Kate Fitzpatrick, Lead Digital Strategist, Great State

Covid-19 has been a powerful catalyst, accelerating emergent trends and setting new consumer expectations. As some degree of normality becomes reality, the organisations that will excel are not focused on creating experiences and designing services for how people behaved in the past but how they are likely to in the future. This is important when you consider that historically the higher education sector has been somewhat behind the curve when it comes to harnessing the potential of e-learning and recognising the holistic student experience.

Most current university students are part of the Gen Z cohort, which means they have grown up in a technology-enabled world where they are only a tap or swipe away from anything they want to see or do both online and in ‘real life’. Across all aspects of their lives there are digitally accessible services, geared towards making complex tasks simple; from banking to shopping, food delivery to dating. This generation is aware of the hallmarks of a good experience. They are also quick to recognise when a solution doesn’t work, and in those instances it’s rare they give it a second chance. In a world moving at breakneck speed, legacy IT systems and disjointed learning experiences are slowing down and impacting students’ progress.

More than ever universities need to be aware of the outside influences that surround their student populations.

Student satisfaction levels on the decline

Across the country, universities have been forced to push the fast forward button on their digital learning offerings, but what do students really think of their efforts? At Great State, we spoke to over 1,000 UK undergraduates and 500 pre-university 16–18-year-olds between December 2020 – January 2021 to find out to what extent studying under repeated lockdowns and restrictions has changed perceptions and expectations of the university offer.

A key finding was that pre-Christmas, just over half (53%) of university students were satisfied with how their university had handled the crisis. This figure dropped by 10% in January. We also found that 72% of undergraduates felt in-class teaching is better than online, whereas only 1 in 5 students feel online learning is better than in-class. These results just shine further light on the massive gulf emerging between student expectations and their experiences of learning through lockdown.

The march towards hybrid models

When undergraduate respondents were asked to list the disadvantages of learning remotely, responses were many. They included anything from limited access to resources and online learning options, lack of suitability for some learning styles, through to the negative impact on collaboration and learning from peers. We also found a widespread lack of consistency across tools, support and teaching approaches adopted. Over 60% felt they did not get enough one-on-one help and nearly 40% did not find the online materials helpful or useful.

However, when reflecting on the potential benefits, a consensus emerged for a mix of in-person and virtual approaches in future. It’s also interesting to note that online-only degrees could attract a third of potential students, with many liking the fact they would be able to stay in the comfort of their home, the flexibility of being able to get tasks done and the potential for lower fees.

Although undergrads acknowledged the advantages of these new ways of studying, our research serves to underline that many institutions have to significantly improve the consistency and quality of solutions offered, to warrant the fees currently being charged for mostly online learning.

Enter, service design

The practice of service design is concerned with human experience and how by mindfully aligning and optimising operations and infrastructure to support customer needs, services can be designed to be much more effective.

HE is a sector that is increasingly looking to the commercial world, and the widely adopted application of service design thinking is something universities are leaning more and more towards. By putting the student at the centre of their operation, it is helping them to restructure, and they are making better, informed decisions about investment.

Universities should start considering themselves as service providers, creating consistent experiences to support a multitude of needs that better integrate the physical and digital worlds of their students. Instead of retaining ‘ivory tower’ academic mindsets, taking learnings from the commercial world can fuel a more experience-led view of their offer - which can itself influence the successful outcomes of their courses. By thinking about how their services are delivered, many can dedicate their efforts to developing strategies that support students’ individual needs more effectively from the moment they apply through to graduation and beyond.

The future is now

Although our research did find some positive support for e-learning and remote teaching, the overwhelming conclusion is that UK universities’ offerings and tools are patchy at best and are simply not meeting needs or satisfying students’ expectations.

Only when institutions can break down the historic battle lines between academia and HQ to focus on students as individuals and the university journey as a holistic set of experiences, will change truly be possible.

C-19 may well have presented an opportunity. In the short term at least, a university education is seen by many as an advantage in a post-covid world. Now is the time for universities to behave like the best in the consumer market by adopting a service design and customer experience mentality to differentiate their offer and be better prepared for the future.

Kate Fitzpatrick, Lead Digital Strategist, Great State

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