‘Optimising the Student Journey’ – on our travels: there and back again (with apologies to Tolkein)

Guest post by Jean Mutton (@myderbi)

Over the last few months, Ruth Drysdale (Jisc); Shri Footring (Jisc); Julian Bream (FE Consultant) and myself, newly released after 30 years in the HE sector into the world of consultancy, have been travelling around the four nations talking to staff in colleges and universities. We also went straight to the horse’s mouth and ran some student focus groups (although they tend to go underground or back to Hobbiton in the summer months).

The focus of this Jisc project is not the transformational aspects of the student experience, andragogy and pedagogy, but where the student is the end-user of a service, and there are lots of examples of this transactional experience across the student journey which could be improved by looking at that experience by stepping into the students’ shoes and looking at the world through their eyes.

Our brief was a simple one: find where the student ‘pain points’ are and discover what Jisc could do to help co-design technical solutions. And so we left the Shire (in my case Derbyshire) and our journey began….

Here are a few observations:

  • everyone wants to improve the student experience in their own organisation (who wouldn’t?).   However, how they are all going about it can be as varied as the number of people you talk to. Some are keen to take a Lean approach; some are looking at data; some are into process mapping; some want to map the student journey but do not know where to start ,and some just looked at us blankly when we talked about co-design and understanding the end-user experience.
  • When an organisation like Jisc makes contact with an institution on a project like this, they are most likely to be put in touch with the Business Analysts who often sit in IT departments. No problem there you may say, but what we have seen is that there is real value where an FE or HE organisation can make the connection across all the constituent departments which impact on the student experience. From what we have seen, there is a lot of silo-working going on and a lot of effort spent on reviewing processes solely from the business perspective.
  • None of the staff we talked to could say that they joined the dots across all the feedback and data they get on the student experience so that they could turn it into insightful and meaningful action which would improve their student journey. There is a wealth of engagement and other data now available through Learning Analytics which would enable institutions to have a better understanding of the student journey and how to support not just those ‘at risk’ but all students.
  • There are several common ‘pain points’ which impact on the student journey, but not all are immediately obvious culprits, as they are internal. For example, some of the problems around programme organisation and management (a repeat offender if you look at anyone’s NSS) may look as if they are management issues, and they often are, but the impact will be on the felt student experience.
  • Communications – a perennial favourite ‘badboy ‘ – cropped up time and again; not just in relation to that between the institution and its students (and vice versa) but also staff to staff. Misunderstandings, miscommunications and confusion abounds. This is always a challenge in any large complex organisation, but there are ways to improve it. There may be CRM systems for certain parts of the journey (usually Marketing and Admissions) but this level of support does not always continue when the students have started. (Which leads to the question of setting expectations pre-arrival which are not met once students are on-course.)
  • Finding out what students really want and need, in a timely fashion, and not just what you want to tell them, is key. Of course, there will be lots of information which students do not know they need (how to enrol, etc) but if they are not in a position to listen to you (right channel, right time) you might as well not bother. The number of queries which support and other services have to deal with because students are just catching up with key information late in the day (if they are lucky) is staggering. (John Seddon calls this ‘failure demand’).
  • Which brings us to the student ‘transition’ – what happens to a student in those first few weeks can colour their experience for the rest of the time studying at an institution. If they can feel ‘at home’ and engaged with this brave new world early on, they have a better chance of finishing their course and achieving their potential. At this point, this is not about knowing the academic regulations backwards, what the Careers Centre can do for you (or, dare I say it, even how to use the library) but knowing your way around the University or College and the town, where to shop, and someone to go to if you get stuck (or if there are Orcs around). Self-management at this time is crucial and students have spoken to us about feeling overwhelmed by all the information coming their way, whilst they are trying to adjust to a whole new environment.
  • There are several groups of students who may have it tougher then others: International students; those whose ethnicity defines them as BME; some with protected characteristics (one or more disability for example) and some without any obvious factors which may impact on performance (carers or first in family). The success of the widening participation initiatives of recent years which have brought a lot of non-traditional students into FE and HE has led the sector to look more closely at the retention, progression and attainment of all their students and there are significant disparities in outcomes which can no longer be ignored. (This was recognised by the Minster in his speech to the UUK conference on 9th September where he talked about issues around social mobility, which will be reflected in the Green Paper coming out in the Autumn. This also chimes with the recent focus coming out of HEFCE around Learning Gain.)

 So, what’s to be done? As we have seen from the first bullet point above, the ‘student experience’ is still on everyone’s agenda. However, most institutions do not know where to start (there are exceptions – MMU for example, which is mid-way through a major change project ‘wrapping the institution round the learner’).   From what we have seen, many institutions lack the wherewithal, the right focus or just fail to see the need to really put the student at the heart of what they do, but how much longer can the sector continue with such a reactionary stance? Where is Gandalf when you need him to conjure the fireworks? Still stuck in the Ivory Tower of   Orthanc, I’m guessing.



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