Feb 25 2021

4 Ways to Improve Higher Education User Experiences and Student Success

How can higher education IT departments help improve student success and satisfaction?

Technology should do more than just work — it should work in a way that benefits whoever is using it. That’s why user experience is such a cornerstone of every software program, platform and cloud provider. If a user isn’t having a positive experience, you risk losing them.

That’s no less true for higher education, especially as technology becomes more and more integrated into various strands of higher ed’s DNA. According to HolonIQ, an investment intelligence firm, the first half of 2020 was the second-largest half year for global ed tech investment. It is clear that the importance of technology in education is rising.

MORE ON EDTECH: EDUCAUSE cybersecurity program director discusses how the pandemic has affected higher education.

As the use of technology increases, IT departments must ensure they are providing positive user experiences to students, faculty and stakeholders. The risk of not doing so is high: Bad experiences can lead to diminished revenue, lower retention and more, which is why IT departments need to focus less on maintaining new technologies and more on those using them to best benefit the institutions they work for.

“It’s important to look at both our faculty and students as our customers. It’s our job to provide good service to them,” says James Temple, vice president of technology at College of the Canyons. Here are a few ways IT departments can do that.

1. Choose the Right Tech for Student Success and Student Satisfaction

“Part of designing an effective user experience for learning is imagining what all the devices are that a learner is naturally going to use throughout the day,” says Kyle Bowen, executive director of learning experience at Arizona State University.

It’s also important to consider (as best one can) the technical capabilities of users’ devices, such as computer specs, software versions and Wi-Fi speeds. This will help IT departments to not only adapt or optimize the technology students and faculty are using but also identify inclusive programs and tools that won’t strain budgets or computer power. (That said, throughout the pandemic, many institutions helped students and faculty with equipment. College of Canyon, for example, handed out about 500 laptops to students, says Temple.)

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However, it’s also important to select and adapt technology by reverse engineering from an intended goal, says Temple: “We want you to have the tools to successfully complete the class, but we also want to make sure that you’re getting the same quality of instruction you’d get had you been in a normal system.” The programs, platforms and technology IT departments work with (and support) directly influence the degree to which an online college experience will echo a traditional in-person experience and lead to student success and satisfaction.

In the early days of the pandemic — if not before — many institutions had already made the decision to enable the quick shift to increased remote capabilities. With future needs in mind, now may be an opportune moment to consider what might be improved.

Are there ways to further optimize videoconferencing, messaging or scheduling platforms to enhance student learning? Are certain platforms more suitable for an institution’s particular needs? Can tools such as Webex Classrooms or Canvas be tweaked to improve student performance? What about rolling out innovative remote solutions for specialized study, like Beyond Labz, a virtual lab for conducting science experiments?

2. Empower Stakeholders and IT Teams with Preventive Measures

Increased technology use inevitably leads to an increase in tech hiccups. What’s important is how IT departments respond to them. That’s especially true given the enormous shift to remote and hybrid learning throughout the pandemic. (According to the Institute of International Education, almost 90 percent of higher education institutions implemented a hybrid learning model for Fall 2020.)

A great hybrid learning user experience can yield tremendous benefits. “In the hybrid mix modality environment, there are a lot more options for customization so that a student can have more choice, more agency in terms of how they choose to learn, how they engage in class, how you’re designing your learning experience,” ASU’s Bowen says. “That same flexibility is true for the faculty as well.”

However, bad technology can quickly lead to bad student or faculty experiences, which risk success and retention. Hybrid learning can only work if the technology works, and that can only work if IT departments are on hand to ensure it does.

James Temple, vice president of technology, College of the Canyons
There’s been a new appreciation for what IT does at colleges.”

James Temple vice president of technology, College of the Canyons

Preventive (or passive) support is one way to keep students and faculty satisfied while also reducing the number of IT tickets and speeding their resolution. Investing in tried-and-true options such as self-service portals, AI-driven chatbots or extensive knowledge bases can empower those navigating hybrid learning to help themselves. Explainer online videos for students and dedicated training for faculty are also effective.

IT departments have also implemented tools that allow them to take preventive action when issues arise. For example, ASU’s IT department connected classroom technologies to the network for remote monitoring, so IT staff are pinged when something isn’t working. “That way, we can proactively help. For example, if a projector is having trouble, we can resolve that before the faculty member comes into the room,” Bowen says. This could apply as well to lecture room cameras or microphones used to broadcast to students who are participating from home, not in class.

DOWNLOAD THE WHITEPAPER: Learn how to build blended learning environments for higher education.

3. Make User Experiences as Seamless as Possible with Fast Help

Technology use affects student achievement. Where preventive or automated methods fail, it’s important to provide active solutions as quickly as possible that limit interruptions to students and faculty. A critical component of a positive higher ed user experience is one that’s — ideally — invisible. “A big part of designing user experience is thinking about how we make that technology as transparent as possible and get it out of the way,” says ASU’s Bowen.

That’s why, when problems arise (and IT tickets start to appear), finding ways to resolve them isn’t just in the IT department’s best interest. Institutions have gone about this in different ways throughout the pandemic. For example, Emerson College established a corps of dedicated individuals who could quickly identify problems and direct support requests to an appropriate IT staff member.

In a similar manner, College of the Canyons created an accessible Zoom Room where on-duty technicians are available. When someone enters to request help, an IT staff member takes them into a breakout room for immediate personal service. “That’s worked really well for probably 80 percent of the issues we’ve run into,” says Temple.

MORE ON EDTECH: With hybrid learning on the rise, higher ed sees a Zoom Room boom.

At ASU, asynchronous methods (such as text messaging) allow faculty to quickly send help requests during class, without having to pause the lecture. This lets IT work toward a resolution without interrupting learning.

4. Never Stop Optimizing User Experiences

The shift toward online learning during the pandemic — and the speed at which it happened — has changed how higher ed IT departments are perceived by those they serve. “Before, we were looked at as equipment people,” says College of the Canyons’ Temple. “There’s been a new appreciation for what IT does at colleges.”

Their work, however, is far from finished.

Creating positive user experiences is a moving target, not a stationary one. What higher education institutions have done to enhance user experiences is only a starting point.

“From a technology standpoint, we have a great foundation to work from. We’re focusing on how we can continually improve these experiences,” says ASU’s Bowen. “We’re working to iterate by asking, how do we refine the experience? How do we make it more interactive, make it more intuitive and provide greater access?”

Those in higher ed who follow this lead will continue to reap the rewards of good user experiences: happy students, happy teachers and happy staff.

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