As the vice president for information technology at a public community college, I am always looking for creative solutions to our toughest campus challenges. This helps us overcome the fact that we find ourselves frequently constrained by limited financial resources. One strategy that has allowed us to be successful is the use of flexible, adaptable technology systems that can serve multiple purposes.
Like other higher-ed institutions, we are looking for ways to increase student engagement in order to boost retention and completion rates. Research suggests the use of text message “nudges” can encourage students to persist in their education. For instance, a trial conducted last summer found that community college students in STEM-related fields were 10 percent more likely to stay on track if they received personalized text messages that prodded them along.
How we customized text-message automation
There are commercially available software platforms that colleges can use to send text message alerts and reminders to students. But in an example of our creative approach to IT, we have developed our own custom solution by repurposing our existing software to meet the same needs but in a far more customizable way.
Our student information system, Workday, allows us to generate automated email messages to students based on triggers that we set up within the software, such as when a student submits a particular form or the fact that it’s been so many days since a student has taken a certain action. We use Workday to send emails to engage students, but we also now use it to send text messages for the same purpose. We have customized the mail server software to scan these engagement emails for a certain pattern of characters that include a phone number. If the mail server software sees the pattern, it will send the message as a text message in addition to email, using AT&T Landline Texting.
In another example of our approach, we were looking to replace an early alert system for student success that wasn’t really meeting our needs. Rather than investing in an expensive early alert system that only does this single task, we looked at what systems we already had that could be adapted to suit this purpose. We discovered that our IT service and project portfolio management platform, TeamDynamix (TDX), was well suited for this job.
In talking with our faculty, we realized they needed an easy-to-use system to indicate when students require intervention. From the time they spend building relationships with students in the classroom, our faculty already know which students are most at risk of failing or dropping out.
They needed a simple web form where they could choose a student, select the problem they’ve identified for that student from a list of 15 or 20 common issues, and have the system automatically send a notification to an appropriate interventionist—a tutor, a counselor, or someone from student services, for example—to address the problem. We also needed a way to track these requests, so faculty and administrators could make sure students were getting intervention within a reasonable amount of time.
To achieve these goals, we looked at the tools we already had in place. We felt it would be easier for faculty if we used the information in our data warehouse to create a web page where they could select the course, student, and issue from a simple on-screen form. We also realized that we could have that web page communicate with our TDX platform and have an intervention request generate a ticket within TDX. The software could route this request to the appropriate interventionist, and we could use TDX to track the response. Although we originally purchased this service management solution for creating and tracking IT service requests, we found an additional use that we hadn’t thought of when we bought the product.
Repurposing tech to serve our college’s needs
We’re trying to build a toolbox with versatile technology tools that we can put together in various ways to create applications that offer the specific feature set we’re looking for. And we’re finding incredible value in getting multiple systems to work together to create solutions that are different from anything that could have been achieved through the individual systems themselves. It seems cliché to say that the sum is greater than its parts, but in this case, it actually is.
As a CIO, when I talk to people across our campus and learn about their needs, my initial thought is: Do we have a set of existing tools that could be put together to meet those needs? This approach requires us to look for flexible, open-architecture technology solutions that integrate easily and communicate with each other. Specifically, we’re looking for web-based software that supports application programming interfaces (APIs) and that can communicate in real time using Webhooks, or user-defined HTTP callbacks.
We also have the right people on our staff to make this approach work. Our IT staff has extensive knowledge in programming, analysis, and integration. Having them use these skills to configure existing applications to talk to each other in novel ways leverages both their skills and the rich feature sets of the application platforms we have procured.
Our approach offers a number of significant benefits. Perhaps most importantly, it enables us to maximize our investment in technology. Any time we can repurpose software that we already own or license, this allows us to stretch our original investment a little further.
But it also makes service and support easier as well. Our programming staff already knows how to integrate a tool, because we’ve done it before. And our user support staff has already provided support to other people who are using the tool. While its purpose or use might have changed, how we program and support it has not.
I see my role as encouraging my team and the college as a whole to look for versatile technology solutions that can be leveraged for different uses, so we get more value from them in the long run. Choosing flexible, adaptable solutions such as Workday and TDX has allowed us to do more with less—delivering exceptional service to students, faculty, and staff despite our budget constraints.
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