Coventry University CIO: Creating a student centric digital ecosystem
“Our systems were initially built for our staff, not our students, and that’s a problem when you’re trying to create a more student-centric environment,” says Stephen Booth, Coventry University Group’s director of digital services.
The challenge, Booth describes, is one that many higher education institutions face: UK-based Coventry University was operating on a legacy system, initially designed in the late nineties – “making it older than most of its users” – the IT head points out.
Yet today’s students are viewed as key stakeholders in the university experience and, as digital natives, they expect a seamless online experience.
Booth points out that this expectation has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the amount of learning that is now done online or in a hybrid environment.
“One of our main IT challenges is to reimagine that interface with the student in mind and to treat the student as someone who is important rather than just something to be managed,” he adds.
Coventry University has expanded massively in recent years – evolving from a campus of 12,000 students a decade ago to an educational group with 40,000 students at its main Midlands-based site.
The umbrella Coventry University Group now incorporates over 20 different companies with campuses in London, Scarborough in the Northeast UK, and even as far as Poland. It also has a digital offering, CU Online, which last year was awarded a number one world ranking for its range and volume of courses.
Then there are also various trans-national educational partnerships with universities in Egypt, Morocco and shortly, one in China.
“If you account for our different online campuses, we are pushing towards 80,000 students, so in terms of size, we’re one of the larger universities in the UK now,” notes Booth, who is Coventry born-and-bred.
Consequently, Coventry University is now halfway through what Booth estimates will be a five-year digital transformation project to provide a better and more efficient online learning experience and record system for its students.
The university’s approach has been to create a network of interconnecting platforms, which places its students at the centre.
To manage this transformation effectively there have also been some structural changes. Coventry University’s IT department transitioned into the Digital Services department which, in August last year, became part of the university’s commercial arm: Coventry University Enterprises Limited (CUE Ltd).
“We now provide that digital service back into the group as a whole,” Booth explains. “But also, we’ve got this nascent commercial arm as well to sell services generally.
“The notion – and we’ve had to learn this during the pandemic – is that you need to remember that your community is broader than just the people in the room; your stakeholders are varied and have different needs,” he says.
“This also informs other things – you can’t just respond to every whim of the different departments – you have to balance those demands and build a product that is sustainable and one that has its own identity,” he adds.
In February this year, CUE Ltd acquired its own social learning platform Aula – which was developed by a start-up that the university had been working with for two and a half years to deliver a more engaging online experience for students.
“The Aula platform cannot become a Coventry University platform. Coventry is the biggest customer of Aula platform but we’re always trying to maintain that supplier-customer relationship inside the business. It’s about fulfilling contracts now as well as a department wanting XYZ.”
According to Booth, in the world of virtual learning the thing that differentiates Aula from its predecessor Moodle, is that it’s a ‘conversation-first’ setting, one that fosters a sense of community and encourages more interaction between students, their peers and educators.
“It goes back to this notion of engagement,” he says. “With traditional platforms you log in, you see courses, you see quizzes, you see materials, but if you log into Aula what you see is a conversation and materials around this it’s all-around social learning,” he explains.
Booth adds that this partnership meant that the university was able to pivot quickly to online learning during the pandemic and the subsequent acquisition of the company has enabled it to address the new world of hybrid or blended learning.
“If you’ve got half the class in the room and half not – how are they all able to participate in the activity? That forces us to look at different platforms. I use the word ‘engagement’ so many times – but that’s our key metric,” he says.
While at the heart of the university’s system is Aula, other networks have been integrated – as Booth describes – “in a loosely coupled way.”
The ‘glue’ used to achieve this integration was provided by the SalesForce-owned company MuleSoft, using its integration, API management and automation solutions.
MuleSoft enabled the IT team to integrate SalesForce’s customer relationship platform into the University’s “monolithic” student records system (first devised in 1997).
“We needed to reimagine the interface and use SalesForce’s platform for all the areas in which the university needed to engage with students and to measure that engagement,” says Booth.
“So, we keep our student record system in the background and use it for what it’s good at – which is as a system of record really – and where we need to engage or perform some kind of social capability or build communities then that’s where we use the SalesForce platform,” he explains.
Booth adds that this enables the university to not only connect with its cohort of learners, but to bring these social concepts to its support activities.
“How do you understand not just if someone is about to drop out but generate meaningful insight into how engaged that student is?
“Because then that engagement determines how well they do. If we think we have a 2.1 student and they are currently tracking for 2.2 degree, then why is this and how can we intervene?”
To generate engagement metrics, Booth says that the CUE works “with some fairly clever start-ups in the AI space” to obtain engagement scores which loop back into SalesForce’s platform to inform its customer experience/ student support teams.
Another platform that Booth is looking to integrate into the Digital Service’s ecosystem is a video conferencing application that lends itself to social learning in a hybrid learning environment.
“Zoom’s great as a video conferencing platform but it’s only okay as an engaged learning platform. So, we’re exploring and working together with some interesting start-ups in the US, on conferencing technologies that can directly measure engagement and can handle lecturers in real time and feedback on how engaged each individual student is, in case a targeted intervention is needed,” says Booth.
This active engagement also extends to student’s health and wellbeing, Booth states, which is linked to another online platform Vygo – a peer-to-peer support and mentoring network that is also used to enable final year students to benefit from a professional industry mentoring programme.
According to Booth, the university is also working towards taking a more flexible approach to the different learning pathways.
“You might enroll as an on-campus student but be in a position where you need to study from home for a week for family reasons or whatever. We’re looking at facilitating that transition so that you can switch between face to face and online as it suits the student,” he says.
Booth explains that it’s all part of the university’s ‘Student 360’ vision that the digital services department aims to deliver, one that engages with the student from the application process right through to the alumni community.
“Once you’ve committed to Coventry as a choice, we very quickly get you access to our virtual learning platform before you’ve even enrolled. So, you can begin to engage conversation with your classmates, put some induction material on there, see the learning so that from day one, you’re engaged,” he explains.
“With alumni the main intention is how can we connect them with our current students for mentoring purposes. So that whole engagement piece is central to what we do to foster that belonging in a community,” he adds.
In terms of future technologies, Booth says that the university will continue to modernise its aging student record system and is also looking at a curriculum management platform.
In terms of the teaching and learning space, digital services is looking at how it can utilise 5G. Coventry, Booth claims, is one of the most connected cities in the UK right now, boasting one of Europe’s first standalone 5G networks with 98% of the city connected to high-speed broadband.
Coventry is also one of the test cities connected to autonomous vehicles and one long standing project – first announced in 2018 – sees the university working as a collaborative partner with Uber Elevate to develop electric take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOL) – sometimes referred to as flying taxis.
The university also offers several automotive engineering and aerospace engineering courses and is devising digital twins in partnership with engineering firms aimed at reducing the design time of vehicles.
Booth reiterates that whether the projects are internal or external, the group’s modus operandi remains the same: to not only think in terms of tech innovation but to do so in a way in that engages and uses technology to drive “meaningful human experiences”.
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