The power of technology in higher education

  • ServiceNow Blog
  • Education
  • Solutions
  • 2023
11 May 2023

Technology in higher education: Teacher in front of board at head of class

The demand for higher education is skyrocketing. By 2030, more than 1 million people in the UK will apply to university every year, according to UCAS.

This presents universities with a challenge: They need to expand the number of places to accommodate this influx of students, and they need to invest in their digital infrastructure to remain competitive.

ServiceNow Chief Innovation Officer Dave Wright and Shannon Cobourn, global head of education solutions at ServiceNow, work closely with higher education leaders. The two help leaders adopt the technology they need to adapt to this rapidly changing landscape.

Out with the old

Outdated technology is common in many universities in the UK. These institutions depend on a patchwork of legacy systems that run software that’s no longer updated or maintained. This limits their ability to integrate the latest learning tools and applications—and can negatively affect the student experience.

“Many universities operate in very siloed environments,” Cobourn explains. “For example, a university’s school of business might deploy very different technologies, applications, data, and processes than its school of design. Students may be forced to navigate across incompatible and even contradictory systems within the school bureaucracy.”

Updating universities’ digital architecture is a complex process. Budget constraints, lack of IT staff, and resistance to change often lead to a piecemeal approach. As a result, many simply focus on the user interface, failing to connect the underlying systems and processes.

"It's all well and good to update the front end, but unless you join up the back end too, the entire system falls apart," Wright says.

To illustrate the point, he gives the example of a student wanting to change a class. They log on to the university website and make the request. Later that day, they get an email saying their request has been accepted. On the surface, the system appears to be working. But this approach doesn’t scale.

"While this process might work for a single student,” Wright says, “what if 20 students make the same request? Or 200? That might require relocating the class to a bigger space, ordering more textbooks, or factoring in extra marking time for the teacher."

Unless every part of the campus is connected, what may seem like a simple request on the front end can result in hours of manual administration on the back end.

Connected thinking

How can we seamlessly connect all these disparate systems and processes? 
Wright has a fail-safe approach: "Start with the outcome you want to achieve and work backwards."

There's no point rushing headlong into an investment without a clear vision of the results you’re hoping to deliver. "Too many individuals go out and buy all the best-in-breed solutions straight away,” he explains. "Then they try to fit them into their existing framework. This almost always leads to failure," he adds.

"Ultimately, you must take a long-term, strategic approach to digital transformation. And this means shaping your digital approach around people.”

For universities, this may involve using technology to automate repetitive administrative tasks, freeing staff to focus on student wellbeing. For example, chatbots or virtual assistants could handle routine student inquiries, such as questions about class schedules, registration, or financial aid.

Perhaps universities could develop an app to give students access to important information, such as course materials, grades, and upcoming events. Such apps could also facilitate communication on campus and provide personalised recommendations based on a student's interests and academic goals.

Regardless of your aim, starting with a desired outcome and working backwards can help you create a targeted, focused, and achievable digital transformation strategy. This will help guide decision-making, support resource allocation, and ensure everyone is on the same page.

"You need to really think about what metrics you’re driving forward,” Cobourn recommends. “The only way to serve students effectively is to focus on a holistic view of their experience.”

Find out more about how ServiceNow helps with digital transformation in higher education.

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