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Seamless Student Success: Adapting to Student Expectations Virtually

Creating a seamless student experience in the virtual realm requires a very high touch, ensuring that students are answered and cared for by human beings rather than heavily automated systems. 

With a return to classrooms full-time being in the unforeseeable future, having a seamless system in the remote environment is critical to delivering the best experience. In this interview, Christina Trombley discusses the shift to the virtual environment, matching students’ expectations in this environment, and delivering the right tools and systems to provide a seamless experience. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant challenges involved with serving students entirely remotely and through virtual channels?

Christina Trombley (CT): What we’ve seen due to the pandemic is the ability to pivot. Universities overall have done an amazing job; it’s not an easy thing to do within a matter of days.  Our normal timeline for designing successful online courses is normally four months. In this situation, faculty, instructors and students all had to switch in a matter of days. Because of COVID-19’s urgency, what we did in the spring was remote instruction rather than online education.

That’s an important clarification; nonetheless, it’s all virtual. When we start thinking of the challenges of transitioning to a virtual environment, there appear on both big and small scales. One of the biggest issues is accessibility—whether there are physical impairments that make learning in an online environment more difficult or knowing which students deal with the internet equity issue in the United States.  Remote instruction and virtual channels will always highlight equity issues for students, staff, and faculty. 

Then you can drill down into some of the teaching. If you’ve never been an online instructor or haven’t designed an online course, even if you’re going to do it synchronously, it’s going to be different than the traditional course. A lot of the organic discussion that happens in a class has to be planned for the virtual space. Even in a synchronous Zoom class, you need to provide some prep time to be able to strengthen communication and engagement. With most instructors and faculty in higher ed, teaching was informed by their experience as students, but a lot of faculty have never been an online student. This can be a significant issue in the classroom. They don’t have that experience to inform their teaching practice. It’s also about attaining a certain comfort level with technology, which varies from person to person. 

So, when you put all of those things together, especially when you have to flip that switch as quickly as institutions did, it’s a lot. What institutions did was absolutely amazing because any of these hurdles individually presents a challenge. But these are things you have to think about when you’re going to teach in a virtual environment.

Evo: How has your team adapted to ensure you’re matching the experience that student expected from the institution, but from the online environment?

CT: You need to communicate how things will happen. That’s been one of the biggest things, ensuring that students know now how to access any of the resources with which they might need to engage. We put all those pieces in place. We have a professional advisor who’s always the student’s first point of contact. This way, students aren’t looking through a website or wondering who they’re supposed to be talking to. They know who to contact with any issues—academic or not. 

Orientations are another aspect. They include everything from uploading something into our LMS to accessing resources. Since it’s embedded into every course, the orientation becomes a resource document. That’s how we intend it. We don’t intend for it to be a three-hour non-credit course; we want it to be a reference book. Now, push that out to a full institution. You have to be able to do that at scale. That’s where a lot of the challenge and confusion lies. Unless schools were fully online, they’re likely not going to have the support structure at scale. 

All in all, it’s about communication, even if it’s just letting students know what we’re working on. Time has been the hardest thing. There’s just not enough time to get all this up and running. What most institutions have also been focused on through the summer is building a hybrid fall semester. There’s no guarantee that the pandemic won’t spike again. Some schools have already started and had to go back to remote learning. So, we’ve been working hard over the summer to ensure everything is accessible and available virtually. 

Evo: Why is seamlessness important to a modern learner? 

CT: When there’s a lack of seamlessness, learners take notice. This is what we’ve all come to expect as a culture. Artificial intelligence has streamlined so much of how we consume or experience anything. There’s less of a thought process on a consumer’s end. Humans are creatures of habit. Even if you’re not a list-maker, when you go grocery shopping, nine times out of ten, 80% of is the items in your basket are going to be the same each trip. 

And so, I think companies have built on that. Looking at the big names like Amazon or Walmart, their ads are focused on your shopping habits, what you buy, how you pay for it, where you buy from.  Then, these businesses build their shopping experience around your unique profile.  I believe learners are looking for that same type of experience in higher education. 

When working with our students, we want advisors to give them information before they even need it. That’s what people expect—for you to answer the question before they’ve even thought of it. They don’t want any of the frustration or annoyance of not getting what they need. When you start looking at it from a student’s perspective, you have to start making decisions. How much technology do you want to offer? What are the different technologies you want to use? Students don’t want to learn five different systems as they move through their educational journey. And they won’t be afraid to ask why they’re learning these systems.

That’s something we’ve talked about with our IT staff, especially as we’re moving to virtual learning. Are you going to expect your students to learn all of these systems? If you’re teaching, how many technologies will you embed into your class that are new to students. 

Evo: Is it a fair expectation that the institution streamlines the administrative experience and simplifies all of these different facets that go into creating this highly engaging learning environment?

CT: To me, the difficulty in that question is, is it fair for students to want that? Absolutely. But you have to go back and see that you’ll have the same learning experience if you use the same systems for all that you offer. That’s the difficult part. A very simplistic analogy would be to come and get the opportunity to learn, but your classes aren’t exactly the same. One class might be a lecture. One class might use small groups. One class might use more memorization. That’s how the curriculum is best provided by that instructor. 

If your content is better understood using one platform, but it’s not the platform that’s been recommended, how does that work then? It’s a balance. No, I’m not saying that we should have 12 different things for students to learn. At the same time, you can push that so that we’re shoehorning teaching, academic freedom and creativity by insisting that there only be one certain way of doing things. There isn’t an easy answer, but we really need to listen to students when it’s becoming too difficult for them to maintain all of this.  The important factor in this is to identify the areas that benefit from a seamless approach, such as one standard course menu in your LMS.  Beginning with the student experience in mind is a great way to determine what is needed.  

Evo: When you think about a seamless digital customer experience, a higher ed customer experience, what are the key ingredients to delivering that?

CT: Organization plays a key role in a seamless digital customer experience. And I say that from both a teaching viewpoint and the customer viewpoint—that organization is key so it can become an intuitive process for the consumer. If it’s well-organized, there should be little thought process behind the next step. Step into the customer experience and organize content and delivery in all areas of the student experience, then you should be able to meet their expectations. 

Another component is incorporating technology that provides value to students. Your criteria for selecting technology should help do these things. It should easily and specifically enhance teaching. Students should see or experience the enhancement. Once they participate in it, it becomes very apparent why this technology or process has been included.

In any non-teaching capacity, whether it’s student information or advising, these different systems should talk to each other. For example, if a student is taking photography credits, the services could let that student know that there’s a photography club offered at the school. 

Oftentimes, we have information out on the web, in student information systems and in different classes. But unless you’re a student who has hit each of those things, you have no idea how this all ties together. It goes back a little bit to artificial intelligence, and I don’t know how much of that is being adopted into institutions and systems. 

It would be great for a student majoring in political science to receive an email telling them about the different political student groups available for them to join across campus. These things are happening in industry; I don’t know to what level these things are happening in higher ed. 

Evo: When it comes to delivering a truly seamless digital learner experience, how important is it to define the right tools to deliver that so that you can offer the customers what they’re looking for while ensuring that you’re not running staff ragged?

CT: There are student information systems that are now looking at a student’s extracurricular activities and trying to blend those in. Most of what I have seen for putting all of this together relies on a very manual process. Typically, schools rely on their advising processes and people to do most of that. It all depends on how well your advisor is providing their information. It’s all very manual. It’s all very human.

I’ve seen demonstrations of systems that are doing more, but they’re expensive. So, it’s likely that the bigger schools with larger budgets will have access to them first. As the technology becomes a little cheaper, it’ll become more readily available. When I say readily available, I mean in budgets that smaller schools are able to work with. It’s a huge investment when you put in a student information system, so there isn’t a lot of motivation to change as times move forward, even if the system can do all of the great things you’re told it can.

Oftentimes for higher ed, it’s just not in the budget. Having said that, there are things that can be done that are probably not as automated and probably not as seamless as we would like. But you need a basic advising process so that everybody’s working from the same information.

More emphasis has been put on advising as a retention strategy. Part of that is including extracurricular activities that help heighten students’ experiences at the university but perhaps aren’t as seamless. Seamless is going to be a difficult road just because of the cost and the systems involved.

Evo: How do you make sure you’re singing off the same song sheet, even just from the administrative perspective?

CT: Higher ed is very traditional—a very old industry. There is push back on what customer service means when it comes to AI or technology. A lot of schools pride themselves on the relationship-building customer service that they provide to their students. Being heavily automated really isn’t human. There are things that the system will spit out at students that might not necessarily be what higher ed administration and faculty might look at as high-touch.

You’ll hear that a lot in higher ed. We’re very proud of our high touch. What they mean by that is that we have people reaching out to students. And the thought that that’s going to be replaced with a system isn’t always welcomed.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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