succeeding.

This is one of the key learnings shared with me recently by Rick Merrick, the Chief Information Officer at TCS Education System in Chicago. Over the past year and a half, Rick has led an effort to change where TCS was going and to help the network of colleges provide better learning experiences for its students.

Rick intends to move 80% of TCS’ technology resources to the cloud within a three-year period. To get buy-in for such an ambitious goal, he went to his board with a well defined strategy that focused on broader goals and not the technology itself. Specifically, he zeroed in on five key principles that would make for a better student experience and that would help TCS better achieve its mission — which is, naturally, educating students.

1. Learning technologies

“Unlocking the potential of technology to drive teaching and learning is what we’re here to do,” Rick says. So having your IT team focused on hardware and hardware maintenance and upgrades is not time well spent. “Do you want to spend the limited resources you have today on trying to keep your infrastructure, your applications and your platforms up-to-date with the latest security, backed up, integrated and with a new user interface that’s easy and intuitive for people to use? That’s not what the business wants you to focus on. They want you to focus on unlocking the potential for the organization as a whole through the use of technology. You need to focus on driving value for students, and giving faculty the tools they need.” Finding tools and solutions that give faculty more control and more options for directly managing their relationships with students, and that provide students with more options for broadening their learning opportunities, are the key to making good on this promise.

2. Cloud-based

These days, cloud-based technologies offer flexibility and interoperability at a lower cost than on-premise hardware does. And as these tools and platforms continue to expand, they’re going to be integrated with other cloud-enabled software, hardware, data centers and platforms. Most major businesses are already in the cloud, and the risks of not moving there outweigh any perceived risks of being in the cloud (including data security). To put it most simply, if you’re not in the cloud, Rick says, you’re going to be left behind. “You’re going to struggle to try to keep your infrastructure up-to-date with technology that’s switching over at a more and more rapid pace. You’re going to spend your time trying to keep your organization in the 21st century and not doing anything else, or not doing anything else in a very specific way, or not doing either one enough,” he explains. “That’s the risk of not doing anything.”

3. Mobility

Hand in hand with cloud-based technology is the need for mobility, and systems that are not device or platform dependent. “In my mind, IT needed to become agnostic, in terms of PC, Mac, Android, iOS — it didn’t matter,” Rick says, noting that people should be able to use the tools they want to use, when and how they want to use them. The cloud enables this. When people have access to their tools anywhere they are, they can stay informed, they can take action, and they can keep their learning moving forward.  Students today are already on their mobile devices all the time, so making them return to their dorm room to complete tasks is an impediment to their engagement and something they won’t tolerate.

4. Consumerization

Likewise, after years of using sites like Amazon and Facebook, and now taking their highly personalized ease of use for granted, college students have come to expect a similar customer-like experience from higher education institutions. This expectation didn’t exist even five years ago, but now, institutions must match the user experience and exist with a mindset similar to those e-commerce and Web 2.0 sites. “Students are more consumer-minded now than they’ve probably ever been in higher education,” Rick says. “There is a consumer-like expectation about getting value for the $100,000, or in some cases, $200,000 or $300,000, they’re putting down for an education. So choosing technology to meet them where they’re at is very important.”

5. Data-driven

All of the above is important, but you won’t know if any of it is working unless you have data and a team to make sense of it. Then you can make necessary adjustments or improvements to your processes. Naturally, with so much data, it needs to be secure. Systems like Workday are truly software cloud-enabled, not just hosted inside of a data center. So instead of you hosting your own student information, it’s managed by your system vendor. And the architecture and the way that it’s designed and implemented is open and freely integrates with other cloud applications you use, so you can get the most from the information you have.

Technology is an enabler

Students want a different experience today than they did just a few short years ago. But remember: It’s not all about technology. It’s about using technology strategically so it improves the experience and leads to better learning and innovation. “If you give people the tools they want to use, they will innovate around it,” Rick says. “But if you restrict them, they won’t.”

Keeping these five principles in mind will enable the kind of learning experience your institution was intended to be.

Solutions and Delivery Leader, Education, IBM Workday Consulting Services

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