University of Canberra using technology to redefine student engagement

With help from Microsoft, the university has undertaken a transformation that centres on the student and the overarching goal of seeing them complete their degrees with as little friction as possible.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The University of Canberra (UC) has around 13,500 students enrolled in classes at any given time, as well as 1,200 administrative and academic staff. In addition to its campus in Australia's capital, the university has relationships with institutions in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne, with some UC students attending classes interstate.

Engaging with universities can get confusing, as multiple websites handle anything from application forms, course selection, and graduation, often via multiple channels. It's a problem UC believes can be fixed with technology.

To UC's CIO David Formica, it's one thing to have the technology in place, but another to create a frictionless experience for a customer, which to the university is its students.

"The ultimate goal is to make their experience better, stop them from dropping out, and to help them get through their studies," Formica told ZDNet.

"The first year of students here, there's all sorts of factors around why students drop out -- some of them we can assist with, some are out of our control -- but if we can see those trends and offer assistance where it's needed ... that's our goal."

According to Formica, the university is trying to break down some of the old practices employed in the higher education sector, noting that universities have long done the same thing the same way.

"We're looking for much more customer-focused ways of doing things, and the sectors that do it best aren't higher education," he said.

With the end-goal realised, Rebecca Armstrong, UC's deputy director of Projects and Innovation, explained that the university needed a system intelligent enough to know that if a student asks where their exam is being held, they would be given the relevant location, even if they are studying at TAFE Queensland in Brisbane.

To Armstrong, engaging with students throughout their university experience is critical for any tertiary institution. It's a relationship that can last many years, unlike an online retailer who would seek to engage the consumer just as long as it takes to buy a pair of shoes, for example.

"We need to maintain an authentic and supportive relationship with a student over their undergraduate, postgraduate, and alumni years," she explained.

To solve these problems, Armstrong and her teams headed to market looking for a full CRM implementation. But when UC got into the process, it realised it was better positioned to handle it internally, with the help of Microsoft and its Dynamics suite.

"The best way we found was to embed staff within our team ... with Microsoft we weren't tied to a partner, instead we could embed people directly into our team," Armstrong told ZDNet. "In fact, some of our team has been lifted from our student centre and become Microsoft developers as part of this project because that was an interest for them."

According to Armstrong, UC's relationship with Microsoft extends well beyond the Dynamics CRM.

"We've started using SharePoint Online as a collaboration platform, and we've also developed a system called InterFace, which is a dashboard for students that uses .NET and Microsoft Visual Studio Data Services," she explained. "Students and staff can use the dashboard to assess their progress and performance, then tap into the underpinning analytics to see what they could do to improve their results."

In the future, information from InterFace could be fed into Dynamics to give the university near real-time understanding of what students are looking for, Armstrong added.

"We moved from being a PHP shop to being a .NET shop and we were just really impressed with its rigor and performance," she added. "We still have some apps in PHP and I think we would be very keen to move everything over to .NET and we've actually commenced the process to do that as well."

As a result of overhauling its back-end, UC has seen an uptick in the engagement with surveys sent out to its students.

"We survey students a lot and one of the things we did was move the survey into InterFace, one of the .NET apps, but we got the same miserable response rate," she explained. "Surveys are the least favourite thing of students to do, but the most important for us.

"The package gave us the flexibility to break the survey up ... turning around the traditional surveying way and also using sentiment analysis to look at those responses has really lifted our way to gain student feedback and actually improve our courses and units."

With a survey response rate in 2016 of 4 percent, the university has now seen that rise to 36 percent in 2017.

UC is currently in the final stages of developing conversation bots both for staff and students. Formica noted that such exploration positions his university at the leading edge within the sector.

"The generation coming into the university are used to multiple channels of communication and engagement," he said. "We're trying to broaden that engagement factor."

The university is also looking to create an interface that students will use right from their first contact with UC, and Formica is hoping to remove the complexity of all the systems students currently have to deal with.

He said the goal is to end up with a more common engagement with the student from before they come to the university all the way through to graduation and alumni.

"That's kind of our big piece of work where were trying to tie all of these things that we're doing into a much better student experience," Formica added.

"At the same time as we're doing the tech solutions we're also restructuring our organisation around that same theme.

"There's no point putting the tech in unless the human interaction behind it is aligned to that technology. So we're doing a lot of training, a lot of development work for staff that are engaged directly with the students.

"It's about making sure our processes reflect the way we want to engage."

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