Data base

Damon Jones explores some of the latest technologies available to enhance admin operations on campus

Science fiction has rarely impressed its high-tech futures on a canvas quite as reductive as the average office desktop: but there is now compelling evidence for their arrival in this most prosaic of destinations. Ingenious tools and services formerly consigned to fictive realms are becoming commonplace fixtures in HEIs, including biometric signature ID systems in the US to curb exam cheating, links to handheld apps, and omnipotent analytic tools which can track and coordinate several facets of a university’s activities.

These services are supported by an array of advanced software systems which, in the past year, have created new opportunities for educators to understand and deliver key services in new ways. Via integrated, scaleable platforms, these services can link with the cloud, manage big data and optimise customer relationship management programs to meet student needs throughout their higher education journeys. And there’s also an increasing perception that technology is no mere facilitator, according to industry figures. 

“Technology not only plays a role in the operational efficiencies that can be achieved, but in improving the overall student experience,” says Chris Wildsmith, MD of Kinetic Solutions, a firm which realises and implements software for the HE, conferencing and hospitality sectors. “In response to growing competition between institutions, we’ve seen an increased willingness for universities to embrace changes in online and device behaviour,” he continues. “These can play an important role in universities’ provision of a better and more personalised service to their students, and being able to effectively differentiate themselves.” 

‘We’ve seen an increased willingness for universities to embrace changes in online and device behaviour.’ Chris Wildsmith.

Wildsmith suggests that leading online and ecommerce websites could create potential benchmarks and expectations for parents and students – thus encouraging universities to explore increasingly visual strategies of engagement on the web. Kinetic’s KxStudent system aims to deliver such interfaces, enabling universities to manage an entire student housing process, and for links to be forged with registry and finance systems. Helpfully, it also connects students directly with back office teams who can respond to their needs. Two of the online tools available to facilitate these interactions are KxInspections – an inventory control software which can automate traditionally paper-based processes – and KxRequests, which allows students to submit room move instructions, damage reports and notifications of early departures. Analysing data from student inputs helps administrators to effectively manage human and material assets, thus comprehensively improving efficiency.

“KxStudent Web offers a powerful web front end for the system, which promotes student engagement and creates a more positive user experience,” relates Wildsmith. The interface can be tailored to specific requirements, and is able to incorporate bilingual functionality and a full online booking process. Since they can interlink with different parts of the HEI, the resulting benefits of these interactions can be significant. After introducing the KxInspections add-on to students occupying its residences, the Royal Agricultural University received 100% of completed inventories within the first week of term, and its inspection process from point of inspection to billing students was reduced by 50%. Another common task for HE’s accommodation staff is handling and distributing parcels – numbers of which have burgeoned due to the popularity of internet commerce. To cater for this growing demand, Kinetic has developed a KxParcels add-on, which offers features including touch screen capability, automated prompts, accurate tracking and storage management. “Royal Holloway University was one of the first clients to go live with this system,” Wildsmith reports.

“Facing a 100% increase in the volume of deliveries – 43,700 in four months – 60% of parcels were collected within 24 hours, and only 1% remained uncollected for more than 14 days.”

Although suppliers are often keen to vaunt the potential efficiencies to be gained by utilising new software, some may be less forthcoming about the consequent training required for its wider implementation – and the prohibitive add-on costs for HEIs. But this former norm is changing. “Systems on campus used to be very unintuitive to use. It was common in the past to have one or two very competent users of those technologies, who then became the go-to people for any request,” observes Jamie O’Connell, Product Director for the EMEA region at HE solutions specialists Hobsons. “This wasn’t scalable, and you were in trouble if one of those individuals left with all their knowledge. We’re seeing the introduction of more intuitive, self-service technology, which can be used by whole teams with minimal training. This is certainly where we are going with our products: the experience for the institutional administrator has to be as good as for the student.” 

‘There is a greater emphasis on student success post enrolment, with institutions working to ensure that when a student has come to university their expectations are met.’ Jamie O’Connell

Hobsons’ own technology and services are employed in over 7,500 educational institutions globally, and their product range has also responded to universities’ emphasis on student engagement at various touchpoints throughout their academic careers. “Universities are looking to adopt a lifecycle approach to their student engagement and support,” says O’Connell. Over the past year, the company has developed advising products, which can ‘connect learning and life’ for UK educators and learners. “There is a greater emphasis on student success post enrolment, with institutions working to ensure that when a student has come to university their expectations are met, they are getting what they pay for, and achieve successful outcomes,” explains O’Connell. These observations have encouraged Hobsons to add Starfish Retention Solutions – a provider of HE student support and advising systems – to its product family. Already adopted by one institution in the UK, “the software identifies at-risk students based on their behaviour and engagement,” details O’Connell.

By tracking their progress, it allows administrators to make interventions and offer resources such as advisers and extra tutoring to learners. “Using common technology across an institution, joining up data and sharing knowledge on campus, is the most effective way to ensure students are supported throughout their education. This is very much in line with our product set,” says O’Connell. For administrators, Starfish is provided as an on-demand software as service (SaaS) format. The platform can integrate with existing management systems, and helps to manipulate ‘big data’ securely, whilst ensuring it is readily accessible. The system’s Starfish INSIGHT module enables managers to visualise correlations between campus initiatives and performance outcomes, and create customisable data models that interpret ‘real world’ data in informative ways. Amongst its supplementary tools are Starfish EARLY ALERT, CONNECT and ADVISING – functions which can help detect opportunities for, and effectively administer interactions with students at apposite points. 

“Predictive analytic solutions will be commonplace within the next two to three years.’ Jon Baldwin

Pre-emptive tools of this type may well be an impending trend for HEIs – allowing them to identify, and stay ahead of, the needs of their users. “Predictive analytic solutions will be commonplace within the next two to three years,” suggests Jon Baldwin, MD of Market Development and HE expert at product and service provider Tribal Group.

“We are already involved in pilots for our own Student Insight solution, and we know there are several others underway.” To understand how these technologies could fully assist HE, Baldwin advises educators to look at technology’s impact on the commercial sector and wider society, and consider the notion of the ‘quantified self’ – the adoption of portable devices which can monitor and log different aspects of an individual’s activities, to increase awareness of them. For these innovations to achieve maximum impact in an HE context, Baldwin argues, they will need to effectively “sort the signal from the noise”, and utilise data in an economical way that can be effectively interpreted to provide holistic support. 

This doesn’t only entail assisting those who might be perceived as at risk of ‘dropping out’ – but also offering additional support and encouragement to those with the potential for high achievement, and, potentially, long distance learners off site. 

Tribal’s cloud-hosted Student Insight system, which has emerged from R & D conducted at the University of Wolverhampton, is designed to allow institutions to make best use of several types of data they hold – including that from Tribal’s own SITS: vision management system, other SIS platforms and various external data sources, such as virtual learning environments and libraries. By creating bespoke models to anticipate student risk, HEIs can make informed decisions about interventions, based on known information and records of historic outcomes.

The system also interfaces with Tribal’s Enterprise Service Desk (ESD) solution, which offers a comprehensive view of student support issues throughout the learning lifecycle. Numerous practical components are offered within ESD to support university staff in their everyday duties, including case, email, workflow and diary management.

Perceiving these services as mere obligations could be to the detriment of educators, warns Baldwin. “Administration is a bit of an outdated term,” he says. “It is viewed by many as an overhead rather than as an opportunity. CRM and Student Administration are in many ways the same thing. If more institutions focused on outcomes, they would more quickly come to understand what a good administrative support model looks like for the 21st century.” Baldwin also predicts future changes in educational delivery itself, which will impact the related services universities provide – and the systems support offered to them by their partners. “It’s clear that student choice is key, and more flexible curricula are on the horizon,” he suggests. “The US has a deliberately permeable HE model which permits students to move (relatively) freely between institutions, and I think we’ll start to see that both in the UK and in Australia soon.”

The challenge for HE’s administrators and bespoke software designers is to streamline and simplify linked support processes – whilst potential choices and educational routes within the sector continue to multiply. 

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