4 ways for leveraging tech to improve higher ed operations

Rethinking how administrators, faculty and staff use the tools at their disposal to perform key administrative functions, strengthen student self-service capabilities and simplify communications—now and when campuses reopen
By: | June 27, 2020
(Photograph by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash)(Photograph by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash)
Nick Schiavi is vice president and global head, higher education at Unit4.

Nick Schiavi is vice president and global head, higher education and nonprofit at Unit4.

Colleges and universities have used remote learning in educational programs for years, either on a stand-alone basis or to augment in-person teaching. But the COVID-19 crisis moved all operations to the virtual mode practically overnight, posing significant challenges for educators, administrators and students.

Higher education institutions can use this opportunity to find better ways to perform key administrative functions, strengthen student self-service capabilities and simplify communications, making it possible to be innovative anywhere. Here are four strategies for leveraging technology now—and when campuses reopen.


Read: Updated: 113 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic


1. Address administrative pain points

Administrators are struggling to manage many facets of operations off-site—from admissions to financial aid to reporting. In this new normal, now is the time to focus on future-proofing vital systems.

A comprehensive student information system projects a tech-forward focus that can help an institution attract and retain students. A system with self-service tools and process flexibility can help administrators automate key tasks related to admissions, enrollment, financial aid, billing and more. This gives administrators the ability to securely manage tasks off-site while facilitating collaboration with colleagues.

As the higher ed community weighs changes and new priorities amid this pandemic, priorities will come under further review with a look toward focusing valuable resources on the student experience.

Better communication tools can also lighten the administrative burden while the institution is adhering to social distancing measures—and improve operations when the pandemic passes. A cloud-based approach can convert paperwork to electronic documents, storing them within the SIS. Customized, automated communication triggered by events can significantly streamline administrators’ workloads while simplifying reporting and expanding access to information.

Cloud-based system management capabilities are another way to reduce administrative stress during isolation. Managing user roles and permissions, data security, and workflow helps administrators work more effectively, allowing better support for academic operations as well as resource management tasks.


Read: Why face-to-face instruction will have big impact on fall enrollment


2. Consider new priorities—and process changes

Transitioning to cloud products often means compromise depending on the function, the vendor and a product’s adaptability. Often, institutions are reluctant to take a vendor’s “standard cloud offering” because it’s just that—standard. Although its labeling insinuates institutions must conform to the offering, “standard” more often refers to common processes that can be accomplished by a cloud product, i.e., the “standard sets of capabilities.” This is less about features behaving in a certain way and more about ensuring these products enable institutions to accomplish critical processes across departments.

A big debate when moving a complex set of administrative processes from one application to another is what to take and what to change. Changing how a process operates can depend on a product’s ability to facilitate that process, sparking debate on what the higher priority is: maintaining the definition of a process or expediting the transition to a standard process with a cloud vendor. As the higher ed community weighs changes and new priorities amid this pandemic, priorities will come under further review with a look toward focusing valuable resources on the student experience.


Read: 6 steps to better policy process


3. Engage employees in new ways

The sudden imposition of social distancing poses an enormous ongoing challenge for administrators, faculty and students. Colleges and universities not only had to convert classes into online learning modules, but also had to evacuate students from residence halls, address technology capabilities for both students and faculty, and provide ongoing support services—from home.

Calling that an adjustment would be a massive understatement. But a silver lining is the opportunity to connect, collaborate and share best practices looking forward. Employee engagement tools can be used in creative new ways to confront the crisis.

For example, incorporating pulse surveys—a short series of questions on issues affecting educators and students during this crisis—can reveal insights that can help the institution address pressing issues. It allows administrators to engage with faculty and staff so they can be more productive and students can continue to plan for their futures with minimal disruption.


Read: New wrinkles in performance reviews


4. Focus strategically on data

Data-driven decision-making has been a mantra for organizational improvement for many years. The abrupt transition to virtual work is an opportunity to focus strategically on data and apply information generated by systems such as human capital management platforms.

Additionally, information about unexpected transactions related to the pandemic response, performance reviews and other talent management assets can provide insights to improve results during the lockdown and help with continuity planning. Using data to make decisions that improve faculty and administrators’ capabilities can help deliver an exceptional student experience.

“We’re all in this together” is a familiar refrain during the present crisis, but many educators and administrators in a traditionally on-campus industry feel isolated and separated from colleagues and students. With technology, creativity and collaboration, we can rethink the way we work and use the tools at our disposal to engage one another and get through this—together.


Nick Schiavi is vice president and global head, higher education and nonprofit at Unit4.


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