As CIO, you can make or break the Student Experience

Ask a University or College student what their number one concern is for a great technology experience, and they’ll probably look at you funny. But fill a lecture room with 300 students and watch wifi access grind to a halt, give students access to a breakout room with uneven wifi coverage, or open a new campus half-way around the world and listen to students’ complaints about intermittent wifi access, and it becomes very clear that fast, consistent wireless internet access is top of mind for students…at least when it doesn’t work.

Of course it goes without saying that for students to have a great Higher Education experience, the product has to be great; i.e., the faculty have to be thought-leaders that deliver engaging lectures, the campus environment, the layout and structure of the buildings and lecture rooms have to be highly functional, and the culture of the institution has to align with the students’ values.

But underlying the bricks and mortar is the dependence of students on technology – to be in the know about the goings on on campus, to be able to pick their courses at the start of the term, check the online ratings of professors, take notes that synch with their phones, do research, look up their marks, collaborate with fellow students, discover which campus events are worth going to. The list goes on.

…underlying the bricks and mortar is the dependence of students on technology

Indeed, in the “old days”, when I did my MBA at least, cell phones weighed about two and a half pounds and computers were “luggable”; not portable. We faxed notes to one another and carried around books that took their toll on our shoulders. When we had to hand in a group paper, we asked the guy who knew how to type, to consolidate the notes and key them into Wordperfect. Then he’d print the report on his dot-matrix printer, run off hard-copies for everyone, and hand the final copy in to the professor the next day.

Fast forward to today, and we no longer think about the technology that touches almost every aspect of our lives; of student life. It’s taken for granted; expected. We no longer breathe air. We prefer wifi and 4G instead.

The ubiquity of mobile, means we’re always on. Service delivery is not only measured by the quality of the solution, and the attitude of the University staff, but by the number of minutes it took to solve the problem. Who can wait days or even hours any more? We live in a just-in-time world.

This puts huge pressure on IT staff, because if you dissect the student journey, right from making the decision about which institution to go to, to applying to a University or College, to getting accepted and choosing a program and courses, to being a student and all that it entails, to graduating, to getting involved in the alumni community, to giving back to the school…each touchpoint has an underlying element of technology. Each point at which the student and institution cross paths is likely layered with some piece of technology – a mobile app, email, a social network, an online community, a legacy system, a piece of data, an interaction with the Student Information System, whatever. There’s no way around it.

Each point at which the student and institution cross paths is likely layered with some piece of technology…

And it’s at any of these touchpoints that the student can either be left with a positive memory of “wow, that just blew me away!” or a negative memory of “what a terrible #fail!”…strong emotions of delight, or frustration and disbelief. So what happens next? Where does the student turn? …time to share that experience with friends and family perhaps? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat?

You can be pretty sure that if the strong positive or negative emotion was triggered by an event that helped define the student’s opinion of the institution, that she will very likely share a comment or story about the incident on Social Media. And so it goes. If we do something really well, people talk about it. If we do something really poorly, people talk about it. But few talk about the boring stuff in between. No one has time to share a comment about the status quo. And people often think “if no one’s complaining about us, we must be doing an OK job”. If this is what you’re thinking, you’re fooling yourself. Consider that over 50% of angry people never complain about a problem. So what does this imply about those students who simply accept the status quo?

As technology leaders and enablers of the flow of information in our various institutions, CIOs are in the unique position of being able to impact the student experience and raise the bar on what might otherwise be boring, average interactions between the students and the school. Taking this a step further, if 50% of complaints are not being heard, can we afford to be complacent? Sure, we can bury our heads in the sand and say “it’s not my job to worry about non-technical student concerns”. But then we’re supporting the status quo in our Universities; supporting being average in our Colleges, and we’re potentially supporting disruption of our institution. We need to be constantly thinking of innovative ways to create “wow moments” by adding value (technological or informational) at various touchpoints along the student journey.

…CIOs are in the unique position of being able to impact the student experience and raise the bar on what might otherwise be boring, average interactions

Here are 7 tried and tested ways for CIOs to create or facilitate a winning Student Experience:

  1. Get out of your office. Walk the halls. Listen to the conversations students are having. Find out how they really feel about the University systems and applications they use on a daily basis. Ask them. What works? What doesn’t? Listen to conversations staff and faculty are having about students. What are some of their struggles? Take notes. Document the feedback. You may even want to share it openly with the school as your starting point; your baseline from which to move forward.
  2. Spend a half-day at the College Help Desk. Observe how your staff speaks with students, faculty, and staff on the phone, how they interact in person, their body language. Watch the reaction on the faces of the people asking for assistance. Do they look happy after the interaction or did they leave with pursed lips and a feeling of frustration? If faculty and staff leave the service desk frustrated, this will likely trickle down to students. Let’s not forget, students don’t exist in a silo. Their interactions with people outside of the student community impact their overall experience at the institution.
  3. Get on Social Media. Specifically, create a Twitter account. Listen to what students are saying. Open the lines or channels of communication that are used by students. Engage with them. Help them to see your human side. Just because you’re in IT, doesn’t mean that all you think about are bits and bytes…at least one would hope not, especially if you’ve made it to the CIO or IT Director level.
  4. Sit in on a lecture or two. What’s the experience like for students; for the instructor? Is all the classroom technology working the way it should, is the Professor fumbling around to get it all working, or might it help if he had a PhD in engineering? How’s the Professor doing as an instructor? Is she engaging? Is she boring? Is there anything you could help this faculty member with to perhaps make her delivery more interesting? …after all isn’t she in the role of delivering/sharing information with her students? Just as the CIO is in the information enablement and delivery business, are Professors not serving a similar function?
  5. Introduce technologies that are intuitive. When was the last time you read the Facebook user manual (if there is one)? How about Dropbox or Asana or Gmail? These easy-to-use applications are the standard by which all software learning curves are measured. My rule of thumb is, if it takes me more than 10 minutes to get the overall gist of a new technology and its features, it’s going to be an uphill battle for students….a battle I may not be prepared to fight. If they’re not going to adopt it and use it, why even take the risk of investing in it and bringing it into the school? New technology implies change, and no one likes change, no matter how often they’re confronted with it. If you can lower the barriers to adoption, you’re more likely to succeed and have students reap the benefits of its use.
  6. Put together a Student Advisory Committee. Reach out to students who you feel would take an active role in dialoguing with you about technology at the University. Meet with them formally once a term, and as they move through completion of their degrees, bring on newer students to replace those that have graduated. Another less formal way of doing this might be to simply meet with individual students that have taken an interest in technology, on a one-on-one basis through the year just to dialogue about what’s working and what’s not working.
  7. Develop an IT Strategic Plan that is student-centric. As you develop your short and long-term plan, each deliverable should impact the student community in some positive way. Make sure that as you prioritize these deliverables, they are projects that the students, through focus groups, discussions, and/or surveys, have identified as areas that would provide them with high value but that the university is falling short on. Focus in on those with the biggest gaps between what the students want and their level of satisfaction. Try to steer clear of prioritizing projects that have a lesser impact on the student experience.

As CIOs we need to see things from the “inside-out”; through the eyes of the student. We need to understand and make their pain points our priority. I tend to view students through a customer service lens – I see them as our most important customer. We need to give them the highest priority on the service scale. After all they ultimately pay our salaries.

As CIOs we need to see things from the “inside-out”; through the eyes of the student.

As technology leaders in Higher Education, we need to worry less about buying the latest pieces of hardware or upgrading to the latest versions of software and more about “how can I use or introduce technology to reduce friction that the students are experiencing, so that they can focus on achieving their main goal – learning and completing their often rigorous programs” and “how can I find a way to add some technology (at this particular touchpoint) that will improve the student experience and create a feeling of delight; something worth sharing”. Keep in mind the strongest form of marketing comes from within – from our existing customers…our students. They can be our biggest, most vocal advocates, and share positive stories with their friends and family…but only if we deliver great experiences that elicit emotion and make them worth sharing.

Some of us may want to rethink our priorities as CIOs. Do we have our heads buried in the sand, or are we focussed on ways to create great experiences for our students? A consequence of making the wrong choice is that disruption may interrupt our comfortable careers faster than we think.