Published on 2017/06/26
The EvoLLLution | Leveraging Technology to Know and Serve Students Better
Technologies that support and drive student intelligence help institutions serve them better both inside and outside the classroom.

For today’s colleges and universities, it’s not enough to simply focus on access for new students. Given the importance of postsecondary attainment to success in the labor market, and the external pressure on colleges and universities to drive the attainment rate, it’s critical for institutions to do provide the necessary support services, information and experiences that increase student persistence and maximize their chances at success. Technology investments can play a key role in those efforts, but only if they’re going to be valuable to a broad enough audience. In this interview, Karen Thomson shares her thoughts on the impact technology can have in supporting student intelligence and service, and reflects on the gaps in traditional Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems in tailoring experiences to the non-traditional audience.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): With the complexity of today’s student demographic, where all learners are non-traditional in some way, what does it take to understand the unique needs and expectations of each learner?

Karen Thomson (KT): That’s a big question, and I’m going to give a business answer and then a more “feet on the ground” answer.

The business answer is to use best practices to really understand who your market is. For us that means doing segmentation studies, building personality profiles, trying to take on this mass bucket of students and segment them into groups. It’s a traditional approach to marketing and one that is increasingly important to use in postsecondary education. Historically we used to put students in a couple of buckets: high school students and mature students or Canadian students and international students. Very simplistic segments. Now we have to get into many different types of segmentation, including not just demographic segmentation but psychographic segmentation as well. Once we understand who our markets are, we can better design programming solutions both inside and outside of the classroom that are going to meet their needs. That’s the upfront work that needs to be done before prospects even become exposed to your institution.

Then the “feet on the ground” answer is you need a very engaged staff focused on a common goal. For George Brown College, our common goal is to make sure our graduates are the candidates of choice for employers. It then becomes a responsibility for every single person at the college to understand what it’s going to take to get each student in a position where they will be the candidate of choice to an employer. There are so many answers to that question. Part of it is making sure there’s an appropriate career fit. It’s also looking at every aspect of the student, not just their academic performance, but their financial capabilities and their stress levels too. There’s just so much that we have to know on the ground about that student, some of which may not be identified in a larger segment. Ultimately what makes a difference between student success and lack of student success can actually be something as small as a single conversation with a single person that has shown they care at the exact moment that that student needs it.

Evo: Why is it critical for a modern postsecondary institution to be responsive to student needs?

KT: For each student, every single person in the college represents the college. If a student has a bad experience with one individual, it reflects on the entire institution, impacting our reputation, which in turn impacts the quality of students we attract, our industry partners, our ability to attract donors, and pretty much everything we do. Reputation is not just something that is created in an advertising campaign; it has to be lived every single day. Whatever promises we make we have to substantiate. We have a staff breakfast every year, and one year we sent out advanced invitations to those staff and we did a little description of the vision, mission and values of the organization and said, “You are the brand. It’s not a certain department out there. You are the person that creates the reputation for the college.”

It is important that everybody understands that we each have a different role in making every student successful, and that everyone has the opportunity to achieve that goal.

Evo: How can technology help an institution to define and address those needs?

KT: I’ll give you a traditional example and then I’ll give you one example where we are unique in Canada. The first example is the one I think most folks are beginning to understand in the industry, and that’s the deployment of CRM (customer relationship management) tools. The CRM is an important way to both look at data on a collective basis and also to be able to look at individual student history so that no matter where they’re interfacing at the college, we’ve got thousands of employees who can call up the contact for that individual student and supply them with both the information and support that is best suited to them. That’s the more traditional approach.

One of the approaches that we’re using that’s unique in Canada is again geared towards our objective of ensuring our graduates are the employees of choice. Our research shows that the biggest gap from an employer perspective is not in the technical skills—because we’ve always done a very effective job teaching students the practical skills they need no matter what sector they’re working in—but it’s in the soft skills. Employers across the GTA are telling us quite strongly that soft skills are their number-one gap. So we’ve identified seven soft skills based on employer research that we need to develop and make sure our graduates have upon graduation. When students arrive at the college we assess those skills to find their strengths and weaknesses and help them plan their learning accordingly. At the end of their period with us, which could range from one to four years, we assess them again to see how they have developed those skills.

Evo: How can investing in technologies that support student understanding and engagement ultimately impact the college’s bottom line?

KT: For me, technology has to serve a certain scale. The bigger the scale the more flexible the technology solution—you’re not going to purchase a $500,000 solution to serve five students. The benefit of technology is that it allows you to personalize and customize regardless of the size of your staff. It also allows you to reach a broader market. It enables us to recruit globally, to convert efficiently and to retain students effectively. It enables us to be nimble from a scheduling standpoint and to do distance learning. There are so many things that technology can and will enable us to do but ultimately it has to meet a consumer market need, or it won’t be financially sustainable.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the role that CRM and other technologies play in helping colleges and universities to understand and respond to the needs of today’s non-traditional student population?

KT: Every organization needs to think of itself as a technology organization going forward, and then use the technology that is available to us and push the envelope on how we can increase our impact by using that technology. The complexity of the student population makes it much more important for us to really leverage our labor force in ways that we maybe haven’t optimized in the past. It’ll be more rewarding and more engaging for staff, so I think it’s all a win-win.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Understanding and responding to student needs is central to an institution’s ability to follow through on its promises to students, which specifically impacts reputation, future donations and more.
  • By leveraging CRM technologies, colleges can segment students to ensure they’re receiving valuable and relevant communications and also provide a more personalized level of service and support.
  • Technology investments are critical to ensuring that postsecondary institutions are able to deliver great student experiences at scale—but the first step is ensuring that a given technology is going to be impactful for enough students.
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