Putting service design at the heart of HE transformation

How universities will pivot to become digital service providers

COVID-19 has forced or accelerated change in almost every sector and discipline on the planet – and higher education (HE) is no exception. These enforced changes have reframed student and staff expectations of learning, spotlighted institutions’ ability to adapt at pace, and placed greater focus and scrutiny on the value of education and how it’s delivered.

On entering 2021, our research at Great State has proven that student satisfaction levels are on the decline. Post-Christmas, students’ satisfaction with their university’s handling of the crisis dipped from an already low 53% to 42%. This was due to a recognised lack of consistency across tools, support and teaching approaches. With relative normality still a way off, these growing levels of discontentment indicate that universities need to start improving their offer now to warrant the fees they are charging students and to thrive post-pandemic.

The ‘uber-fication’ of the student generation  

Value for money in higher education has long been determined by league tables and employability. However, this is set to change. The sophistication of today’s connected experiences has set new expectations for students – solving problems they didn’t even know they had. Across all aspects of their lives there are digitally accessible services, making the complex simple; from banking to shopping, food delivery to dating. It’s not only market leaders such as Google, Uber and Airbnb but the likes of Khan Academy, Coursea and Codeacademy who have been shifting perceptions around what digital education and learning can look like. The next generation of students will expect these experiences as standard.

Consequently, HE institutions are embarking on digital transformation journeys to identify needs and align technology and capabilities to meet expectations. In this new future, there’s not going to be a one-size-fits all ‘student solution’ – instead, universities should consider themselves as service providers, creating a consistent experience to support a multitude of needs which better integrate real and digital worlds – see the introduction of the Smart Campus. Universities that can differentiate in this space will prosper.

“It’s not only market leaders such as Google, Uber and Airbnb but the likes of Khan Academy, Coursea and Codeacademy who have been shifting perceptions around what digital education and learning can look like. The next generation of students will expect these experiences as standard”

Opportunities: levelling the playing-field 

Technology and on-the-go access to the internet has fundamentally changed behaviour. The pandemic has triggered such a reliance on connectivity that there are calls for broadband to be classed as a utility and internet access a basic right.

The benefits of the push to online education have expedited the case for blended learning to evolve and continue. Students in our survey felt the switch to remote has provided flexibility to varying degrees, most notably for those who have additional responsibilities such as a job or health and welfare needs. This view was echoed by the pre-university respondents we interviewed, a third of whom would consider an online-only degree course because they can study at home whilst saving, have a job and manage their learning around their lifestyle.

For those groups, technology has the potential to level the playing field, making it more inclusive for people who struggle with the campus system such as working parents, people with disabilities or those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But for technology to democratise education (fees aside), the challenges of remote working must be addressed.

Currently, these include anything from lack of access to resources, unsuitability for some learning styles and the negative impact on collaborating with and learning from peers. Based on these experiences, there needs to be greater investment and focus on resources such as libraries and equipment, access to staff and students, and better training and integration of tools for learning. These must be carefully designed and delivered in a much more considered and effective way than they are today.

Embracing service design

Service design is an increasingly important practice and recognised discipline. It places equal value on both customer experience and business processes by considering the entire human experience.

It’s by no means novel and has been adopted for many years. However, it has certainly come to the fore, as the practice meets the rapidly maturing digital age. Its application is why so many of us default to ordering on Amazon, opt for Netflix over other streaming services or order a taxi via Uber rather than its rivals.

In the HE context, this means applying user-centric design processes to develop new technologies that focus on improving the student experience. Simply, a ‘designed service’ eliminates obstacles that stand in the way of the efficient execution of a given task, and helps users move from one to the next without any extra steps. Ideally, a student should be able to log in and fulfil all tasks seamlessly from any device, whether that’s registering for a class, checking grades or scheduling in-office hours.

“Ideally, a student should be able to log in and fulfil all tasks seamlessly from any device, whether that’s registering for a class, checking grades or scheduling in-office hours”

In a challenge to the historic perception of higher education as multi-faceted, complex and incapable of enterprise-level change, universities must consider themselves as service providers rather than academic institutions and embrace service design thinking as part of their transformation strategy.

The future of the digital experience

Every digital interaction a student has with your institution – from applying to enrolling to registering and beyond – leaves an impression. These days more than ever, those impressions matter. The experiences delivered through positive interactions will serve as a powerful competitive differentiator for institutions. Especially as in higher education, they’re not just competing with other institutions – they’re competing and trying to live up to the experiences found in the consumer space.

“The experiences delivered through positive interactions will serve as a powerful competitive differentiator for institutions”

It’s no accident that the tech industry, which is well-versed in rapid change and constant adaption, adopts service design thinking. This turbulent time requires a flexible approach that’s sensitive to the needs and practices of the communities we serve. Investing specifically in digital service design can help higher education navigate the pandemic and more crucially, better adapt in the years ahead.


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