How USNH Created System-Wide Efficiencies Through Its Student Portal
It’s hard to go far in the state of New Hampshire and not find direct beneficiaries of the state’s University System (USNH). With approximately 32,000 enrolled students across its four institutions and over 90,000 alumni statewide, the system maintains a long history of commitment to student success and excellence.
USNH offers a variety of postsecondary opportunities for in-person, hybrid and online students across five different campuses.
At USNH, David Blezard, Senior Director of Enterprise IT Systems, is part of a team working to change course after assessing the student experience. The institution provides varying levels of technology support across its ecosystem, from legacy systems needing replacement to home grown products with a high degree of personalization.
Like most institutions, the path to a better student technology experience at USNH started during the pandemic. In Fall of 2019, the system had 95% of students enrolled at in-person, traditional college environments. Suddenly, the entire system shifted to being entirely online overnight and USNH had to adapt rapidly.
Today, most of the student body has returned to campus, yet staff and student perceptions of teaching, studying and interacting online have changed permanently. Students maintain high expectations regarding the flexibility offered for real-life circumstances.
“If you can do a class remotely and you’ve got a situation where there’s a medical or family reason and you’re going to miss a class or two, what are the options for you to still participate and be involved?” Blezard said.
In addition to new expectations on the curricular side, students want a better experience for accessing different services around campus. Students are tired of looking at what Blezard called “a laundry list of every single thing you could possibly ever use,” and instead want guidance on exactly how to find the content or people they’re looking for. This lined up with Blezard’s desire to create more efficiency for students, at both individual institutions and the system as a whole.
The USNH system is made up of four institutions (University of New Hampshire, Keene State College, Plymouth State University and Granite State College). Sometimes, these institutions deploy shared resources to give students a unified experience regardless of the campus they attend. Other times, each institution makes its own technology decisions without consideration for how the solution plays out at the system level.
This resulted in several cases of redundant technology, which spurred a system-wide consolidation effort. For example, USNH ran instances of both Canvas and Moodle, which created a disjointed experience for students and administrators.
After collaborating with IT staff system-wide, Blezard’s team chose Canvas as the LMS of choice. Next came the student portal, where a variety of solutions existed, but none met the criteria Blezard aimed for.
“None of the schools had a perfect solution,” Blezard said. “We had a home grown portal at Plymouth State that was the most personalized solution, but it was unmanageable. It’s still unmanageable to this day.”
Blezard explained the IT team employed one person who spent his entire day working on the code just to keep the portal functioning. Thinking ahead, Blezard knew the system should do better.
At the University of New Hampshire, the portal wasn’t intuitive for students to use. Despite having search functionality, the portal’s search was more confusing than helpful.
“While it was searchable and had kind of a nice user interface to it, it really didn’t guide you at all,” Blezard said. “For instance, if you wanted career services, there would be nice things that came up and one of them would be called, ‘12Twenty.’ Well, I still don’t know what 12Twenty is.”
Creating the Vision
As USNH started its search for a new student portal, it first had to figure out how it wanted students to use and engage with the new technology.
The group charged with selecting a portal wanted something students would access first thing in the morning as a one-stop shop for everything academic and co-curricular. They also wanted the ability to mix centralized resources and campus-specific resources all in one place.
After a lengthy RFP process, USNH landed on the Pathify Engagement Hub as the vehicle to drive the student experience forward. In addition to the ability to deliver everything USNH wanted in a student portal, Pathify’s role-based permissions allows the system to create a highly personalized experience while creating granular access roles that applied to specific sets of students.
“If you’re a Plymouth State student, you get the things that are specific to Plymouth students and also the things that are for everybody across the system. You don’t really see them as different,” Blezard said.
This is especially important for employees who are also students at a different institution and require unique permissions.
“If you’re a Keene State employee, but taking a grad program at UNH, you get access to Keene State employee things while getting access to UNH links,” Blezard said. “Pathify makes sense of what you’re receiving access to and guides you to the right set of tools.”
Prior to Pathify’s implementation, USNH relied on email to get students the resources they needed. However, getting them to read emails remains a struggle.
“There’s 10% of students who will read their email and diligently follow instructions and then the other 90% who will do it if they’re nagged enough, but some of those students never, ever will,” Blezard said.
The Engagement Hub will give the entire New Hampshire system a single place to drive all communications. Pathify will pull announcements and tasks from various systems to give students automated push notifications when actions need to be taken.
Another capability Blezard sees Pathify fitting into the USNH system is creating community through various groups.
For instance, the Master’s of Social Work program includes students from around the state who balance other job and family obligations. Until recently, the program attempted to create community through Facebook Groups. But as both an IT professional and someone who values the voice of the student, the arrangement remains far from ideal.
“In general, there are people who just don’t want to be on Facebook,” Blezard said. “They don’t want to use it and then making someone use a tool that isn’t within our walled garden doesn’t feel right.”
Offering students a “walled garden” is exactly what Blezard hopes students experience within Pathify’s Groups functionality. In addition to the ability to join various classes and programs, (like a cohort for the popular online Master’s in Social Work program), students also join groups for co-curricular or advising purposes.
Pathify doesn’t store, share or monetize any student data and keeps information secure so IT professionals like Blezard rest easy when it comes to boosting student confidence in the Engagement Hub.
“Facebook is about advertising, while inside of Pathify, we know that’s not happening,” Blezard said. “There are no questions you have to worry about.”
Blezard also believes Groups will crowdsource feedback, helping students get the most from the platform. It will ensure that as USNH’s Engagement Hub continues to mature, the project stays on track towards meeting the vision Blezard sought when selecting Pathify.
Blazing the Tech Trail for State Systems
The changing higher ed landscape requires university systems to be nimble and consolidate technology as much as possible. The pinch for efficiency is real, especially as state funding is on the decline.
With the competition for students tightening and students wanting more from their institutions, Blezard believes there’s an opportunity to improve support for various student services. While these two ideas seem in conflict with each other, institutions skate a delicate line between being efficient without being too frugal.
Institutions, especially at the system level, need to cut wasteful spending, but not at the risk of turning students away. In today’s environment, Blezard says institutions still need to show off their personalization and character.
“Do you need a separate IT office, separate email systems or can you merge them together?” Blezard said. “At the same time you don’t want to make it so everyone gets vanilla.”
As non-traditional and hybrid students make up a larger population of state systems in an effort to combat the enrollment cliff, streamlining technology in a creative way while effectively engaging students will be critical to gaining a competitive edge. While USNH has more progress to make in meeting its vision, the days of redundant and unhelpful technology are poised to come to an end in 2023.