COVER STORY: Gen Z forces universities to digitally transform

Universities are looking to the successes of social media giants to improve the student experience for their Gen Z cohorts.

As a generation that was brought up on iPads enters university, the tertiary education sector is under significant pressure to keep up with its heightened digital expectations.

Jason Cowie, CIO at Curtin University told Digital Nation Australia that the organisation is looking to create the ‘Instagram experience’ for students.

“The students are much younger, they have much higher expectations,” said Cowie.

“Now you cannot say to someone, ‘Hey, we want you to log on to 30 applications and interact with Curtin,’ because that’s never going to be a seamless experience.

“If you look at Instagram where it’s one app, all intuitive, all of your information provided to you, great ways to interact, a great way to have all of that information through one app, that’s what we want. We want to deliver an omnichannel app that delivers the entire student experience.”

Cowie believes that most universities pre-Covid were stagnant when it came to digital transformation.

“They’re very collaborative organisations. They all talk to each other. They all use the same applications. They all use the same software. They’re all either on Blackboard or Canvas. They’re all on the same sort of collaboration tools,” he said.

“Covid has forced the universities to actually understand and listen to the student expectations.”

Curtin University has developed a digital roadmap in partnership with AWS that is designed around the four I’s — integrated, immersive, intuitive and interactive.

“The students are fully immersed in the experience. It’s interactive, and it’s intuitive to their needs using Amazon services like AI, machine learning, and decision-modelling that it can predict what they want to do and help prompt them,” said Cowie.

“The same way that when they walk around the campus we’d love to get to a point where the app goes, ‘Hey, it’s 12 o’clock. Your favourite food truck is on campus today. It’s literally 20 minutes that way.’ So that’s how we see it all coming together. And to do that you’ve got to build that whole experience and that’s radical. No university to my knowledge is doing that.”

Customer Experience

According to Iain Rouse, director and country leader, worldwide public sector Australia and New Zealand at Amazon Web Services (AWS), Curtin University is treating its students like customers.

Rouse said, “‘That student is a valuable asset and in my business, I should sell to them, I should make it so convenient for them to simplify their life. But coming and learning from me is just an absolute pleasure.’ That’s the design principle behind this. And that whole conceptual component of treating an academic, a researcher, a student as a customer, I think is the core of that flipping thinking which then becomes that revolutionary change.”

Macquarie University is investing in digital across five key domains, all related to the student experience — next generation digital learning environments, student portal, student CRM, student information management and enterprise service management.

Nicole Gower, vice president of professional services at Macquarie University told Digital Nation Australia that their approach has CX at its core.

“We’ve actually introduced a dedicated CX team, and their focus is really on hearing from customers, putting them at the centre, understanding their needs and preferences. And then we work around that, we work our transformation around that,” she said.

Macquarie University is focusing on developing a virtual campus to provide multiple modes of education for students.

“That’s really how we think about the next five years, is really investing in our virtual campus in the same way as we previously have on our physical campus to have a really high calibre experience for our students and staff.”

According to Gower, the desires of students when it comes to their learning experiences are multi-dimensional.

“As universities think about digital transformation, we actually have to be really careful not to generalise that it’s all about online learning, or face-to-face experiences, that it’s actually quite nuanced about what students actually want,” she said.

“We see students on campus in our informal study spaces, watching their lectures online. So, they’d rather watch it online, but they still want to be on campus to connect with their friends.”

Student Experience

Daniel Sultana, executive vice president – SaaS Platform at TechnologyOne told Digital Nation, that the competitive edge in the university sector comes down to the student experience.

“Students will leave a university and move to a different university if it’s a better student experience,” he said.

The student experience encompasses the end-to-end physical and digital interactions with the university, from enrolment to graduation.

Swinburne University deputy vice-chancellor education, experience and employability, Professor Sarah Maddison spoke to Digital Nation earlier this year about the organisation’s shift to cloud with TechnologyOne.

She said, “We really want them to not even notice the administration process. What we want them to do is get them onto campus and have a fantastic time and begin their learning journey here, rather than actually needing to have a huge amount of interaction in the administration, which should just be invisible and in the background.”

According to Sultana, this isn’t possible without moving to the cloud.

“What traditionally has happened with universities is they have been running all of this infrastructure, this software on-prem. They’ve not been able to scale in any way, shape or form. So come to enrollment time when there are 20,000 people trying to enrol, it all falls over. They don’t have the scaling ability,” he said.

“We have moved, probably the majority of universities now on to our SaaS platform, and if they haven’t moved yet, they’re in the process of moving. And it’s all about trying to draw up a better student experience and being able to scale with the business needs.”

The Human Touch

Peter Corbett, director of student administration, Edith Cowan University told Digital Nation Australia that students are system agnostic.

“They couldn’t care less if this one’s Canvas, Blackboard, or Callista, or whatever it might be, or Salesforce. They like to go through one portal,“ he said.

Contrary to the beliefs of others, while Corbett acknowledges that the digital experience is critical, he believes that’s only part of the story – and not the most important part.

“How important is digital strategy? Yeah, it’s important, but it is nowhere near as important as the personal interaction that students have with their academic staff that are delivering their learning, and with the support staff at the university and their admissions staff when they’re first being admitted,” he said.

“We all like to think ‘Oh the systems are all shiny and new’. It’s that personal interaction that makes them feel welcome.”

Nonetheless, the shift to hybrid is here to stay, from both a corporate and tertiary education perspective. And with that comes the need to streamline digital processes.

According to Ben Dawson, vice president Australia and New Zealand at Cisco, “People have built pretty good experiences at home now. When they come back to the office or back to campus, they don’t have proper WiFi, the security is not great. They don’t have video-enabled rooms, so it’s almost inferior.

“They’re never going to be exactly the same, in-person is always going to have some differences to remote. But how do we provide the right level of digital interaction, the right level of video quality, the right level of connectivity for the students who choose to or out of necessity connect remotely can have a similar experience?”

Curtin University’s Cowie believes it’s not a simple answer.

“This is not something that you can just buy off the shelf,” he said.

“You’ve got to literally change your thinking. You’ve got to change your approach to data. You’ve got to change your approach to applications. You’ve got to change your approach to the cloud. It’s a complete rethink, and it took my team a while to get on board with it. Because it’s not the traditional IT approach.”

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