IT’s Role in Creating a Robust Experience for Today’s College Student
For the longest time in higher education, the IT organization had little or no direct role in supporting students. IT was the support organization for staff and administrators. Occasionally, we had a role to play in supporting faculty. Of course, that has changed radically in the past decade.
Now students are a primary service constituency of the IT department. Most significantly, we are connecting students to the technology resources they need to be successful. Our wireless network, once considered ancillary or the “network of convenience” is a primary resource on which students regularly rely in classrooms, libraries, social and support locations, and residence halls. Having talked with many colleagues throughout the country, one of the consistent pain points on college campuses is the wireless network. Seemingly, it is never in enough locations or never fast enough to meet the needs of our students. Certainly, this has been exacerbated by the diversity and number of devices with which students show up to campus. But beyond simply keeping students connected, IT organizations throughout higher education play an important role in directly supporting the learning environment. Whether that environment is physical or virtual, students are expecting a rich set of robust and reliable resources with which to learn and interact with faculty and each other. The learning management system, collaboration suites, and communications tools are expected to be present, functional, and always evolving.
Some of the most exciting developments in higher education IT are around student self-service and process automation. Self-service systems provide a “win-win-win” solution for colleges and universities and their students. First and foremost, self-service provides students with greater control over their academic careers. They can access services at a time and place that is most convenient to them. Secondly, self-service generally reduces the workload impact on institutions. By transferring some of the work of the institution to students via self-service (aka giving students more control) we reduce the workload impact on areas such as the registrar, financial aid, counseling and advising, or student accounts. This workload reduction leads to our third win, the ability for institutions to refocus their precious human resources on higher level tasks and services that are more valuable to students and the institution. Departments and services across our campuses have become very comfortable in providing substantial portions of their core functions to students in a self-service fashion. In fact, many campus service units now find themselves ill-equipped to handle in-person or manual requests for support. For example, if a student needs to send a fax to a typical registrar’s office with their registration request and credit card number to pay their fees, they might find themselves out of luck.
The gains in productivity, efficiency, and student satisfaction through the use of self-service have been significant over the past decade. So, where do we go next after all the “low-hanging fruit” has been harvested? First of all, we need to make sure the low-hanging fruit doesn’t grow back. Often times it can be easy to change services and processes to better meet student needs particularly with the use of self-service. However, our processes are not static. They change frequently and can easily revert to cumbersome manual processes. Maintaining an institutional culture that seeks to eliminate the regrowth of low hanging fruit is an ongoing challenge. Colleges and universities are also going to have to begin developing skills in codifying their more complex business processes. There are still many services and processes conducted manually that could be made available to students in a self-service or automated fashion, but articulating those services, processes, and related work flows sufficiently enough to automate them is no small task. College and universities will need to seek staff in service and business units with a different skill set. Perhaps each functional organization needs a systems analyst to work as a liaison between their unit and the IT organization to develop self-service and automated systems for particular applications.
From students, we are seeing a variety of different reactions to the availability (or lack of availability) of tech-enhanced learning and bureaucratic self-service opportunities. Some students are making decisions about where to attend college based on how well an institution meets their expectations about learning and support service technology. To the extent possible, students are opting to attend those institutions whose technologies most closely meet their needs. Secondly, students are becoming much more assertive about their technology needs. They are asking to address technology planning and technology advisory bodies at their institutions. In some cases student bodies are forming their own technology oversight committees and funding their own initiatives with revenue from student fees.
Students are also adopting a more consumer-oriented attitude toward their college or university. They see themselves as consumers of learning and support services and demand increased value for their money. They take this approach with faculty and support staff. The increasing cost of higher education has certainly amplified students’ quest for the value they believe they are due. This “consumerization of higher education” is mimicked in students’ expectations of “consumerized IT” at their college or university. More often we are hearing students (and faculty and staff as well) say “I can make technology work the way I want it to at home! Why can’t I do that on campus?”
With these fundamental transformations in student expectations and attitudes, it is critical today to reach out directly to students. Given students’ typical academic and work schedules, getting them to consistently participate in planning bodies can be a challenge, but their voice is a critical one to be heard in that context. If we don’t fully understand what students need or want or how effectively they believe we are meeting those needs, we are doing them a true disservice. Another technique for engaging students to understand their needs has come through some of our academic programs. A number of academic programs at Foothill College and De Anza College are highly focused on engaging students in the democratic process. Several faculty assign their students to research a common need of students for which better solutions might be developed. Inevitably several ideas connected to technology resources are identified and students reach out to our IT staff to better understand the current state of affairs around things like wireless networking, printing, security, self-service and other resources. Through these discussions we often gain valuable insight into the evolving needs of students and our capacity to meet those needs.
We are continuously seeking new ways to assure we are providing the resources and services that students truly need and want rather than what we think they need and want.
Author Perspective: Administrator
Author Perspective: Community College