Institutions must connect the dots for students, simplify processes and eliminate the cumbersome aspects of higher ed.

by Jared Stein

From the Pathify Magazine

Over the two decades I’ve spent working in and with higher education institutions, I’ve often heard — and sometimes even remarked myself — the world has changed and higher education must adapt and change, too. And as much as I may have wanted to believe that in the past, only now do I feel that such change is real and irresistible. 

This is in large part due to a combination of the social, economic and technological trends relative to higher ed. For example, institutions must grapple with enrollment changes: the pandemic seems to have focused many current and potential students on feasible alternatives to traditional higher education, causing many higher ed leaders to reevaluate their existing programs. The looming demographic cliff further threatens expected future enrollments, causing some higher ed leaders to explore non-traditional learner audiences or academic offerings. The switch to emergency remote everything shifted the expectations of many students and teachers toward greater flexibility, which has encouraged hybrid and remote instruction. The rise of generative AI is shaking our confidence in long-held practices of teaching, learning and assessment, causing learners and instructors to reevaluate what learning is for and how its outcomes can be best achieved.

Shortly after the pandemic hit, I remember a university dean remarking that once the campus was emptied it suddenly became obvious that all of their students were essentially invisible to campus staff and services because they were not physically present. This caused the dean to realize some of their students had always been invisible on campus  – non-traditional students who would commute to attend class, students in fully online programs, or even just students who never felt the need to connect through the university campus.

It just so happened this dean and his team had recently begun mapping out the student journey, plotting various paths before, during and after academic programs. This was a means of (1) understanding their students’ experience more fully, (2) identifying pain points their students might face as they move through their program and (3) opportunities for students to connect and engage with the campus community at critical points along their journey. It became apparent this work should be re-considered through a post-pandemic lens, one that recognizes many students simply won’t be physically on-campus and probably every student now expects to have equal access no matter where they are via technology.

This is the kind of foundational work I believe must happen across all of higher education if we are going to transform the entire student experience to be more holistic and engaging.  Transforming the student campus experience to fit the needs and expectations of this new era must begin with a clear, holistic vision for a student experience — one based on an authentic understanding of students’ needs and expectations, mapped to a lifecycle that includes the before, during and after of their academic program and encompassing both curricular and co-curricular activities. The results of this work will likely look different for each institution — reflective of their mission and audience — but I expect what will look very similar is the need for institutional leaders to challenge certain aspects of their organization’s status quo.

One way organizations and businesses have successfully challenged their organizational status quo is through integration. This concept of integration has been made famous by examples from the corporate world. For example Toyota, whose “lean manufacturing” approach emphasizes the importance of the overall process by ensuring communication and collaboration up and down the production line. Or Amazon, which has created a more satisfying consumer experience by creating business efficiencies by integrating their supply chain systems. A few years from now I won’t be surprised if people say similar things in relation to Pathify in the world of higher ed.

The most impactful and satisfying work in my own higher ed career came about through purposeful integration, where specialized teams who might typically work independently (or even in isolation) have come together to work cross-functionally for a shared purpose or goal. 

Team integration is particularly relevant when an institution seeks to transform the student experience, as there is no one “owner”. Certainly, Student Services/Affairs is likely to be central, but if you look at the entire student lifecycle you will see there are crucial stakeholders and supporters of the student experience across campus. These highly specialized staff are probably also highly independent, and may not be used to collaborating to achieve a cross-functional vision. 

Transforming the student experience will require strong, empowered leadership bringing various campus teams together over an extended period of time — perhaps indefinitely. Alignment and principles of collaboration will enable these teams to make decisions about new processes and new software that may ultimately affect all of them.

Any mapping of the student journey will likely show it to be complex, multi-faceted and with many pitfalls or points of potential failure. Expectations for seamless, no-hassle experiences will continue to rise. Institutions must connect the dots for students, simplify processes and eliminate the more cumbersome aspects of higher ed ‘hoop jumping.’ Campuses are complex and students lead complex lives. Our students need clear paths with personalized interfaces avoiding confusion and wasted time. The goal should be to reduce students’ extraneous cognitive load so more time and energy can be spent on the enriching or engaging aspects of student life. 

In addition to eliminating or reducing aspects of the student journey potentially getting in the way of their success, technology integration can also spotlight opportunities for students to interact with campus staff and communities as a way of amplifying their chances of success. Centralizing students’ access to critical services through an app enables the kind of flexible opportunities for engagement we know can help students feel connected, cared for and committed. These are values we must hold for all our students, whether they happen to be on-campus or off, traditional or non-traditional.

Much of this can be done through better technology integration, but certainly some of this will require revising established norms to ensure greater flexibility or reduced overhead. Thus technology integration should be done in concert with team integration.

During my years in higher education, I’ve been lucky to frequently encounter ideas and even opportunities for positive change and even transformation. But I’ve also learned that taking advantage of those ideas or opportunities is rarely easy. Transformation also depends on having the right teams, the right technology, and the right timing. Institutions are aware of the need to develop the right teams, and are becoming aware of the need to acquire the right technology. As for the right timing, I believe it has never been better than it is today. 

In a world of ubiquitous connectivity, expectations for remote everything and advancing artificial intelligence, challenging the status quo of our teaching and learning practices may be both obvious and inevitable. Now is the time to channel those same forces and energies, challenging the status quo of the student experience to craft a vision and a plan to deliver a more seamless and engaging journey to all of our students, those we have today and those who may need us in the unpredictable future.

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