‘We want an inclusive student experience’: how tech can help universities thrive

·5 min read

From video lectures, to virtual open days, Covid-19 has dramatically reshaped universities and the student experience over the past year, with much of student life shifting online. Now, as we cautiously enter a new phase of the pandemic, the digital transformation journey for higher education shouldn’t stop there.

“We’ve had the emergency response and we’re now looking at investing in the long term,” says Dr Doug Clow, a data science consultant and expert in educational technology, who spent 20 years at the Open University and advised universities on coronavirus last year. In other words, the digital transformation of the higher education sector is only just getting going.

So what changes do universities need to make in order to thrive in the coming years?

The second edition of Salesforce.org’s Connected Student Report, which surveyed more than 2,000 students and staff across North America, Australia and Europe to gather insights into the student experience, found that 45% of staff said their institutions are implementing new business models coming out of the pandemic.

Nathalie Mainland is senior vice president and general manager at Salesforce.org for Education Cloud, a CRM (constituent relationship management) platform that enables universities to proactively support student engagement throughout the education journey – in part by integrating student data into a single view.

According to Mainland, a successful digital transformation strategy is different for every university, but at its core it needs to address the top challenges facing universities today, such as student wellbeing. “In our Connected Student Report, we saw that 76% of students identified wellbeing as their top challenge. This is up from 73% when Salesforce.org surveyed students last year,” she says.

“Universities need to have a proactive plan in place to support holistic student wellbeing – from seamless self-service support to personalised wellbeing communications, tutoring, surveys and more,” says Mainland. She predicts we’ll see more use of “conversational chatbots” and “proactive nudges via text and email”.

These predictions fall in line with results from the latest Connected Students Report, which show that almost a quarter (22%) of students surveyed would like more text reminders from their universities to help maintain their wellbeing, along with more than a third (34%) who desire more online wellness support.

The London South Bank University’s (LSBU) LEAP programme was set up three years ago to transform its student experience. “We wanted to create a student experience that is socially inclusive and meets the needs of all different types of students,” says Nicole Louis, chief customer officer for the LSBU Group.

The LEAP programme aims to improve student wellbeing and support across all stages of the university journey, from initial application through to enrolment and graduation. “We had multiple different systems for dealing with different types of applicants,” says Louis. “But mostly they didn’t have a level of automation and were not particularly joined up.”

Now, as part of its transformation, LSBU is creating a single integrated pathway using Education Cloud to make the process smoother and more tailored to the needs of different types of applicants.

The study experience for students who are already enrolled will also be improved through more personalised, digital engagements and a unified view of every student. “By harnessing the power of Salesforce CRM, our students will be empowered to self-identify areas of support that will benefit them individually as they transition into university life, enabling the university to provide tailored, relevant support from academic and professional service colleagues,” says Louis.

But it’s not just about students – any successful digital transformation also needs to keep in mind the experience of staff. University staff say that having to use multiple technology systems can get in the way of being able to support students effectively, says Mainland. “Of those staff members who said they don’t have support from their institution to do their jobs effectively, 31% said it was due to their institution using multiple technology systems and, as a result, the inability to gather the data needed to truly support students at scale,” she says.

Clow says it’s essential for any digital transformation strategy to engage staff and students. “Staff understand their role so much more than anyone else, so you’ve got to get them right in there from the beginning, that’s key,” he says.

Mainland agrees: “Coming out of the pandemic, trust between university leadership, students and staff is incredibly important,” she says.

Universities embarking on a digital transformation journey can also draw lessons from other sectors. LSBU partnered with PwC as a strategic change partner, for instance, to draw on expertise from the consultancy sector.

LSBU is working to improve the customer experience for students, so their interactions with the university are no less seamless than with other services they interact with on a daily basis. “We want to create a single point of customer service resolution, so that whoever [a student] speaks to, they know who you are and you can get your problem resolved quickly,” says Louis.

Overall, digital transformation strategies within higher education need to improve the experience for students and staff. “Students are savvy and used to engaging with technology,” says Louis. “They have an expectation for seamless services, so why should service from an education provider be any different?”

This is why it’s essential for universities to continue to prioritise digital transformation over the coming years. “Students want a tailored experience that’s modern and similar to how they engage with consumer brands on an everyday basis,” says Mainland.

Digital transformation can also lead to stronger organisational resilience in the long run. “Having some level of digital maturity is critical now and it’s the new currency that’s needed in higher education to strengthen organisational resilience across institutions, no matter what challenges might arise in the future,” says Mainland.

Louis believes that LSBU is on the right path. “We’re confident we’ve invested in a platform that allows us to constantly develop and improve. By bringing together new technology with new ways of working, we are enabling and empowering our staff to deliver on the things that really matter to students,” she says. “We want to deliver an excellent student experience.”

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