Brian Alexander outlines how the higher ed digital ecosystem changed from being less about student portals can integrate with and more about what outcomes they can achieve.

From Pathify Magazine

Over the past two years, higher ed rapidly deployed all kinds of technology in response to the pandemic to deliver quality education, while fighting tooth and nail to maintain a sense of community for students. It’s hard to argue that these efforts represent one of the most impressive achievements in the history of education, and that these efforts have resulted in a fundamental and undeniable shift in the world of higher ed. 

As the pandemic tore across North America in May of 2020, John O’Brien wrote in Inside Higher Ed that “technology can no longer be seen as a utility working quietly in the background. Now more than ever, technology is a strategic asset that is vital to the success of every institution.” This insight has proven completely true, with institutions rushing to plug gaps created by the uncertainty of in-person and remote student life with a myriad of new point technologies. 

Added out of necessity based on the unfolding emergency, new technologies (and their interfaces) joined an already complex tech stack students must interact with daily—anchored by the LMS and SIS—which in many cases have chugged along on-prem for 20 years. These stopgap measures were crucial as schools transitioned to the new normal—a world where the necessity of maintaining both in-person and remote, digital environments that work for students—will never go away. 

The resulting technology ecosystem existing almost universally across higher ed encompasses a loose collection of highly siloed systems, typically focused on providing a narrow set of services with little to no interaction with other components of the ecosystem. IT teams have almost exclusively approached these silos as a technical challenge, introducing middleware to allow the myriad of systems to share data back and forth. While middleware solves the back-end challenges associated with managing this complex ecosystem, it’s now unequivocally clear that the front-end complexity of bouncing between countless point and source systems represents an enormous risk for the adoption and success of these investments. 

Perhaps no better example illustrates the overwhelming nature of this dilemma than the traditional student portal. Over the past two years these seldom used, dusty old link farms have been pressed into service as the primary place institutions send students to access the technology, content and information they need to navigate their day—on campus or off. Due to the sheer volume of information needing to be shared, and an almost complete lack of personalization capabilities, the student portal has become in practice a virtual treasure hunt where the proverbial X marks the spot, with students needing to traverse a dense, digital jungle of general and dated links to get what they need. Adding to the confusion, many schools have implemented separate mobile apps surfacing parts of what are typically displayed on the portal, adding a second treasure map to the hunt. Though perhaps effective as stop gaps in the initial phases of the pandemic, the one-two punch of the traditional link farm portal and the disconnected mobile app confuse students to the point they won’t use them.

The majority of institutions have in part solved the technical problem of stitching together the plethora of systems operating to support students. Many also technically solved the issue of making crucial information and systems available, publishing all things to all people in several disconnected places. In practice, this schema is often so complex that it’s unusable by those it’s supposed to support—students.

This reality—with enormous stakes related to recruiting, retention and overall student success—results in a new crisis for how schools leverage technology now and in the future. 

A massive void exists at the center of the higher ed digital ecosystem because there is no centralized user experience hub unifying all things digitally. In an ideal setting, this centralized user experience would:

  • Integrate together any relevant point or source system in a way that surfaces highly personalized content and information to students on a single dashboard—on any device.
  • Consolidate and personalize all institutional communications, from emergency alerts, to advisor communications, to event notifications into a single, unified place.
  • Administer secure online spaces for groups, clubs and individuals to connect and build community digitally.
  • Deliver a consistent user experience throughout the entire student lifecycle, actually amplifying the investments, technology, and resources available to students by making them usable and accessible.

Creating this centralized hub means seamlessly integrating a variety of systems together so rather than being a one-stop shop to display several pieces of technology, those systems actually make each other stronger. We’re moving away from an era where we ask “what systems can exist in this hub?” to “what outcomes can this hub enable?”

With outcomes being the new backdrop to the higher ed digital ecosystem, I laid out a new framework to help higher ed discover a variety of outcomes all within one hub.

It’s About Outcomes, Not Integrations

Most portals have a dramatically improved UI that by design should be more aesthetically pleasing to students. However, they still look busy and are difficult to navigate. Aside from not helping students figure out where to turn their attention, the more integrations a portal has, the more complicated it becomes. 

That’s why an outcome-based approach, which pulls multiple sources of data together in a single view, is more useful than a dashboard with several links that are difficult to interpret. This difference, while seemingly subtle, is meaningful, and represents a massive improvement for the student experience. This method provides more context and makes it easier for students to take action as needed without overwhelming them.

Here are some outcomes that can significantly help students get more value from their portal.

Lead Nurturing and Student Engagement – Imagine a world where you bring together your favorite LMS, SIS and CRM into a tightly integrated, seamless user experience. This experience allows institutions a holistic view of the student from prospect to alumni through a single pane of glass, while delivering greater context of who students really are. This helps deliver more valuable content to the student, increasing the likelihood of conversion while improving connection between student and staff. Students now receive more relevant information in their outreach and get timely task notifications so they never fall behind throughout their higher ed journey.

Asynchronous Learning Enablement – As the adult learning population in higher ed surges, it’s crucial for institutions to re-think how to better attract distance learners. For distance learning to work long term in higher ed, two things must happen. First, the classroom must be immersive, going beyond the typical video chatting experience. It should mimic an in-person interaction as much as possible with students engaging in proximity-based chat and the ability to move through virtual classrooms. This is especially important if the “Metaverse” proves as disruptive as some predict it will be in higher ed. It also requires institutions to find innovative ways to keep meaningful student connections without creating video chat fatigue. The distance learning experience needs to honor student agency by allowing them to create the remote environment they desire without facing any technological barriers.

On-Demand Virtual Tours – Prior to the pandemic, guided on-campus tours were the main vehicle in higher ed marketing. Institutions sent their most polished student ambassadors on tours with hundreds of students every day to show the most scenic parts of campus and newly renovated buildings in hopes of aweing prospective students. Although on-campus tours largely continue, prospective students also want to discover and view the campus on their own time. Self-guided, virtual tours remove the barriers brought by expensive flights, along with the costly time commitments to visit campus. This is especially important for institutions trying to attract students of different backgrounds and income levels. Inside an engagement hub, students access all the information they need from the comforts of their own home at any time of day—especially on mobile.

Agile Marketing Content Creation – Does the relationship between marketing and IT resemble the toxicity of Twitter debates these days? If IT constantly asks marketing, “why can’t you just make that update on the website,” this integration is a game-changer for your institution. Seamlessly weaving in your CMS and course catalog helps mitigate many of the website-related tensions between the two departments by giving the marketing team an easy-to-manage content hub within the portal itself. With IT departments across the country short-staffed, any opportunity for marketing to take simple tasks off their plate helps the institution run more efficiently. On the marketing side, institutions have rapidly changing content needs and can control messaging for both prospects and current students effectively with no roadblocks. Integrating a CMS in your engagement hub makes it so even non-technical members of your marketing team easily make changes. 

On-Demand Student Support – The student of tomorrow will have even less interest communicating over email and phone than today’s student. Many institutions address this trend by combining chatbots and student success platforms to provide 24/7 on-demand support. This combo provides a rich mix of data schools analyze to derive risk factors and triggers, notifying administrators when a student needs more personalized attention, while spreading awareness of campus resources to all students. For institutions looking to improve mental health outreach, chatbots often identify the most at-risk students. These actions drive student retention and increase satisfaction across campus. 

Secure Single Sign-On – Most institutions already help their students seamlessly use all their apps with SSO. However, many current solutions on the market don’t adequately counter potential cyberattacks—leaving entire systems vulnerable. When an SSO provider suffers significant downtime as the result of an attack, this results in devastating outages for students, including their portal. While it’s difficult to bullet-proof an institution’s SSO from attacks, best in class vendors take all available precautions to mitigate that risk. In addition, the level of communication a customer success team provides helps institutions make critical decisions to minimize the damage done to an institution.

Post-Graduation Job Placement – While institutions become singularly focused on recruitment, students are now more determined than ever to turn their higher ed experience into a meaningful salary. Students no longer want to wait for on-campus recruiting events or spend their summers post-graduation aimlessly applying for jobs. They want to feel empowered in their job search at every step of their college career. 

Community Creation and Management – Merging your community app with event planning and student life systems gives your hub more of a social network feel. Given this generation relies almost exclusively on social media for communication, creating an environment for students to build culture at your institution gives them a reason to keep coming back. Students no longer need to rely on word-of-mouth or Facebook groups to get attendees to their events. Now, they invite peers while keeping their social media accounts private, organizing everything happening on campus in a single view. This capability also works well in a more intimate campus environment where student groups often seek participation from faculty and staff.

Where the Digital Ecosystem is Headed Next

Think about what a game changer it was when Netflix started recommending movies and shows based on what you’ve already watched. This type of recommendation engine has become completely ingrained in consumer software experience—people don’t even notice it in action these days. But they certainly recognize when it’s not part of the experience.  

This same technology must permeate student portals, and guess what—some of it’s here already—and the rest is 12-18 months away. 

Remember the treasure hunt analogy? Now imagine pushing the treasure to the student on a mobile app that delivers exactly what they need…without scrolling through the link farm. Instead, the app curates what the student sees, with two or three relevant actions the student should take each day based on campus deadlines, student preferences or anything else it picks up from the student’s unique role.

Chances are students would be infinitely more engaged with your portal…and you’ll never have to worry again about adoption. Instead, students will finally leverage a one-stop hub, closely resembling the way the rest of their world already works. You’ll never have to worry about students missing important deadlines or bogging down your student services staff with questions (and more importantly answers) they just as easily find on their own.

The new digital ecosystem of higher ed is unequivocally headed in this direction, and it’s only a matter of time before a real Netflix-like experience becomes a reality in the world of student portals. When this happens, students will receive updates as soon as they’re announced, rather than get buried on a website or in a student’s email inbox. 

Many of the problems related to retention—whether it’s summer melt, a lack of community, faculty support or the ability to identify at-risk students—will all improve once this technology is mainstream at campuses all over the world. Could this mean the current power struggles existing around technology budgets might dissipate, as this new hub simplifies and amplifies current and future technology investments? That’s what we’re betting on.

The winds of change in higher ed tech continue to accelerate. As institutions face more competition over fewer students, (and staff and faculty consider leaving higher ed for greener pastures), investing in forward-facing technology will go a long way towards helping campuses run more efficiently while addressing these looming challenges. Fortunately, that future is basically here.

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