The lessons I've learned about technology in the higher education sector.

I have strong opinions on why so many education providers struggle with their student management systems...

As a client relationship manager in the technology space for nearly nine years, I’ve seen the challenges faced by over 200 ITP, Wānanga and Private Training Establishments. And I’ve worked alongside student-facing teams, academics, IT staff and executives to tailor the most productive and staff-friendly ways to overcome those challenges.

I freely admit it. Getting education providers ahead of the game is my passion. But I’d say only around 15% are maximising the value of their technology right now (disappointing, I know!) And these are the technologically mature ones, with great business processes, a focus on top-down efficiency, and visionary and supportive stakeholders.

Know you need to improve your Student Information Systems, but don't know where to start? Our Student Information Systems Assessment can help you identify quick wins, and where to start.

The rest struggle with a legacy of disparate, often non-integrated systems, fighting to balance competing internal and external pressures. Constrained by their limited exposure to modern student-focused technology, many providers don't actually know where the problems are coming from - or why. This immediately ties their hands when asked to create a compelling business case for a progressive management system. Let alone providing the concrete evidence they need to get the all-important stakeholder agreement and engagement.

The biggest problems stem from not knowing what you don't know.

It’s my belief that education providers need clarity around the problems they’re facing, expert advice on the solutions available, and support to effectively implement a solution that all staff will enthusiastically buy into. I’d like to share the lessons I’ve learned about the challenges education providers are up against, the common mistakes that trip up the unaware, and the solutions available to make life easier and much, much more efficient!

Challenge 1 – system overload and inaccessible information

I've worked with education providers with dozens of separate information systems in play across their organisation. Talk about legacy problems! On top of that, it’s common to find staff storing crucial data outside the core student management system (for example on their own PC or laptop), using high-risk applications (in terms of file corruption and security) like spreadsheets, or using applications that no-one else knows about or has access to.

Collating information to produce accurate data when it’s spread haphazardly throughout an organisation in this way is a risky business. It can knock a hole in your services to students, your compliance reporting, and of course, can result in under or overpayments of government funding. Audits in anyone's world are a stressful occurrence, and returning overpaid funds is disruptive, time-consuming and disheartening. Making plans and budgets based on incorrect data is something to avoid at all costs.

Lesson learned: A single source of the truth and accurate reporting are worth their weight in funding.

Common mistake: When looking for where the problems lie, many education providers simply aren’t aware of what's technically possible. Lacking access to software industry developments, it’s no wonder staff can't tell where their system performance is falling short. They deserve the best help, advice and practical guidance.

Solutions for regaining control

There are two choices when it comes to successfully managing multiple systems:

  1. Integrate where necessary and possible. Make sure the data you need to produce real-time reporting is available and accessible. Avoid the need to upload/download information in multiple places or duplicate data around your systems.
  1. Bite the bullet and invest in a single SMS to manage the entire student life cycle (from attracting them, enrolment, engagement, education, graduation and advocacy) and support consistent, reliable, government-compliant reporting.

You have choices. Find someone with the expertise and understanding to help you make the right one!

Challenge 2 – matching the solution to your problem

Some education providers just don’t spend enough time researching SMS solutions and technology partners. They can end up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new SMS, only to find two years down the track it doesn’t do the job they thought it would. They end up having to start all over again, which costs way too much in time, money, and effort. Not to mention a lot of uncomfortable finger-pointing at the people given responsibility for the task. Back again to the fundamental problem of not knowing what you don't know. You need an expert to clearly show you what’s already there, and where your system falls short.

Lesson learned: You can only move forward when you understand exactly why you’re standing still. (Yes, I read that somewhere on Facebook or in a fortune cookie - but it's still valid!)

Common mistake: Some education providers put it on the IT department to make the SMS decision, rather than involving the 'business' side of the organisation. But an SMS is a business tool, and everyone needs to agree on what it needs to deliver, and how.

Solutions for finding the perfect SMS for YOU

Having an open and frank discussion about what's working, what's not working, and what has to happen, will make your whole organisation more profitable, viable and able to meet its obligations to the students.

Bring in an expert to carry out a Student Information Systems Assessment. This is an exercise specifically designed to uncover where you are in terms of processes, and clearly establishes what business issues your SMS needs to address.

Don’t be tempted to base your buying decision on price alone. You need to consider the long-term benefits and plan accordingly. Even if your current budget can’t cover a full-blown implementation of a highly functional SMS, investing in the right core solution is an absolute must. Get your must-have reporting, compliance and efficiency sorted, and roll out the 'nice to have' modules as budget becomes available.

Challenge 3 - feeling the fear and doing it anyway

It’s understandable that long-tenure staff members, comfortable with systems and processes they’re used to, might feel out of their depth with new technical solutions. And the fear of change is common in most industry sectors and workplaces, because it’s well known that technology can have a dramatic impact on everyday operations. Yes, the arrival of a highly efficient and automated solution may radically change, diminish or even replace your role. But that's not a good enough reason to maintain the status quo.

Life lesson: Without change you can't grow or improve or compete. Or get the funding you're entitled to!

Common mistake: People don’t recognise just how important it is to get everyone on board and engaged in the process of change for it to be a success.

Solutions to reluctance to change

When it comes to overcoming fear, my advice is to invest in a professional change management process to recognise, manage and minimise employee reticence, while encouraging swift and enthusiastic adoption. Doing things differently is not a criticism of the old ways, and change management reinforces that. It helps staff see opportunities to work more effectively and efficiently instead. Freed from low value administrative and repetitive data entry work, staff can take on more meaningful and interesting work. And their new skills, backed by streamlined processes, make them more valuable to their team and the organisation – not less.

Effective change management helps users adapt, accept and adopt new systems, improves return on investment, and boosts an organisation’s performance.


To sum up

Get to grips with what you need and why (something a Student Information Systems Assessment can really help with), do due diligence on your potential SMS and technology partner, and make sure everyone in your organisation is on the same journey, fully involved and committed to it.

Every successful SMS story I've ever heard of, or have been involved in, starts and ends with trust. Advice has no value if it doesn’t come from a reliable, credible source. A technology application will only give you a successful outcome if the people behind it can be trusted to give you the exact solution for your specific issues. Powerful working relationships are built on a foundation of genuine listening skills, transparent communications and strong desire to solve the problem together.

My love of the higher education sector is backed by 20 years' experience with some of New Zealand's industry-leading ICT teams and organisations, working on everything from solution development and guidance, internal service delivery, helpdesk teams, to software upgrades and releases. I’ve learned my own life lessons which I’m delighted to pass on to help New Zealand’s education providers so they can give the best possible support to our students, learners and graduates. Embrace the possibilities and opportunities that technology brings to all of us.

Don’t expect to know everything, but be willing to learn. And look for advice in all the right places.

Great outcomes start with great conversations.

Book a complimentary SIS assessment today.

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