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Ten opportunities for improving digital student support services

Written by Guy Carberry, published on

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. This series of articles will delve into ten key areas, using real case studies to bring the points to life. This article provides an overview of the topics I will cover over the series.

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. This article covers what makes a great digital strategy and how it can be applied to student support. It lays the foundation for the concepts and themes covered in the other articles in the series.

2. Involve students in your design process

It is important to remember that the people you design for are likely to be nothing like you. You need to find out as much as you can about the needs and expectations of the students who are using your services. There are many ways you can learn about student needs. This article covers the tools and techniques you can use to ensure that students remain at the heart of your service design process.

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 students across all of society and of particular benefit to those in the least-represented groups. This article uses examples and case studies to illustrate the techniques and methods for ensuring access and inclusion for all.

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. This article discusses the techniques for ensuring that your digital support services are meeting student needs.

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. In this article you will find the steps to take in sourcing help or rolling your own design system for students.

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 effect them. Giving people opportunities to take responsibility and lead forward elements of 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

HE 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 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.

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn if you'd like to discuss this further or ask me any questions.

About the author

Guy spent 20 years as Lead User Experience Designer, Student Support at the Open University.

He brought progressive, accessible and responsive web design techniques into the organisation, designing and developing digital styles, standards and components that remain in use to this day. He also contributed to establishing digital governance, agile UX and devised an introduced Content Design, UX Design and Service Designs into the organisation.

Before the OU, Guy led the digital design strategy for 9 regional newspapers at Central Counties Newspapers.

As a servant leader, Guy is passionate about coaching, mentoring and developing people. He considers his greatest achievement to be the recruitment and retention of some of the greatest minds in Digital Student Support.

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