Why face-to-face university life needs a digital mirror

University is an all-encompassing experience that embodies a huge life-changing period of growth intellectually, culturally and socially. Recent data from the Sutton Trust shows many graduates felt their university course had helped them to develop life skills such as communication (62%) and resilience (53%), while 29% said university did not give them the necessary skills for the jobs they wanted

Students, who are often only 18 years old when they start university, are looking to explore the world outside their home village, town or city. It’s about building a sense of community and shared experience with kindred spirits they might not otherwise meet and also learning practical life and career skills. From cooking and washing dishes to aeronautical engineering, university is the place to go to build a solid variety of skills to stand on for the future.

What happens at university in its broadest sense will stay with a student for life. The academic experience may shape a career but the rest of the experience will shape the person.

A university of experiences

Progressive higher education institutions have already attempted to emphasise this aspect of university, with large amounts of investment being funnelled into students’ unions, sports, and leisure activities alongside a plethora of post-graduate programmes.

However, while many other public and private sector organisations race ahead with the digitisation of services and organisational infrastructure, the education sector and in particular higher education is still at an early tentative stage when it comes to translating physical services, interactions, and content into a digital form comparable to the experiences generation Z have grown up with.

In the absence of face-to-face teaching, student union life and wider institutional life, a yawning gap in the university experience opened up.

Half of university students reported feeling lonely on a daily or weekly basis, and a quarter actively disagreed they felt part of a community of staff and students. Nearly half of all students felt that the value for money was poor or very poor this year.

Few are arguing that overall digital technology could replace face-to-face, however it is worth asking to what extent a cohesive digital strategy that could help create and support social bonds at university, support access to an institutions culture and services could have mitigated this disappointment and the pervading feeling that last year’s university experience did not deliver value.

As university life returns to normal this coming academic year, some in higher education management might be tempted to draw a sigh of relief and return to business as usual – the format of university life that has changed little in a hundred years.

The reality is however, COVID or not, student expectations of organisational or brand experiences have changed radically. Speed, ease of access, personalisation, intuitive design and integration are rules of delivery that consciously or not, most people and especially younger age groups expect of a service whether it’s a bank, a retailer, travel or education.

One of the most important aspects of what has been defined as the expectation or experience economy, is that physical experiences must integrate and be mutually supported by digital ones. Enhancing the place-based experience without disturbing any of the value in that.

The performance and rating of university experiences for undergraduates will increasingly be determined by digital services mirroring or extending face-to-face ones. But university is not all about the three (or more) crucial years while a student completes a course. With the growth of lifelong learning, and demands for reskilling and upskilling, universities are well placed to deliver this service, but only if we redefine our concepts of what it is to be a student.

The benefits of a digital HE afterlife

The infamous ‘post-grad’ depression hits most students to some degree, with postgrads being six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population. Thrown into the void of real life, some graduates would massively benefit from feeling a connection with their previous university life.

It feels wrong that a person can devote seven years to studying a medical degree at university, having spent countless hours with lecturers, societies, clubs, and in study spaces to lose all connection with the institution they grew within a matter of months - churned out by the education machine. Creating a digital post university community is a unique opportunity to extend the HE experience and create a diaspora of connected post-grads that is not being utilised. The scope of opportunity here perhaps presents an opportunity for a future post...

Pedagogy vs society – digital transformation a flexible rather than binary choice

The shock of the pandemic has encouraged a growing band of HE institutions to invest in digital learning at a strategic level.

An obvious successful example of the benefits of doing so is the Open University, which has now developed into one of the biggest universities in Europe, with 175,000 students. Traditional institutions lag behind but are developing either their own online tools or outsourcing the launch of integrated learning platforms and exploring enhanced pedagogies that digital communications can bring.

The benefits of pursuing a more holistic digital service strategy addressing the full student experience are hard to argue with as the sector becomes more competitive. At Great State we pride ourselves in considering both fields, and aim to help create holistic and complementary experience which puts students first.

There are huge operational benefits to be accrued. Some may be to streamline and integrate coordinating alumni events, job fairs and graduation ceremonies. These are important events that should not be sent around through chain emails and convoluted letters, but rather though a developed and succinct network of communication backed up by integrated data.

Imagine an app where students could see who was going to what night out, working on what project, on which placement, on what grad scheme? Being able to message and form group chats with individuals with mutual interests. Imagine another one where staff; academic and otherwise could share course planning, research projects, requests for resource, staffing issues – all the mechanics of daily operational life.

Sectors like higher education, need not be left behind. Projects such as the My Navy tool are a testament to how technology is being used in public sector institutions replacing dated analogue traditions. By taking a service design approach to understanding the needs of users (e.g. students, influencers, staff, research community), and redefining the experience around them, you deliver an outcome with them at the heart. Thankfully the days of building monolith digital solutions with limited ongoing investment are numbered. By separating the presentation layer from the technology using modern approaches gives flexibility, and enables personalised digital customer experiences which measure up to the most modern campus facilities.

There seems to be little reason as to why similar infrastructure can’t be built for the university experience. It’s time for the institutions that have long been bastions of learning and innovation to step up and take the next step into a digitised world, and place students at the heart.

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