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Ten opportunities for improving digital student support services

Guy Carberry, 21 June 2021.

These recommendations are based on my first-hand experience working in digital student support. I worked at The Open University for twenty years, across many different student services at a variety of different levels.

1. Develop a strong digital strategy

A successful higher education institution will have a clear and robust digital strategy. It will outline and roadmap a path to achieving strategic goals. It will highlight key benchmarks, and the methods that will enable you to achieve them. A clear vision will help you picture what success looks like. Your strategy is the means to get there.

2. Involve students in your design process

It is important to remember that that the people you design for are likely to be nothing like you. You need to find out as much as we can about the needs and expectations of the students who are using your services. There are many ways you can learn about student needs.

3. Design to be inclusive and accessible

For students to feel supported they will need your organisation to understand and respond to their needs. At a very basic level, you should design every service with accessibility at its core. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 provide highly detailed guidance on designing for all people regardless of disability. All content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, readable and predictable. These principles are not the preserve of designing for disabled students, they are equally applicable to for students across all of society and of particular benefit to those in the least-represented groups.

4. Make it easy for students to find and understand information, advice and guidance

Students expect to find answers to their questions online, via their mobile devices. This is often the most direct route through to meeting their needs. Students expect to type a question into Google and other search engines and quickly find an answer. Can your students do this? What questions do they ask? How do they phrase them? Do search engines provide an immediate answer? Where do you create, organise and publish your content? A well-organised knowledge-base or Help Centre will work wonders for your students.

5. Use a common digital user interface and global expression language

Your digital estate needs to adhere to basic user experience (UX) design principles. Developing a global expression language, style guide, playbook, templates, components and examples of best practice will enable you to ensure an inclusive, consistent and familiar experience for students and staff.

6. Create a safe, secure and reliable digital environment for students and staff

Students need to trust your organisation and feel safe. This is just as applicable in digital environments as in the physical world. You can exceed legal and moral obligations by regularly reviewing and improving the digital experience, learning from your users and making changes based on feedback.

7. Deliver personalised, targeted interventions responsibly

When used effectively, rich data can be used to improve the student experience by providing timely reminders, suggesting useful content and services relevant to a given student's context. When used irresponsibly a student may feel threatened and vulnerable.

8. Develop and empower your staff

A successful organisational digital transformation places people at the heart of the process. Staff will need training and development to fully understand the environment and how to operate in it. Working practices will change and staff need to feel consulted about changes that affect them. Giving people opportunities to take responsibility and lead the change will pay dividends. Effective digital transformation is as much about changing the way people work and organisational culture as it is about technology. It is about building a new type of organisation around modern principles, not about adding technical complexity to fix existing services.

9. Deliver value regularly

Higher Education organisations are always in big-scale organisational change programmes but nothing ever seems to change! Look for opportunities to deliver value towards strategic objectives by focussing on improvements to services that will make the biggest difference to your students. Make a list of all the services your organisation offers to students and find out which ones to change will most benefit students and the organisation.

10. Communicate with students and staff regularly

Communication is a key part of delivery. Share everything. That’s what HE is all about. Foster and invest in communities of practice, share your work with peers via blogs, collaborative spaces, conferences and workshops.

Get in touch

If you'd like to find out more about how I might help with Digital Student Support you'll find me on LinkedIn and Gmail (guycarberry).

Get in touch

I'm always up for a chat. You'll find me on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Gmail (guycarberry).

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