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2019 Impact Awards

Engaging Students with Streamlined Support

Australia's University of Canberra is simplifying students' higher education journeys with a holistic approach to constituent relationship management.

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Category: Administration

Institution: University of Canberra

Project: UC Student 360

Project lead: Rebecca Armstrong, deputy director, AI, projects and innovation

Tech lineup: Click Dimensions, Comm100, KingswaySoft, Microsoft, Twilio

University of Canberra students

If students truly can be considered the customers in the higher education equation, then it makes sense for colleges and universities to adopt the same software being used by corporations to manage their clientele. And yet academics typically insist on referring to CRMs as "constituent relationship management" applications, which can — when you think about it — mean anybody from a member of the public who has attended a campus event to a trustee helping set institutional policy. Too often, these programs are used by only a handful of people who understand their inner workings, particularly for use in student recruitment and outreach. But what if the CRM were to be picked up by numerous departments on campus and applied (as they are in a multitude of industries) to delivering a better overall experience for the student?

That's the idea behind UC Student 360 and AskUC, an initiative at the University of Canberra in Australia. The basic goal is to simplify the higher ed journey for students by taking a holistic view of them as individuals and providing a single source of student information through a central online hub.

AskUC

AskUC

Take one example offered by Rebecca Armstrong, deputy director for AI, projects and innovation. The Student Center staff, populated by students themselves, includes one woman who wanted to get credit for previous study. To achieve that, she had to print out a particular form and get some help filling it out by somebody in the Student Center, where she happened to work. From there, she had to take it to a whole bunch of faculty members — the "unit conveners" — to have that form approved. Next, she had to bring the "fairly dog-eared form" back to the Student Center, which took responsibility for sending it to another department with other such forms for final processing.

The total effect: a huge hassle, involving "lots of walking around." "It can take about two weeks for students to find all the unit conveners and have those forms signed off," explained Armstrong. After all, she noted, the conveners "could be teaching, doing research, off campus in engagement activities, or traveling on overseas work."

With UC Student 360 and AskUC, it's a 15-minute process. The student goes to a form online and fills it out. Then behind the scenes, the CRM "workflows it to all the academic staff members," Armstrong explained. "If they're not entirely sure if a unit qualifies for another unit or they'd like a credit applied to an unspecified credit, they can add notes about that." From there the work flows into a "processing pane," so anybody dealing with that specific event can review the notes and form and make the required changes to the student's record.

If the student were international, that would entail different steps, and those workflows would go to staff members who specialize in working with those situations.

The entire system, formally known as "UC Student 360," consists of 184 automated workflows (with more in development) and 19 different forms. The project was kicked off in late 2016; by February 2017 the student portal, with AskUC in place, was relaunched. A year later, a new aspect was added: Lucy the student chatbot.

According to Armstrong, Lucy started off as a "bit of proof-of-concept." As she recalled, "People were starting to do chatbots, so we thought, let's have a go." The result is a system that allows students to ask their questions and, like Siri or Alexa, get guidance on what to try next — especially handy when live operators aren't standing by to answer student questions.

One online student at the university who serves as a CIO during the day told Armstrong the addition of Lucy has sped up assistance for her. Previously, she told Armstrong, she would get onto her courses at night. When an issue surfaced, she'd send an e-mail to the Student Center, which is open most weekdays from 9 to 5, and see the response the next night. Since most of the problems would take three or four e-mails to be fully resolved, that cycle could last for a week. Now, this student "jumps on and asks Lucy a question. If she needs more tailored information than Lucy can provide, the chatbot raises a support ticket for her.

"She's really pretty good at answering questions," said Armstrong.

Building the System

Microsoft technology is at the heart of both AskUC and Lucy — not surprising given that the campus is "Microsoft-enabled," according to Armstrong. While the CRM project went out to market with no particular platform in mind, the final selection was Microsoft Dynamics, because it's really configurable and customization is simple," she said. "We are experienced in the Microsoft way, so this was a good architectural decision for us."

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Lucy too was built using pieces of the technology stack for Azure: specifically, QnA Maker and Language Understanding (LUIS), the former an API service for creating a question-and-answer layer over existing content (such as a knowledgebase) that continually "learns" as users ask questions, and the latter a machine learning-based service for adding natural language understanding into apps. LUIS, said Armstrong, "breaks the question down to work out the intent," and QnA helps "find the answer for it." Other technologies in the mix include Click Dimensions, Comm100, KingswaySoft and Twilio.

Between UC Student 360, AskUC and Lucy, the system has handled some 412,000 cases and sent 1.6 million messages to students. "Hot topics" vary by time of year. But primarily they center on enrollment, orientation week and graduation.

Now, the project team is "filling out a few more bits and pieces," creating training videos to new starters and performing the "digital handover" to the university's operations team, said Armstrong. That involves the project people teaching the ops people how to use and maintain the system.

Eventually, she noted, the project will also incorporate some more benefits realization work, to establish just what the investment has reaped for University of Canberra. One advantage that has been pointed out by the staff at the Student Center: Because AskUC is handling so many of the routine inquiries, the students working the front desk "can spend more time helping with complex questions, and the students who would otherwise be waiting to ask their question can get back to studying."

Next Steps

Work has already begun on phase two of the "University of Canberra digital transformation," which will use the CRM for new purposes — specifically customizing student experiences based on their precise cohorts, using software such as the Adobe Experience Platform. A first go-around has tackled the campus calendar. Previously, students would have to go to "seven different places" to get a view of what they might need to do that day; now those have been consolidated into a "personal calendar" so "they can see in one place what they need to do each day to be successful," Armstrong said. Next up: greater engagement with campus clubs and societies to bring their data into the stream.

Though Armstrong can't provide return on investment because some of the data used for those calculations is proprietary, the ROI is substantial, she said. Just as important, however, is the impact on the student experience. Throughout these projects, the administration has encouraged her team to look outside of higher ed for inspiration, especially to understand how companies get customers to engage.

"Students are demanding that sort of engagement," said Armstrong. "They're spending their entire school years on laptops. They're doing everything online at school and outside of school. Then they get here and we ask them to fill out a paper form. Our experience must be better than that."

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