Mobile will bring new life to student services–here’s how

Advanced student management aims to improve student success by being accessible from every device–especially smartphones.

Can one student system strengthen curriculum, improve student support services, and usher in a new technology-empowered mindset on campus? It’s called avoiding the “digital downgrade,” and according to one college, it can–as long as it’s mobile-enabled.

Louisburg College has signed a contract with enterprise applications provider Unit4 to power their institution with a new mobile-first student management system (SMS).

The investment in Unit4’s Student Management software–the 7th SIS they’ve created–allows students to send applications, access their records, check their unofficial transcript, register for class, pay tuition and other fees, and communicate with the college on any device (including their preferred device, the smartphone).

“Unit4 Education Solutions (formerly Three Rivers Systems) has been our trusted software vendor for 15 years,” said Mark Joyner, CIO of Louisburg College. “We have been anxiously awaiting this next-generation [SMS]. We are looking at this strategic project as a way to strengthen our academic curriculum, improve student support services and upgrade our technology.”

Avoiding the “Digital Downgrade”

Louisburg College’s upgrade comes at a key moment as many institutions are increasingly prioritizing improving mobile management solutions. Most colleges and universities have student information systems that are 13 years old on average, which causes students, faculty and staff to experience a hindering “digital downgrade” when going from their own cutting-edge personal devices to the technology platforms provided by their institutions.

Unit4’s Student Management is based on a “touch-first” philosophy, meaning all functions were developed to be mobile accessible with a simple user interface for everyone from students to administrative staff, and were then built-out to fit desktop and tablet use as well.

The touch-first philosophy is particularly helpful to Louisburg’s students, as more than 90 percent of them already own a smartphone and can now save their money instead of having to purchase any other technology like a laptop or tablet. An app is not even required for use; instead, students can go to the campus website and log-in, while the system automatically updates the website in real-time.

“We wanted to start from scratch with the latest technology, and build things the right way from day one in order to improve the student experience, accessibility, and analytics,” said Jami Morshed, VP of Sales for Education at Unit4. “Typically, many tasks bring students to campus or take a bunch of phone calls to complete. We want to build a bridge for this fractured engagement.”

(Next page: Funding the Student Management system; a broad institutional change)

Funding for Anytime/Anywhere Capability

Louisburg College was even able to secure a competitive Title III Strengthening Institutions Grant to help pay for the new system. A five year grant, each year has specific objectives, with the overarching goal being student engagement. For example, one key objective is to engage faculty, which will therefore help engage students.

“This cloud-based, stand-alone system marks a significant change for the institution,” said Joyner. “Most folks attest that higher education isn’t just an 8-5 operation. The capability to be connected, handle issues, and provide student feedback is what’s required today. The ability for staff and faculty to give feedback on a student’s choice of device is a significant change and benefit.”

The Big Benefit in Menial Tasks Made Fast

Largely, the transition is based around helping students to complete menial tasks more easily in order to save them the trouble of coming to campus so that they can better focus on what is really important: their academic success.

“The biggest challenge is students completing necessary paperwork,” said Joyner. “First-time students often don’t know about necessary forms, and this is a big issue with late paper requirements that we’re trying to solve. The majority of students totally don’t care about e-mail; they don’t check often or they never have. But texts or opt-in push notifications would be key in sending friendly reminders. And then we want them to be able to submit on their phones. They can take pictures of signed forms, and send them to secure portals. The smartphone…brings great flexibility in communicating.”

Another one of the key hallmarks of Unit 4’s Student Management system that was not available in previous versions is built-in customization. This extends from a WordPress plug-in that allows administrators to make changes to content, to users being able to customize the look of the user interface and adjust their preferences.

The new workflow engine is perhaps the most impressive example of this, which gives administrators the ability to drag and drop different options into a tree to cleanly map out how the school responds to certain actions and communications.

Customization for Better Student Services

This customization can be especially useful for prospective students who are interested in an institution like Louisburg College, as they can get precise feedback to any questions, and are able to apply completely online in a mobile-optimized app. Meanwhile, admissions officers can access analytics to reach out to students at different stages of the process or help narrow their decision process.

“The majority of web traffic is on mobile phones now,” said Morshed. “Even this process is designed for mobile, with a modern responsive design optimized for each device. Honestly, administrators can run the entire campus on an iPad. The system even has intelligent search, and they can set their most commonly accessed pages or applications as a favorite for easy access. We’re trying to make it all intuitive.”

Current students are also able to register for classes online from any device. Students can search based on course type and availability, while the system intelligently looks for, and notifies, the student on things like schedule conflicts and pre-requisite or co-requisite requirements. Added to the ability to check their transcript at any time, this can help students to clearly understand where they stand in terms of their path towards graduating.

“We’ve provided more tools to the student so that they can take ownership of their success,” said Morshed. “It’s designed to show where you’re at with degree completion thus far, and the system self-advises on what kind of credits are still needed, which greatly helps future planning. You can even explore other degree options, which aids in avoiding drop outs by helping students look at all their options. It’s a great support to academic advising.”

Additionally, Unit4’s says that their Student Management system integrates smoothly with any existing Learning Management System (LMS) used by an institution.

Student Finances and the Future

All financial transactions can also be clearly seen, and students can make payments or access financial aid information like with online banking.

Louisburg College is currently preparing their transformation, and plan to migrate to Unit4’s new Student Management system for the fall 2017 semester.

“We really think this is going to be a game changer for the higher education market,” said Morshed. “It’s going to help the student experience, and it benefits all of us having an empowered and educated next generation.”

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