Higher Ed Goes Online

In uncertain times, digital transformation can drive student success

When the Covid-19 outbreak began this spring, safety was a priority for administrators at Linn-Benton Community College near Oregon’s western coastline. Following an executive order from Oregon’s governor to limit on-campus operations, the college transitioned seamlessly to online teaching and remote work in just two weeks. The shift was made much easier by the fact that the college had recently introduced a robust digital operations system.

“I don’t think anyone’s seen or experienced anything like this before,” says Michael Quiner, Linn-Benton’s CIO. “But I believe that the team we have at Linn-Benton Community College is very innovative, and we are used to leveraging technology to enable agility and flexibility.”

On April 6, spring semester began online at Linn-Benton, powered by solutions from Laserfiche that the college had put in place both before and due to the pandemic. The IT team rolled out a simple electronic form for staff and faculty to report their work location and contact information daily, which was then automatically posted in a web portal to facilitate easy internal communication. A complex digital process allowing employees to request medical leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) was created in just 48 hours.

“I know it has been extremely difficult and stressful for everyone,” Quiner says. “But we can help to protect students, staff and faculty, by having people work from home, and having students learn from home. To be able to use technology to enable that—I think that’s pretty amazing."

"Laserfiche allows us to keep the college in compliance during a fast-moving situation while dealing with constantly shifting requirements, interruptions, and urgent priority requests.”
Michael Quiner, CIO, Linn-Benton Community College

Across the country, academic institutions are being compelled to reformulate their strategies and pivot in response to Covid-19. Digital transformation was already underway at many. A survey of college presidents conducted by the American Council on Education found that almost 90 percent felt their previous investments in IT had positioned them to respond well to Covid-19.

But some experts think that Covid-19 has added urgency and new priorities for the transition. In a piece for the World Economic Forum’s website, Dr. Samuel Martin-Barbero, a distinguished fellow and educational expert at the University of Miami, makes the case that, “Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of higher education.” The pandemic is bringing about “a new sociology of work,” he suggests, although for innovation to take effect, “changing some of the processes of universities is key.”

Supporting students in the online classroom and outside it

What are those processes? The concept of student success has traditionally revolved around classroom learning — and pedagogy and instruction are still key— but college leaders increasingly recognize the need to give students more holistic support. Centralizing structured and unstructured data about academic performance and financial background across siloed systems form a profile of students that lets administrators better understand and address their needs. Creating modern, user-friendly administrative services allows students to request support from the convenience of their mobile devices and receive it instantly.

A recent report on the top 10 issues for IT in higher ed in 2020 by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit research association, identified a need for colleges to streamline processes through technology. The authors note that much of the innovation taking place at colleges now focuses on serving students. “Colleges and universities are working to unmake old practices and structures that have become inefficient,” they write, “and are preparing to use technology and data to better understand and support students and to become more student-centric.”

Those that began such efforts before March 2020 are seeing them pay off. Bergen Community College is the largest community college in New Jersey with 32,000 students, some of whom have families or hold down full-time jobs. In 2018, the college introduced process automation and document management to simplify student enrollment, registration and other business functions, rolling the system out across 17 departments and more than 70 processes. To take certain classes, students need to sit for placement exams; but for those who might already have related qualifications, the exams were unnecessary.

To show that they met the right criteria, students previously had to retrieve documents from the testing department and return them in person. But the new system has taken this cumbersome process online, enabling students to submit documentation in seconds. “The transparency and collaboration that the system provides has been well received, and we look forward to expanding our use throughout the college,” the managing director of records and information management at Bergen, Nishika Gupta, said at the time.

The automated system, developed by Laserfiche, also helped to streamline grade-change requests: If students disagree with their mark in a class, they can now submit their query online, and faculty can respond off-site without delays.  Gupta added, “We are reimagining how we use technology and reimagining the student experience. To support this, we are dedicated to implementing solutions that our students are comfortable using.”

Critically, during the pandemic shut-down, the system enabled the college to give students quick access to financial support — just when they most needed it. Financial aid to cover campus-related expenses was made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, CARES. Applicants at Bergen could fill in an electronic form and check the status of their request online. The digital process removed hurdles and ensured that students could access vital funds. In total, 2,349 were helped by the grant.

Better service and support

Seamless digital solutions also enable institutions to respond in a timely fashion to prospective students and meet enrollment goals. Mount Mary University is a private, Catholic women’s college founded in 1913 and set in a leafy 80-acre campus in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Administrators deployed a digital system to simplify the university’s application process and replaced eight cumbersome, hard-to-navigate analog steps. The new admission process is much more user-friendly and intuitive, and has resulted in an increase in the number of completed applications.

Mount Mary also uses the technology to support its current students, allowing them to report bias through a simple online form. The digital tool replaces a paper document complainants filled out in the past and offers an accessible and anonymous reporting system to staff and students. It promotes the safety and well-being of everyone on campus, administrators say.

Evaluating which processes can be improved through digital tools requires a culture of collaboration, and IT teams need to involve faculty and staff and seek their input about which changes are needed. At Mount Mary, the cross-departmental initiative to drive digital transformation has accelerated processing turnaround time from weeks to days and enabled better communication between students and staff.

Scaling transformation for improved student and employee experience

Replacing legacy processes with digital innovation is not just a quick fix to the challenges the pandemic poses but also offers a long-term route towards better, more effective administration. These solutions can be leveraged to deliver more efficient and user-friendly student services, both during Covid-19 and beyond.

The shift to digital reflects trends in consumer technology. As new student generations enter higher education, they will expect institutions to be modern, responsive and intuitive. And, with economic uncertainty rising, colleges and universities must do everything they can to ensure that education remains within reach, accessible to traditional and nontraditional learners alike.

“Millennials use technology in every aspect of their lives. For that reason, it’s important for us to leverage technology that expedites student-facing processes in order to meet their expectations.”
Nishika Gupta, Bergen Community College

“Transformation is the idea that we can use technology tools to better leverage our staff’s time,” says Michael Quiner of Linn-Benton Community College. “We’ve only started to transform. There are so many exciting things that we’re dipping our toes into, that will take a lot of the repetitive work from our staff so we can concentrate on supporting each other and supporting our students.”