When simple solutions suit students, don’t overspend unnecessarily

by Luke Williams, ‎Principal Consultant, Digital Strategy |
Universities should provide students what they need

A commonly cited mantra in higher education circles is that students have been brought up on Facebook and Google and, as such, demand the same experience from the tools offered to them at university. But is it the truth?

It is an approach I have subscribed to for years and I am embarrassed to admit that I have unquestioningly applied this thinking in more than a few presentations.

It may well be true in some cases, but not so in others. Until universities begin asking their students directly, the fact is, they won’t know what they want.

During a recent engagement with one of Australia’s largest universities, a series of focus groups were run and online research carried out in order to understand exactly what students expected from the digital tools and services they were offered.

While it is true that students were frustrated when things didn’t work, disappointed when processes were convoluted and expected that most administration tasks could be completed online, it was surprising how reasonable their expectations were.

Students didn’t expect the university to offer advanced digital functionality, particularly in areas where there were third party services that could be used to compliment the official services already on offer.

As an example, this particular institution was excited about a complex social platform that was designed to facilitate student collaboration and could have been a great tool for group-work and other learning scenarios. It was also projected that the university would provide a suite of official applications including video-conferencing and project management tools.

The response from students, however, was that there was no need for the university to offer video conferencing when Skype and Google were already doing it better. Similarly, they did not see the need for a bespoke social media platform when the vast majority of students were already on Facebook.

The message from the students was clear: they wanted their core services to work well, for processes to be simple and for things to work on their mobile. In other words, they just wanted the university to ‘do the simple stuff better’.

Critically, this simple insight has the potential to save that university millions of dollars – money that can be devoted to giving students the tools they actually need.

It seems the mantra that has, to an extent, defined recent approaches toward student technology has been built on the assumption that we all knew what students want. It has been assumed that just because something looks good, students will use it.

Ultimately, there is no excuse not to engage with your customers directly and find out what they really think. In a higher-education context, it may be as simple as walking down to the cafe, and shouting some students a cup of coffee in exchange for their feedback.

There is of course the route of formal focus groups – a route which should be taken – but there is no reason to let the formal and more costly approach prevent you from starting off with some basic face-to-face research before investing serious dollars into an initiative.

You never know, you might even enjoy it.

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