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Universities, the cloud, and student engagement

Matthew Mannion at the University of Warwick talks managing systems and how the cloud can aid engagement

Posted by Charley Rogers | June 04, 2017 | Higher education

Managing a range of network systems can be a headache. When you take into account the large numbers of users potentially active across these various networks and the different specifications of each platform, it’s not difficult to see how problems can arise.

Consider a university network. Typically, these networks consist of a few dozen systems, which operate in a distinct and sometimes disjointed manner. What’s more, these systems will be expected to provide tens of thousands of students and staff with information, around the clock and on demand, on a range of issues from course content, to assignment deadlines, to cashless card balances.

The University of Warwick is home to some 23,000 students and thousands of staff; of these thousands of staff, 13 are developers. Our developers work hard to maintain and manage over 30 different critical systems, but ensuring information reaches students both quickly and safely presents a huge challenge.

As an education facility, it is the University of Warwick’s responsibility to be at the forefront of emerging technologies and practices and, in an age of increasingly instant communications, it was recognised that a fresh approach to the way we were engaging with students was needed. With recent research indicating that millennials prefer messaging to every other channel*, we recognised that a messaging-based approach could provide us with a cost-effective and accessible solution.

The team at Warwick set to work investigating different options, creating a prototype application that allowed us to test out the performance of messages sent using a number of different providers. The goal was to ensure that messages were sent quickly and reliably, with 95% of messages delivered within one minute.

Like most universities, we also work closely with a number of international students and universities, making it absolutely essential that the new SMS provider could handle international numbers. This is crucial for delivering messages to the university’s overseas visitors.

The team at Warwick set to work investigating different options, creating a prototype application that allowed us to test out the performance of messages sent using a number of different providers. The goal was to ensure that messages were sent quickly and reliably, with 95% of messages delivered within one minute.

Very few providers, it turns out, can actually provide this latter point. But by working with Twilio, which registered the best performance in the findings of the measurement application, we’ve been able to deliver on our aim of messaging students, staff, and visitors more reliably, and at a far quicker rate.

The platform currently powers around 1,000 admin system alerts every month, allowing us to effectively monitor our applications. We’ve also been able to send out hundreds of SMS invitations, inviting students to share feedback via our in-house micro-survey tool, which allows staff to collect data from students on a range of issues affecting campus life, such as potential changes of the food and drink policy in the Library, or their experience riding the University shuttle bus.

Perhaps just as importantly, messages are not only being delivered faster, but students are consuming the SMS communications far more quickly than they had email notifications.

Our next objective was to ensure our messaging solution was completely secure, with only authorised users (namely students and staff) able to access the network. To help better protect student information, a number of logins now require a second layer of authentication, and using Twilio has allowed us to send authentication codes securely and reliably.

Moving forward, we are currently creating a single notification system for students. This will allow us to provide a more personalised experience in which students can choose what information they receive and, based on this, appropriate notifications will be sent via email, SMS, push notifications, or other alternatives.

Not only has this approach given us what we needed (security, speed and reliability), but it’s also given us something that we wanted – flexibility – to adapt our systems around our students, as and when their behaviour patterns and habits evolve, as they surely will.

*Research performed by Twilio in 2016

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