IT teams are in a unique position among campus staffs. More than most, these professionals understand the challenges involved in serving a diverse group of stakeholders. End users in higher education encompass nearly everyone who touches the campus community, from professors who incorporate technology solutions in the classroom to facilities and campus safety employees who take advantage of tablets to make their jobs easier and faster.
Yet one group of stakeholders has a special investment in campus IT offerings, and they can be surprisingly easy to overlook: students. Certainly, when it comes to wireless networking performance, the student perspective is top of mind for most IT leaders, because students are sure to speak up if the Wi-Fi isn’t up to snuff. But many other aspects of IT systems and operations affect students, often significantly. It behooves us to do whatever we can to solicit, listen to and incorporate student perspectives in IT decision-making and investment.
Harvard faculty member Gretchen Brion Meisels points out that integrating students’ opinions serves to make them partners with IT and “stakeholders in their own learning.” She recommends several strategies that leaders can build into their processes to increase the breadth and depth of student input they receive. Together, these represent an effort to make student input an intrinsic part of the decision-making process — not once, not occasionally, but in an ongoing, authentic way.
Build a Better Tech Survey
One strategy, of course, is the student tech survey, which collects information about students’ opinions and usage habits so that IT teams know what kind of equipment and behaviors they need to support. But getting extensive or meaningful responses to such surveys isn’t always easy.
At this year’s Campus Technology Conference, CIO and Associate Dean James Vasquez of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told a room full of CIOs that his team received 600 responses to their last survey. Listeners were visibly impressed. More often, such surveys seem like a message in a bottle, sent off in hopes of a response that may never come.
Annenberg’s success resulted from a deliberate, thoughtful reimagining of the school’s approach to the student tech survey — an effort that clearly paid off. Several of the most effective strategies (such as focusing on people-centered design and enlisting students’ help to identify the best way to format and deliver the survey) can be adopted by any institution.
One of Vasquez’s most powerful tips was to focus on the “why” behind students’ answers as much as the “what.” That’s what yields the insights IT leaders need to understand their users and how to serve them best.
Focus on Peer-to-Peer Tech Influence
The University of California, Berkeley, has made students an intrinsic part of its IT strategy. They run the Student Technology Council, which advises IT leadership, and serve on several high-level IT committees. A major benefit of this type of involvement is that it creates a two-way street for communication. IT teams interact with students regularly enough to gain a nuanced understanding of their perspectives on technology, and students gain insight into the thinking behind IT decisions.
At Berkeley, this engagement puts students in a position to influence their peers in ways that can be beneficial to IT. For example, the Student Technology Council successfully mobilized support for a student tech fee, and they persuaded hundreds of students to participate in the requirement-gathering process for a new student information system. That type of input, in which students reviewed and prioritized the system requirements, helped to ensure that a major technology investment met students’ needs.
Stay Agile With User Insights
Soliciting input from users has always been important, but I believe that establishing and maintaining healthy channels of communication will become even more critical in the future. As emerging technologies take hold, they carry in their wake new user habits, behaviors and preferences. These, in turn, influence other technologies, and the cycle begins anew.
Think of the interrelationships among campus Wi-Fi, mobile devices, new pedagogical strategies, cybersecurity and virtualization software — all creating new possibilities and new challenges, for our users and for IT administrators. Being able to quickly tap into that student perspective allows institutions to pivot more quickly and better align their systems to users’ needs — today and tomorrow.
This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.