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Digital Transformation: A Small College Story

Access means providing equitable digital access to education and resources for all students, regardless of location or income. Students expect a seamless online experience, which is what they should get. 

As a small college in northeastern Ontario, online education and distance learning has been part of our culture for over two decades. We think of ourselves as digital pioneers and distance gurus.  The world of 2021 is ten years ahead of the world of 2019.  The pandemic accelerated advances in digitization, digital transformation, seamless integration of system and more that we have been talking about since the year 2000. 

Northern College serves a geographic region roughly the size of France, with a dispersed population.  Internet and bandwidth are significant issues, as digital content becomes more complex and advanced.  This has created a digital divide that all levels of government (federal, provincial and municipal) are attempting to address in our region. Northern College began a digital strategy in 2016.  A few hiccups along the way, such as a change in government direction and other infrastructure needs, pulled on our time, money and energy to bring the digital strategy to fruition.  

However, the digital strategy was a first step only.  We soon found systems issues and digital infrastructure—the what of our strategy was taken hostage by the how. What we needed was digital transformation!  

I have to confess: I am not a techie in the sense that I know how the under-the-hood systems work. I just know I love the outcome, the ability to move in the digital world seamlessly. The power of digital navigation and access to information make them equalizers in a world that desperately needs more equity. 

We have all become significant online experience users when it comes to shopping, banking, scheduling and paying for maintenance, communicating, linking with friends and colleagues—the list goes on and on. But our institutions have not yet gotten to the point where we can say we operate our student and employee experience like Amazon. I am not certain we will ever get to that point, but we need to try! 

Recognizing we have a lot to do to achieve digital transformation, when it comes to assuring all our systems are seamless, frictionless and highly integrated, I think about three key elements: 

  1. The people 
  2. The processes
  3. The products

Let’s talk about the people first.  At Northern College, we are approaching transformation from a systems perspective.  It is the people within our institution who are key elements to how that system is used.  I have taken the steps to centralize this process, through a CIO position, reporting directly to myself as President. IT systems and processes are cross-institutional, with no one area unaffected. Therefore, it needs to be managed from a whole college perspective, with everyone recognizing how pervasive this transformation is. 

We need to work with the people to identify key needs, concerns and even fears about achieving transformational outcomes. To do this, we started by asking our management group the following questions: 

  1. How can we utilize technology to work better and smarter? Recognizing that we already have a fully integrated finance, student information system, what else do we need?
  2. What do we need to do to achieve this better and smarter workplace? Some of our systems are clunky, which does not work in this digitized world. No one has the time or patience for any friction. 
  3. What are the impacts of what we plan to do?  Digitization has elevated systems thinking, and while some sections of our institution have needed systems thinking in the past, now they all do.  All our employees will be involved in these discussions.  

So, let’s think about processes. While our ultimate goal is to assure seamless, frictionless experiences for students, our under-the-hood systems such as finance (processing tuition payments, for example) need to be aligned to assure linkages with application, confirmation and registration, so everything is in place.  Currently, we have good systems, but not as high a level of integration as would be needed for this vision of seamless service.  All processes have to be integrated within user-friendly applications. During the pandemic, we identified many opportunities to work more efficiently with fewer touch points; our mission now is to take what we learned from the pandemic and identify best practices for our operations became more seamless through digitization. Being a small college, everybody is on a first-name basis! We definitely do not want to lose that personal touch. 

In fall 2019, we introduced Arrive and Thrive, an automated outreach program to support students and identify early interventions that may be needed. Integrating that data with our student information system helps our fabulous student advisors reach out to a student before they even have problems, to chat, welcome them to our college and offer ideas on how to navigate through their first year. Where can we now take this program through more sophisticated use of technology to support student success? That is another step in this process. 

In the past, decision-making processes relied heavily on data generated through our application, confirmation and registration system. Great data can tell us a lot but not the whole story.  What about program costing data, space utilization and strategies for expansion? Bringing better quality and highly integrated data into our decision-making processes helps strengthen us as an institution by preparing us for continued change. 

We risk a lot when we have clunky processes. If something as simple as finding out program info on our website is hard to do, a few seconds on the site will quickly turn anyone off.  

The last area to consider is product. What is our product? What is it we want to ensure students receive with this frictionless approach to the digital world of learning? As an outcome, the product would be a diploma or degree; however, we need to think about each step it takes to get to that ultimate product, with mini products along the way. Expectations are high, and students will not have the patience for a frustrating online experience. Courses need to be well designed, easy to access and personalized to what the student needs. Northern College is developing microcredentials in line with labor force needs to help learners personalize their educational pathway. There is no longer one single path to a diploma or a degree. An institution’s various pathways have to be readily available and clearly outlined, with the ability to tailor them to any student’s needs.  

Everything from recruitment to alumni relations needs to go through this product funnel. We have worked with this funnel through strategic enrollment management practices, but this funnel brings new challenges and new opportunities.  

Our digital transformation must be state of the art, constantly refreshed and cybersecure. Our small college will transform through our people, working on seamless processes to build better products for our students.  

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