Uni of Canberra on challenging the norms through digital transformation

12 months on from embarking on a student journey experience overhaul, we catch up with the tertiary education provider on lessons learnt so far

It’s been 12 months since the University of Canberra confirmed a new digital partner and began rolling out Adobe’s Experience Cloud platform, and two months since it debuted its new-look current student portal.

And if there’s one phrase summing up how the uni’s director of student connect, Scott Nichols, has gone about it so far, it’s definitely “challenging the status quo”. Far from being a purely technology-oriented transformation project, the work has instead involved a rethinking of every piece of the student experience puzzle, from content to capabilities, feedback, team process and more.

“I’m very pleased with the approach we are taking, which is not standing something up and promptly moving on to the next thing. We’ve continued to go back and challenge ourselves if it’s the best way – have we got the content, or experience right?” Nichols told CMO.  

“It’s therefore allowing us to put that student experience at the heart of what we are doing. We keep challenging ourselves to review, take on feedback from students, enhance and then move forward.”  

Genesis of an idea

University of Canberra’s transformation spun out of two key elements. One was a detailed qualitative and quantitative student feedback, which shone a light on the many ways experiences could be improved for students of the tertiary institution. The other was technology and investment into a new CRM platform and student administration system.

From a technology perspective, foundational work meant making sure Adobe’s Experience Manager platform could sit across the top of this technology to provide an orchestration layer for improving engagement. To do this, the University of Canberra worked closely with Isobar to bring together 20 technical systems, all with relevant processes and information contributing to servicing the student journey.

Alongside this, the university spent the last 12 months doing a deep dive into student journey mapping, from first inquiry through to graduation, alumni, and continuous study. Nichols and the team then built a prototype site and in early June, went live with the new-look ‘MyUC’ student portal.

Importantly, the real value-add is students don’t have to jump in and out of different systems. All 20 background systems are now talking intuitively together.

“We’re laying out the journey to be successful,” Nichols said. “The systems for them are ultimately irrelevant. We’re delivering in a timely way for them to do what they need to do at any given time.”

And this is where the customer-led, disruptive thinking has truly kicked in. When it comes to students, Nichols explained the bones of the journey are fairly common – interest, to apply, enrol and completion.

“What’s been exciting is as we worked through what theses stages mean, we’ve then looked at how we were doing them previously and if there are ways to either improve or complement that part of the journey,” he said.  

For example, in the last two weeks, University of Canberra has debuted a fresh approach to enrolling into business units, taking a 13-step process down to just four.

“You know it’s a bad process when it’s supported by a 20-page explainer document,” Nichols commented. “Rather than migrate it, we asked what the enrolment process needs to do and now we’ve got it back to only 3 or 4 steps. That’s not just about technology, it’s an opportunity to review the business process. We have also challenged the way we do things by trying to learn from retail, banking, travel and tourism.”

It’s this thinking that led University of Canberra to incorporate shopping cart functionality into its enrolment process. Now, students can put business units into a form of shopping cart as they go.

“It’s thinking outside the square of universities and instead, thinking about best practice digital experiences anywhere,” Nichols said.  

Another crucial rethink was having student onboard from the get go. To do this, University of Canberra built a 150-200-strong Facebook community, which has been a sounding board for all functionality considered and introduced.

“Feedback has been from the sublime to crazy in terms of language, colours and so on. But we’ve embraced that, listened and it has shaped the way we’re developing the platform,” Nichols said.

Another feedback mechanism on the front page of the student platform is a 5-star rating. Since going live, 50 per cent students have given the platform a five out of five, and upwards of 80 per cent are giving UC a three or four out of five.

“We take that as general satisfaction and we’re really pleased with that. And we have incremental targets for improving,” Nichols said. “We’ve also built a communications plan emphasising these improvements will get continually better as we add more functionality in and work to true hyper-personalisation in coming months.”

A further strategic decision made at the start of the project was rewriting all portal content. Again, the university has gone to the source, employing students to work closely with qualified copywriters.

“We think the ability for the student body to write in a familiar language to them is vital – it helps us avoid tripping up in jargon or language that works for us but doesn’t make it easy to understand as a student. It’s another value proposition to be delivered off this,” Nichols said.  

Operational rethink

Supporting this internally is a move to monthly release cycles, as well as more agile project methodology.

“We have worked on two-week sprints, sticking to them diligently and doing governance around that. It’s changed the way we operate in some spaces,” Nichols said. “This means we have to think resources, and that’s an ongoing conversation.

“As more capability becomes BAU as opposed to project work, there are conversations about staffing student central, connect and support areas. Their work will change with this new platform because a lot of the mundane stuff is taken care of by the system.  

“We then need to retain and educate those people to continue to add value to the process and better support students. Previously, we might not have been able to do that, as we were stuck in the minutia of manual tasks. There are so many positive spins to this project, and what we can do with staff to better support student success is the big one.”  

Nichols admitted the challenges so far have not really been technical, but instead about being honest about processes associated with delivering experiences.

“It has been interesting turning over stones and seeing what’s under them. We have uncovered tricky issues or thing that may not have led to the best student experience,” he said. “It’s a positive part of the journey, as we’ve been willing to tackle these head-on.”  

One of these has been the newly executed integrated calendar. Previously, University of Canberra students had 6-7 different calendar functions available to them.

“Having one calendar over the top has worked positively, but wasn’t without its challenges in terms of what it looks like, what goes into it, how it’s structured. We have made a good start but lots of things we can do there to improve,” Nichols said.

“And as we get into real personalisation, we need to review policies and procedures, when student enrol, and what information is made available to them. When we have identified process and system improvements, we’ve tacked the relevant areas and everyone has been willing to get onboard the vision and think about new and better ways to do what we do.”

Next steps

University of Canberra’s next ambition is hyper-personalisation. “The idea is we don’t want to treat university students as either numbers or categories or cohorts. It’s about giving you information through all systems and data we know about you, the stuff you need to know and not the stuff you don’t,” Nichols said.  

“For example, if you know you are international, we will give you relevant info, not about loans schemes relevant to a domestic student. If you self-identified as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, we will talk about those support services. If you’ve not self-identified, it won’t be so prominent. That’s coming in the next 6-12 months and it’ll really differentiate what we’ve done.”  

Going into 2020, the other main focus is the prospective student journey through the lens of acquisition, engagement and conversion.

“What we’re trying to do through the whole project is stick to the goal of seamless engagement from first enquiry to graduation and beyond,” Nichols said. “If we can offer the same experience whether it’s recruitment, studying or alumni, that will be a really good experience to have.

“We’ve set the balls in motion, so we’ll see where opportunities are.”  

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