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Today's student, yesterday's technology: a digital upgrade hits campus.

TODAY'S STUDENTS ARE A MOBILE-FIRST GENERATION, relying on smartphones for everything from communication and scheduling to navigation, financial management, and all else in between. Students, along with most other people, are projected to continue along this tech-centric path and become even more ingrained with technology as time goes on. Whether scheduling classes online or paying tuition, technology is a vital part of every college student's life. However, in this mobile-centered world, most universities and colleges have student information systems (SIS) that are, on average, over a decade old. While students, faculty, and staff are exposed to technological revolutions in their personal lives, they experience a "digital downgrade" when it

Over the last 10 to 15 years, many colleges have been quick to adopt and adapt to the new technologies available. For example, colleges began using the Blackboard program during the early 2000s to provide students with an Internet-based tool for accessing courses, submitting assignments, and tracking grades as well as an online platform for facilitating discussion among classmates and with instructors. This advancement helped drive an increase in the number of fully online courses, thereby providing students with more flexibility. Despite what seems to be openness to upgrades and innovation, there is still a considerable lag when it comes to student management technology. This is leading to a considerable degree of consumer (student) dissatisfaction. In fact, a recent survey conducted by Unit4 found that 7 in 10 students would recommend that their university review and change its digital strategy related to student administration (Unit4 2016).

Education is an increasingly competitive marketplace in which course quality, quantity, and 21st-century applicability are motivating factors in institutional success. Legacy technologies and course offerings are no longer enough; it now takes a streamlined organization and modern approach to be a top-tier institution and compete in a rapidly changing arena. When legacy systems make it impossible to integrate and use powerful information to drive growth, technology is hindering--rather than helping--an institution. These pain points can be felt at the institutional, administrative, faculty, staff, and student levels. The greatest prospect for advancement is with the deployment of modern mobile, cloud, and data management technology.


According to McGraw-Hill Education (2015), college students rely heavily on mobile technology for studying, with 81 percent using a smartphone or mobile device as part of their routine. Today, the use of mobile technology--the top-growing area in the digital realm--is one of the primary ways colleges are able to connect with students and provide them with access to the information they need. As the post-millennial generation--members of Generation Z who were brought up surrounded by iPhones and Android devices--reaches college age, there is no better tool than a cell phone to make sure institutions stay linked with their students.

By allowing students to easily interact with their universities through mobile devices, institutions can maintain strong lines of communication and help prevent student frustrations that could eventually lead to higher dropout or transfer rates. The easier and more efficient it is for students to find the information they need to thrive, the more they will integrate into the college culture and experience success. It is not a huge leap to assume that happy mobile-first graduates will provide glowing referrals to friends and family--and maybe even become generous alumni donors.


The cloud is empowering institutions to collect, mine, and act upon data like never before. Research firm Gartner (2015) estimates that by 2017, at least 75 percent of new and replacement SISs in higher education globally will be SaaS or cloud based. Institutions interested in quality, agility, and innovation will be drawn to the many benefits of a cloud-based SIS solution: more frequent upgrades, a predictable total cost of ownership, a modern design with improved user interfaces, support of new business models and nontraditional students, relief from maintaining a growing portfolio of customizations, avoidance of high capital costs and disruption related to major upgrades, and enhanced analytics.

With the increased IT support available through cloud solutions, institutions will be better able to focus on and devote additional resources to campus-based activities that directly benefit students. The cloud will undoubtedly be at the foundation of the mobile-first, highly flexible SIS deployments of the future.


There is a whole realm of data available to campus faculty and staff that has, as of yet, gone unused. When providing guidance and assistance to students, faculty too often lack access to their complete set of records, information that could potentially drive the advice and guidance offered. By integrating all campus platforms with one another, faculty and staff can have full visibility into each student's individual needs.

An integrated database benefits institutions by providing staff with details of students' course loads, where they live, what their major is, and whether they have any at-risk red flags. This degree of data management and mining allows universities to take a more proactive approach to help prevent students from falling through the cracks when grades are slipping or classes are being skipped.

Education technology brings something new to the higher education landscape every day. Added insight into student performance can benefit institutions in many ways, especially when it comes to supporting a student demographic that practically grew up with a smartphone in hand. Universities can put digital innovations to good use by empowering staff with the data they need to do their jobs more productively, deliver the right help to students at critical times, and ultimately improve student graduation and satisfaction rates.


Smartphones and tablets are ubiquitous in today's educational institutions. If a university's website, student portal, and e-learning solutions fail to work with students' preferred platforms, it's going to be a challenge to attract and retain top-performing talent. Students can't always lug their laptops around with them, but they will ALWAYS have their smartphones. Therefore, universities need to go beyond simply making resources mobile friendly to take the extra step to adapt student-facing resources to the input method they use on a regular basis: touch. The right mobility features appeal to always-connected students who want to study whenever they get a chance, whether in line for coffee or at a college sporting event. Modern colleges can pull inspiration from the mobile apps students use the most. By doing this, universities eliminate the digital downgrade that many students experience when transitioning from their personal to their academic lives, helping to ensure student satisfaction and retention.

Mobile-first, modern student management systems provide many benefits to the institution, including the ability to


Recruitment activities are both costly and time consuming. From identifying target demographics to managing complex and sophisticated multichannel marketing campaigns, recruitment is one of the most intensive efforts on most college and university campuses. It can be difficult or impossible to determine the return on this investment in labor and capital without the powerful metrics and large-scale data management tools available in today's modern SIS.


Nontraditional students represent a critical and increasingly prominent demographic for many institutions. These students have a lot on their plates, and if they don't find the support they need from an institution, they may drop out entirely, cut back on their credits, or fail to succeed. Unfortunately, an SIS built before the ascent of this demographic is ill-equipped to handle its unique enrollment and program requirements. The right technology tools can help nontraditional students access vital resources when they're on a work break or socializing and discover self-help options for resolving pressing questions when their schedule doesn't allow them to talk to someone in person. By not adapting to the vastly different needs of the nontraditional student demographic, universities lose out on promising students who need extra assistance to make it to graduation.


Students require a full understanding of the steps needed to complete their degree. If their academic advisor is overburdened or otherwise can't provide the assistance required students can get frustrated. When they don't know the right classes to enroll in, they can make ill-informed decisions that unnecessarily prolong the time it takes to complete a degree program. An advanced technological solution can make students' degree path clear so they can proactively plan out their next few semesters. Many institutions have limited seats available in their classes, and visibility into this potential issue allows students to avoid having to return for an extra semester to complete a single required class.


Students who are at risk of dropping out usually exhibit red flags long before they make the final decision to leave. Early intervention gives students the resources they need to succeed in school all the way to graduation. Big data technology looks at many student metrics to identify red flags far faster than a manual review ever could. Some indicators of an at-risk student include a low GPA that won't qualify for graduation, decreased class attendance, an inability to afford off-campus or dorm housing fees, and lack of a declared major. Once the system identifies at-risk students, guidance counselors can proactively reach out to them, discover the challenges they face, and then determine solutions to prevent them from leaving school.


As technological advancements in the consumer landscape continue at a rapid pace, institutions that understand the importance of meeting students' expectations when it comes to technology on campus will excel. It is the responsibility of higher education institutions to empower the next generation of professionals and academics.

While there is little to no debate about the value of technology in higher education, there does seem to be a stall in its advancement at many institutions. Strive to keep up with the promise of new technologies and your students' preferences. You wouldn't ask calculus majors to perform a complex equation using an abacus when they have graphing calculators. Similarly why would you ask students to neglect the powerful technologies that often reside in their pockets for something that is outdated and difficult to use? While curriculum and reputation will continue to be key factors when prospective students choose their universities, supported technology platforms are becoming increasingly high priorities. Providing students with the tools they need to succeed in the modern world is not only a college's ethical responsibility but also an increasingly important contributor to an institution's business success. Is your university on the right path, or are you experiencing a "digital downgrade"?


Gartner. 2015. Market Guide for Higher Education Student Information Systems. Retrieved August 19, 2016, from the World Wide Web:

McGraw-Hill Education. 2015. Are Learning Analytics the New 'Likes'? 87% of College Students Perform Better with Access to Personalized Data, New Research Finds. Retrieved August 19, 2016, from the World Wide Web: r-access-personalized-data-new-research.html.

Unit4. 2016. 73% of students: "University, improve your digital strategy!" Retrieved August 19, 2016, from the World Wide Web:

by Jami Morshed


JAMI MORSHED is vice president of global higher education at Unit4. His mission is to help colleges and universities improve student success and institutional effectiveness. He is responsible for everything done at the Unit4 Global Center of Excellence to help institutions prepare for the future through scalable and comprehensive software solutions that streamline and modernize core business processes while eliminating the burden of managing ever-changing technology.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Morshed, Jami
Publication:Planning for Higher Education
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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