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Summit 2020 series: creating a connected student experience at a time of social distancing

Following on from last week’s hugely successful virtual Squiz Summit 2020, we’re focusing on the key theme that emerged from many of the speaker sessions: innovating through a crisis. In this blog mini-series, we’ll be looking at how our different customers, across a range of industries, managed to successfully pivot when pandemic restrictions resulted in their student, citizen, employee and/or customer needs changing, almost overnight. 

First up, we’re focusing on how the COVID-19 social distancing measures impacted the student experience (SX) across higher education, with insights shared by Griffith University, in Queensland, and Monash University, in Victoria.

Cassandra Theocharous

Written by

Cassandra Theocharous
Marketing Manager
24 September 2020

When the Australian government announced its COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, back in March, many believed they would be a short-term solution and that business, as usual, would resume within a few months. As the initial quarantine measures evolved into a ‘new normal’, it became clear that simply waiting things out wouldn’t be an option – especially in higher education, where both domestic and international students were suddenly under stay-at-home orders at a time when they should have been starting an exciting and important university journey. The universities themselves were given a challenge – adapt or close down… potentially, for good. Here’s how two of Australia’s top universities met that challenge head-on.

Griffith University's Story

At Squiz Summit 2020, Griffith University’s Portfolio Manager, Trent Belling, revealed that Griffith was one of the few universities that found itself in the enviable position of being partially prepared when the pandemic hit Australian shores. Ranked as the top public university for student experience, in 2015, Griffith had already identified the importance of creating a simple, personalized and supportive online environment for students and had launched its MyGriffith portal and MyOrientation apps by 2019.

During his Squiz Summit breakout session, Belling gave viewers a full overview of how Griffith started its customer experience transformation. “The enquiry time for a domestic student is around 12 months, but for international students, it can be more than 2 years!”, he revealed. “This showed us how much due diligence students undertake to find the right uni – as well as how important the online conversion journey is in attracting new students”.

Griffith started by identifying four key areas of student enquiry, as well as the different categories within each:

griffith preso img

“The full combination of possible student preferences is more than 23,000 – that means 23,000 potential ways in which to personalize the journey!”, Belling revealed. While the numbers may seem daunting, Belling’s advice is to start with the basics. Simply by identifying a student’s location, the uni was able to identify whether they were a domestic or international candidate – a vital starting point for deciding which information needed to be prioritized.”

By using Squiz’s out-of-the-box capabilities, Griffith were able to start tailoring experiences based on what they already knew about students, as well as what students told Griffith about themselves:

  • Funnelback and Squiz Content Libraries – these enabled the university to mix and match attributes and apply them to the journey – including serving student journeys directly relevant to the degree types being searched for.
  • Squiz’s caching capability – enabled Griffith to retain attributes for returning student searches, so they could pick up where they left off. This increased familiarity and their comfort level with Griffith. A big step in the enquiry journey is getting people from their computers, onto our campus or a recruitment event.
  • Squiz plug-ins – enabled the university to provide automated open day planners, drawing information from students’ existing attributes to create personalized schedules. “These were hugely successful, and we saw a 50% increase in open day planners being used between 2018-2019”, Belling reveals.

Bridging the gap

“One of our biggest challenges is the gap between when a student signs-up and when they’re due to arrive on campus – this is when we’re most at risk of losing students who decide to do something else”, Belling explains. In fact, the gap between booking and starting an experience isn’t unique to higher education, as Belling uses the example of how Airbnb uses content and travel updates to keep holidaymakers excited about their upcoming trip and minimize cancellations. In the same way, Griffith realized that the three, six or 12 month gap that students can regularly expect between selecting a course and actually arriving on-campus needed to be bridged – and so the ‘MyOrientation app’ was born.

“With Squiz’s help, we created a personalized digital experience that prepared students for day one on campus. MyOrientation was based on 2 key principles – reusing information already available in Squiz Matrix and serving relevant content based on personalization rules”, Belling explained. “The app helps students to step through the different activities they need to complete prior to setting foot on campus. They arrive with their government forms complete and their devices already connected to university Wi-Fi. They’re then guided to complete mandatory student activities, as well as being served push notifications from their particular faculty, with discipline-specific activities relevant to their degree, campus location or enrollment time. Suddenly, preparing to start uni is easy, not daunting”.

Not only does the MyOrientation app bridge a vital part of the student experience (SX), but it has also helped Griffith to solve the bigger problem of student retention – an issue that has been rapidly growing in higher education institutions across the world (a staggering 25% of students in higher education will drop out before graduation). “Orientation is a strong data point in understanding student retention risks, so the app has provided us with a strong data set to identify less engaged students” Belling reveals. By identifying students who struggle through the orientation process, the university can direct support teams towards those students and help them to better adapt to uni life. “It gives us the ability to support students preemptively”, Belling reveals.

The MyGriffith student portal, originally launched in 2015, was under development in 2019 and due to be released in March 2020, just before the lockdown restrictions began. Despite COVID-related delays, the new version of the portal launched two weeks ago and provides students with a centralized hub where they can access all necessary information, in a personalized, mobile-responsive experience.

With the pandemic restrictions placing even greater importance on the portal and app than ever before, the university is already looking at ways of enhancing the student experience further. So far, future plans include a course advisor solution – the first of its kind in higher education – to help students manage their study loads and subject choices, as well as a graduation concierge service, to support students through the completion of their courses and plan their next study or career steps. “We developed these digital services pre-COVID, but now that students can’t always be on-campus or see staff in-person, their relevance is really becoming clear”, Belling explains. “Helping students to feel connected and in control of their study was already an important goal for most universities – now, it will be vital in helping students to start and complete their studies”.

Monash University's Story 

Like most industries, higher education was blindsided by the pandemic restrictions, with the ability to pivot and adapt rapidly becoming the deciding factor between organizations that survived and thrived, and those that were forced to close completely.

For Mike Ohrimenko, Digital Engineering Lead at Monash University, providing a student solution – fast – became a priority. “As the situation progressed, it became clear that the delay in both domestic and international students being able to enter Victoria would last longer than expected. During this hugely stressful time, we knew that the one area where we could make a big difference to students was their study experience”, Ohrimenko reveals. “Our goal was simple: give students certainty that they could begin their studies, regardless of their location, with a frictionless online experience. Keeping this clear goal in mind helped us to focus on completing a minimum viable product (MVP) as quickly as possible”.

When it came to providing Monash students with a solution in the fastest possible time, it soon became clear that even an agile approach would be too slow. With pandemic restrictions changing on a daily basis, one- or two-week sprints simply wasn’t enough; instead, the team adopted a ‘hyper agile’ approach. Knowing that the end solution needed to be secure, easy to interact with and able to capture data centrally, each feature only needed to satisfy these three goals in order to be deployed, removing cumbersome approval processes. “Ideas were collected in the morning and visuals put into design, then coded later in the afternoon while being simultaneously reviewed by our security teams”, revealed Ohrimenko. “Everything from peer code reviews to automated tests were realigned with the goal of publishing as securely and quickly as possible. We started the process on a Monday morning and had already released a soft-launch with students by Thursday afternoon the same week!”.

In such a fast-paced environment, there was no room for error – which the Monash digital team handled by developing two solutions on two different platforms at the same time, enabling them to choose the best solution at the end of the process without having to start from scratch. The winning solution, built on Squiz Matrix, using Datastore, enabled the team to re-use building blocks that were already proven to provide a secure and smooth customer experience.

Within a few weeks, Monash had created a new student portal that was simple, intuitive and provided students with the option to select from a new range of entirely online study options. Not only were Monash students given a swift and effective means of continuing with their study plans, unhindered by the pandemic, but staff were able to see dashboards showing how many students were accepting the new study options and the associated revenue, consolidating the business case for investing in on-going work to transition study to online.

To see more from Squiz Summit 2020, visit squiz.net/summit/2020/anz. Alternatively, for more information about how Squiz can help to transform the student experience, check out our latest ebook Creating a connected campus or visit squiz.net/dxp.

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