Driving the Student Experience through Information AccessibilityAllan Chen | Chief Information Officer, Muhlenberg College
Today’s student experience has numerous component parts all working in tandem to support, inform and drive learners toward success in achieving their goals. Where we once thought of the student experience exclusively through the lens of their classroom experience, and perhaps the clubs and dining opportunities available to them, this way of thinking doesn’t pass muster for today’s learners.
Both traditional and non-traditional learners expect a rigorous academic experience combined with a supportive and responsive bureaucratic experience. They’re used to shopping on Amazon, banking online and using Netflix. Accessing information is second nature for them, and making relevant information available to them on-demand is no longer a positive differentiator—it’s an expectation.
One must always keep in mind that students are working in mobile and on-the-go environments all day, every day. At no point can we presume they are waiting until some later time when they will be sitting at a computer to access information. Data and knowledge are needed on the spot and right away. It has become increasingly important for us to “meet them where they are” rather than forcing them to root through our various systems and interfaces in search of the information they need.
But this is about more than simply sating student thirst for instant access. It’s also about student success. We want students focused on classes, co-curricular activities, and even their social lives. We do not want them missing out on core components of their postsecondary experience that lead to overall achievement both in and outside of the classroom because of informational obscurity or difficulty in access. The easier we can make it to find that information—when students need it and where they are looking—the better off they will be.
At the end of the day, it remains incredibly important to keep information accessible and readily at hand. This means investing in systems that help expose this data but also control access in a way that ensures only the right people can see the appropriate data. It also means building the proper mechanisms to ensure data accuracy. It’s a multi-faceted challenge, but one worth meeting and overcoming.
Responding to the Consumer Expectations of Students
Ultimately, students are more like customers today in that they see information as a commodity that should be easily accessible and readily consumed. They certainly still want the human touch to things—we should never stop offering the personal connection. But students do expect to be able to find information and services quickly and efficiently. They want action-oriented options so that they can not only access information but then do something with it, whether it’s looking up a course and registering for it all in one fell swoop or RSVP for an event straight from the campus calendar.
The student experience is perhaps the most important aspect of information availability and delivery. If we require students to jump through hoops, then they are spending valuable mental and physical resources doing that rather than focused on what will make them successful as students. It is an overall journey through our business and operational processes that is inefficient, which benefits no one.
If it’s difficult to find information—whether because it’s not online or is obscured through inefficient access—students will resort back towards options that require a lot more human intervention.
The Value of Improving Information Accessibility for Institutional Staff
At face value, making information more accessible has some pretty direct benefits for our staff as well as our students.
In the past, staff had to work hard to provide information in various places. Web pages proliferated, brochures abounded, and office hours multiplied. A lot of this truly was in person—the registrar had to be available to answer class registration and scheduling questions, and financial aid needed to staff offices for student inquiries as well. Dozens of other offices have had to create complex systems of availability to get information and answers to students.
By delivering information to students, we put the power in their hands. Status of a financial aid award? Availability of classes and enrollments? Appointment options for office hours or advising? Students should have quick and easy access to this kind of information. By putting these—and many other—pieces of information online in self-service areas, we can make a huge difference.
Taking this to the next logical level, automation of processes can also free up valuable time for both staff and students. We do not want to take away the personal touch that we all value as part of the education ecosphere, but there are many information access and action interfaces when automated processes make sense.
In the same way that easy access to information frees up students to focus on academic work, so does this effort on the staff side allow us to focus on enabling success in teaching and learning. We can spend our energies ensuring student success rather than information dissemination.
The Evolving Role of CIOs in Facilitating this Environment
I don’t think CIOs will ever become information stewards—that’s not our domain into which to venture—but we can become advocates for investing in technology that makes information more available. That makes our institutional knowledge more accessible. Whether this is a Learning Management System with a powerful mobile presence or an Enterprise Resource Planning solution with a rich portal interface, there are many options for improving the way we get knowledge transferred to students. Another, more fundamental approach is to develop an institution-wide communication plan that addresses what information should be available in what channel(s). This kind of effort can be spearheaded by the CIO.
If the CIO is the advocate for these technologies, then IT is the catalyst and apparatus through which these solutions are made possible. And with an appropriate strategic plan to address these needs, IT can be very effective as a unified group to help empower students.
How Should You Proceed?
For leaders struggling to ensure that students have easy and regular access to critical information, my suggestions are two-fold. First, it’s critical to be strong advocates for these ideals and goals. The entire community operates, teaches and learns more effectively if they have needed information at hand. Whether these are class lists, rosters or general information, the more readily we can make items available, the better off all users will be. It is therefore important for IT leaders to make note of where differences can be made, and to speak up on behalf of change and progress. Information means knowledge, and knowledge empowers.
Second, if our goals are to be transformational units at our institutions and to be strategic thinkers, then we must contextualize our efforts in larger-scale ideas such as student success. Information availability and accessibility is one part of making success operational. But the real goal boils down to student success and empowerment. If we can keep ourselves focused on this, then work on aligning the operational goals—such as information accessibility—with the larger institutional ones, then we’ll be successful.
Author Perspective: Administrator