Digital student services: what do students really want?

There’s a digital tool for almost every human urge these days, but how many of them do students actually want? As universities commit to developing new digital services, and updating the old, Luke Dormehl finds out how to get it right

Cutting-edge technology has been a saviour for education over the course of the global pandemic. But it’s not just in the delivery of lectures where HE institutions have been undergoing a major ‘tech-tonic’ shift.

The ability to book library slots, pay for accommodation, find somewhere quiet to study or seek out support are all now requirements that, in a growing number of universities, can be taken care of using a smartphone app or web portal.

Spurred on by the transformations brought about by Covid, student expectations are higher than ever.

And the journey’s just getting started.

“With students experiencing blended learning this year, universities need to ensure that other aspects of university life have online services that offer students the most out of their time at university,” Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the National Union of Students (NUS) VP for higher education, told University Business.

But exactly what services do students hanker after? And how can HE institutions get this balance right? University Business took a deep dive to find out.

Benedict Van Der Linde, Aston University. Picture by Edward Moss. All rights reserved.


Beneficial digital services

“Students have noted that beneficial digital services [include] booking library and lab slots remotely, guides to where free or cheaper food is located on campus, society events happening online and on campus, and university and local mental health services,” Gyebi-Ababio continued.

“An accommodation app that updates you about available washing machine slots, what is available in the dining halls and if there are any social activities happening in the accommodation is something we’ve seen our student members regularly speak about” – Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS

“An accommodation app that updates you about available washing machine slots, what is available in the dining halls and if there are any social activities happening in the accommodation, is something we’ve seen our student members regularly speak about also.”

Benedict van der Linde, head of student experience at Birmingham’s Aston University, told University Business that this is yet another example of how the pandemic has changed consumer expectations. “Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic forced quite rapid adoption of a lot of new ways of working,” van der Linde explained. “That’s clearly been both internally – in terms of how staff and teams work together across the institution – but also externally in the kind of student-facing customer service delivery sense. There’s been a sea change in how services are delivered.”

Where he noted that, pre-Covid, many systems relied on “a student being at a physical place at a certain time, in order to have a face-to-face interaction with a particular member of staff”, this no longer has to be the case. While classrooms and teachers rushed to embrace tools like Zoom for teaching, universities have also had to quickly pivot to be able to offer non-educational features such as counselling via video calls, alongside a plethora of other features.

“One of our apps tells students the density of population in various buildings around the university,” Michael Fletcher, with the faculty of engineering at the University of Nottingham, told University Business. “It’s set up as a red-, amber-, green-light status system which could show the [real-time population density of different areas] so that people could go and use or study in places that were less densely populated.”

Alex Butler, University of Bath


The future is personal

Right now, many businesses are grappling with the fallout of Covid and what this will mean for their business as usual. Employers, for example, are wondering whether staff will be happy to return to the office when the pandemic finally subsides – or whether the last 18 months have profoundly altered people’s expectations regarding work.

A similar transition can be observed with these types of digital tools within universities. In many cases, these measures were rushed into production for safety reasons when Covid broke out. However, don’t assume that being able to check how many people are using the library, or book a virtual counselling session by app is going to outlive its usefulness any time soon. Covid was simply the catalyst that prompted many universities to pull the trigger on this technology; students themselves were already poised to take advantage of it. Now they’re going to demand it.

“Students don’t go anywhere without the phone. They might travel around without their university ID card or anything else, but they’ve always got their phones” – Michael Fletcher, University of Nottingham

“Students don’t go anywhere without the phone,” said Michael Fletcher at the University of Nottingham. “They might travel around without their university ID card or anything else, but they’ve always got their phones. The future is personalisation and constant communication; allowing students to book things that are relevant to them and convenient to them, anywhere they go on campus.”

The University of Nottingham is one of many universities that runs its own (increasingly comprehensive) app that functions as a one-stop shop for everything students, faculty and visitors may require on campus. “The app does everything,” Fletcher continued. “It has timetables and examination schedules; it allows students to pay for meals; it gives them information about careers and sports; it’s got general information about the student union, all sorts of things.”

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS


University apps

It has proven extremely popular.

“It’s massive,” he said. “About 35,000 students normally use it. We took a snapshot in the first three months of this year, and we found that 20,000 students accessed the app every day.” (Note: This is out of a student population of around 35,000.) Fletcher estimated there have been approximately 150 million hits on the app since it was first implemented four years ago.

A similar app at Aston University has had an equally big take up. “Our MyAston app was developed to provide a streamlined content portal, eliminating the need to access multiple systems,” Dawn Vos, head of communications at the university, told University Business. “It provides students with a direct link to their timetable, email, our VLE, library services, Safezone (our campus safety app) and more. We also use it to send out push notifications to update students on key news and updates.”

Since the app’s launch, Vos said it has achieved a 96% penetration rate. User activity for the pre-Covid year of 2019 increased by 177,434 sessions, a rise of 22.13%. This, in turn, brought running costs for the app per user, per session, down to just 0.05p. Numbers continue to climb post-Covid. During the 20/21 academic year, there have been upward of one million sessions registered.

Meanwhile, Alex Butler, chief digital and information officer at the University of Bath, said that the institution has “implemented new booking systems for study spaces, one-to-one consultation and even for parents collecting or dropping off students at their accommodation… We’re on a mission at Bath to modernise the underlying data infrastructure that will power these kinds of experiences, so you can expect to see apps that help our students navigate the campus, find a spot that’s free for study, book in with their tutors and find out when the next bus is leaving.”

Manuel Alonso, Loughborough


A challenging time

By any stretch of the imagination, universities have done an impressive job, at a very trying time, of transforming their digital offerings in this area. In many cases, apps (such as the aforementioned MyAston) pre-dated Covid by several years, although they have had to continue developing and adding new features during the pandemic. It’s not only Covid that’s the challenge, however.

Making technology that, in the words of the trillion-pound tech giant Apple, “just works”, takes a lot of work. Providing the proper cybersecurity measures against a more complex threat landscape, making certain that everything will work on every device students are likely to own, and more, all comes with some serious headaches involved.

In June, new legislation was introduced to ensure that all public sector websites and mobile apps must be made accessible to all users. These shifting requirements must be taken into account by universities as they not only commit to developing new digital tools, but also maintaining them.

Perhaps the toughest challenge of all, though, is the audience: a group of digital natives who, for many, don’t remember a world without smartphones in their pockets. They expect this technology to be in place and for it to function as required.

“[Students have] grown up with this, and they expect a certain quality of service,” said Michael Fletcher. “It’s like turning on the TV to them. They expect it to work, and they expect it to work well. And I think they deserve to expect that as well.”

“Every digital service that we develop needs to be informed by our students,” said Alex Butler at the University of Bath.

“That doesn’t mean that we work to a ‘shopping list’ but we do consult widely to find out what the pain points are for students, and use service design principles to design digital products that meet those challenges.”

Digital natives?

But while these new tools are vitally important, it’s also crucial that universities do not lean so much into the digital world that they fail to offer alternatives. Not every student will want to speak to a support worker over a screen, or to have to own a modern smartphone to be able to access the information that they need.

2021 Digital Experience Insights student survey from Jisc, the UK not-for-profit company which supports institutions of higher education and research, had some salient points to make in this area.

The survey quizzed almost 40,000 higher education students from 41 UK universities. One notable point was about how digital inequality can present significant barriers for students who do not have adequate access to devices, wifi and other essential systems and services. It’s easy to think about the egalitarian and democratising effects of technology – but you also need to be sure that students have the tools and skills to use them. The survey found that 63% of students encountered problems with poor wifi connections, 30% had problems accessing online platforms and services, and 24% faced problems with mobile data costs. Do these students necessarily want a more tech-heavy version of their university experience?

“Students still want in-person sessions and not all are as digitally native as we might think,” Manuel Alonso, associate chief operating officer and director of student services at Loughborough University, told University Business.

Getting this balance right is as important as anything. HE institutions must ‘keep up with the Joneses’ by offering compelling, comparable tech infrastructure, while not pushing it on those who don’t want it.

Not every problem needs to be solved with an app – although, implemented correctly, these solutions can be very well received.

“Overall, students want open and regular communication between them and their university so that they are updated and can make informed decisions about their learning and wellbeing at university,” said Hillary Gyebi-Ababio at the NUS. “To make this happen, investment is needed from the government, universities and students’ unions to ensure that all students have the learning and wellbeing materials needed to complete their studies and enjoy their time at university.”

Technology can play a crucial part in that – even if it’s far from the only part. After all, technology is there to solve a problem; not to be an end destination in itself.

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