7 minute read

Humanizing Technology for Student Success

2/23/2021 12:00 PM

Like all industries, higher ed was forced to quickly adapt and transform when COVID-19 shut down campuses in the spring of 2020. What do those changes mean for students and institutions now and in the future? In this three-part series, Sue Spies, Research Director at The Tambellini Group, shares her insights regarding the technologies that are enabling schools to pivot to contactless learning. In this week’s post, Sue emphasizes the importance of maintaining human connections even as schools rely more heavily on technology to communicate with students.

In part one of our series, we conducted a Q&A session with guest blogger and Tambellini Group Research Director Sue Spies. Watch for parts two and three — which explore technology innovations such as AI-driven chatbots and single-sign-on gateways as well as the security and ethical considerations of utilizing the data these technologies create — in upcoming TouchNet blog posts.


Digital transformation has been a major focus in higher ed. Can you provide insights in what you have found?

In higher ed, this transformation can be split into three time periods: pre-COVID-19, what happened in March when COVID hit and where we are today. Pre-COVID, many institutions had started or were actively pursuing the replacement of their core administrative systems, including Human Capital Management (HCM) and Finance, and to a lesser degree, Student. There was also an increased interest in constituent relationship management (CRM). Additionally, many software vendors were developing new systems or expanding their existing systems. For example, Slate, which already had an admissions and recruiting system, was starting to develop their own CRM solution. Salesforce saw some similar activity as well during this time period.

When COVID hit, higher ed institutions that were in active deployment and had their funding in place were able to continue the deployment of these systems remotely and, for most institutions, with few delays. Many of those that hadn’t committed to these newer systems paused their selection activities and focused all of their efforts on what every college and university was directing their attention towards: ensuring that funding and operations continued smoothly. This involved working to expand their existing infrastructure and services to support online learning and remote continuation of services, making their campuses contactless, performing contact tracing and testing, mandating social distancing for in-person activities such as dining and living in dorms, and ensuring access to learning.

What we are finding now is that COVID has exposed gaps in some of these legacy systems, particularly manual processes. Some institutions have identified temporary solutions to enable workflows to replace manual processes, but they may not be fully integrated. There is more of an emphasis on ensuring student success outside and inside the classroom. And student success relies heavily on data collection, access, and software.

It sounds like student engagement and success will impact technology going forward.

Yes, and in addition to that, there will be a shift in demographics over the next 10 years that has caused an increased need for systems that support lifelong learning, such as eportfolios, credentialing co-curricular transcripts and activities, and collaborations with corporations for workforce development.

Also, institutions are working together to gain insights into data. A great example is Unizin Consortium, a collaboration among 13 institutions in the Midwest. The institutions leverage a shared database to pool aggregate data, such as student participation, class attendance, tutoring and advising interactions, and scholarship information for analysis and prediction.

And when there is more of a return to in-person learning, institutions will leverage their knowledge and best practices from remote teaching to expand online and hybrid learning initiatives.

One of the biggest challenges with digital transformation is humanizing the technology. What does that mean?

That is a really important theme. Humanizing technology is about making connections. How does technology enable the ability for institutions to connect with students, for faculty to connect with students, and for students to connect with each other?

Please expand on connecting institutions with students and families.

This is a two-pronged approach. It entails utilizing technologies, such as CRMs, student information systems, learning management systems, and card systems, which will help achieve those connections while demonstrating these interactions are happening. Online learning has emphasized the importance of schools proving they understand their students. For example, students want people to know who they are, where they come from and what activities, both inside and outside the classroom, interest them. An example of this is for schools to provide an easy process for students to change their names or to specify their pronouns and then present that data on course rosters and ID cards.

Additionally, administrators can use this data to structure relevant activities and social groups for students and alumni based on their interests and passions. Admissions can also collect this data to track student outreach and engagement efforts.

Let’s now talk about connecting students to staff.

It’s crucial. Robust conferencing solutions for academic and nonacademic purposes, artificial intelligence and chatbots, and seamless single sign-on gateways can work together to serve as unified experience so students and parents can access student accounts, financial aid and registration information.

Another major connection that COVID has changed is the relationship between students. How has tech helped this interaction?

There are technologies that allow students to use their own credentials to schedule meetings and to reach out to groups of people whom they know will be able to collaborate and meet in informal settings.

But effective technologies also need to combine academic and information technology disciplines. On the academic side, faculty members need technologies that facilitate effective pedagogies that relate, to some degree, to how students interact with each other. On the IT side, there needs to be infrastructure that supports study communities and promotes active learning. For example, these platforms should have appropriate password protection as well as the ability to show who in specific groups are online, to upload and share content easily, to provide flexible meeting spaces and to allow asynchronous and synchronous meetings, which is crucial for faculty as well.

A major step in humanizing technology is making the tech disappear. How do colleges and universities start that process?

Users want tech to operate in the background while still providing a seamless experience to the point where they don’t realize it’s working. A part of achieving that experience is having real-time access to data. An example is having single sign-on capability to upload documents effortlessly and not having to log in over and over again to multiple locations. Similarly, it’s important that separate systems have a unified look and feel so users always know where to find certain features, such as task reminders, so their workflow is not interrupted. Another crucial aspect is replacing physical cards with virtual mobile IDs so students can access certain buildings, events and special features right from their phone.

Then, of course, schools need to make sure there is enough bandwidth to support all of these interactions and that help desk support is available, especially during critical times such as the beginning of the semester and during registration periods.

Thank you for your insights. Do you have any final thoughts on this topic?

We all have different ways we engage and learn. Some of us really like the remote environment, some of us prefer face to face, and, for some of us, it depends on the day and situation. There is a place for all of these options. Because of COVID, we know that we can provide a variety of options to increase student engagement and success. It’s been hard, but I believe our struggles will lead to a better way for all students to learn in the long run.