Higher education institutions have talked about the prospect of digital transformation for at least 10 years. Modernizing student information and administration systems has been promoted as the critical step to achieving this. But despite all the talk, few have even started to replace their outdated systems and upgrade their student experience to meet today’s student demands.

For a long time, this inertia owed much to the lack of applicable systems with full functionality, which would allow a clean and pain-free break with legacy software. Risk-aversion was another telling factor. Early adopters are a rare breed in higher education.

Only now are we starting to see a mood swing in higher ed. Instead of hanging on for total transformation, they’re changing on their own terms, one step at a time. New, agile systems are making it easier for universities to pick and choose the top priority areas for incremental transformation.

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Institutions are asking different questions. The focus has shifted from “What’s wrong with our systems?” to “How can we better conduct our own business?” From “How can we gather as much data as possible?” to “How do we analyze all this data and do something good with it?”

Cost is the main driver here. Few institutions can afford a huge outlay for total digital transformation. Equally, they can no longer afford to do nothing. The old systems don’t provide the agility they need to offer an attractive student experience or respond to new market opportunities.

Universities must become people-centered systems

To meet modern expectations on service and connectivity, institutions must be people-centred. They need to meet people where they are on their journey. Whether you’re a digital native or a post-retirement professor, the system needs to work for you. Increasingly, in the competitive higher ed market, that experience will directly impact the bottom line.

The “term versus termless” roadblock is a good example of why institutions can’t afford to wait. On a lot of old software, everything was based on the traditional Fall-Spring-Summer term sequence. That made total sense back then. Now, it doesn’t. Non-traditional cohorts, such as mature or work-based students, may want instant access to courses, rather than waiting for the start of the next term. Institutions can’t just turn away valuable income sources because the computer won’t recognize them.

Instead, they need a system that will allow them to adapt their experience and be innovative in the way that they bring programs online, as the critical business need arises. Too often, they are trapped within a homogenizing structure that restricts any uniqueness that is important for the identity of schools, colleges, and universities.

At last year’s Educause, there was plenty of interest in a microservices approach that allows institutes to iteratively deliver new functionality where it’s going to add most value. Instead of a big bang overhaul, they can adopt new modules over time and enhance what they already have on campus.

Break free from the herd

This change of mood feels like it’s catching. Think of it like people standing at the bus depot, waiting for a shiny new bus to take them all to the same destination. Except, it never arrives. Eventually, the most restless passenger gets fed up waiting. He or she chooses their own itinerary, hires a Bird scooter, and sets off with the wind in their hair. Then another follows suit. And another. Eventually, the depot is empty.

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Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in the UK was one of the first on the scooter. They have launched their Student Journey Transformation Programme (SJTP), which will provide a next-generation and personalized digital experience to more than 38,000 students and 4,500 staff, across any device, so they can better manage campus affairs.

MMU’s needs are no different from other institutions. They face the same roadblocks in terms of bringing new programs online. The difference is their mindset. They are proactively pursuing the benefits of an improved student experience, rather than waiting for other universities to get there first.

Delivered in the Microsoft Azure Cloud, SJTP aims to improve both the service offered to students and the way staff works. With a more agile approach, they can reduce the time and cost required to adapt to sector changes and university innovation and enable data-driven decision making.

The result will be improved efficiency and streamlined approaches to service using responsive systems that will support changes to the student journey: from an applicant’s initial inquiry to graduates becoming part of the alumni community.

The higher ed sector has never been one for sharp changes in direction, but we’re finally seeing signs that the tanker is turning. The business incentive to work more effectively with data and embrace more agile systems is encouraging institutions to innovate, rather than keep on keeping on.

For the sake of students, tutors, professors, and administrators across the world—that’s got to be a good thing.

About the Author:

Austin Laird is product director, higher education, at Unit4. Laird has been a part of the higher education industry for over 20 years, in a wide range of roles from a university registrar assistant to product manager and industry technology strategist. Prior to Unit4, he held multiple pre-sales, product, and leadership roles at Oracle, including global director, education & research technology.


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