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Survive or Thrive – Overcoming the Student Engagement Challenge

Authentic engagement with the institution is often the key differentiator between students that thrive, and those that just survive, their college experience. But the needs and expectations of students are changing, and institutions need to evolve their approaches to better foster student engagement today and in the future.

In a recent webinar, Paul Muller, Director of Admissions at Bemidji State University, and Chris Bunio, Senior Director of Higher Education at Microsoft, joined Campus Management to discuss strategies for engaging with the new generation of students at today’s institutions. The panelists outlined how to elevate communication and engagement with students, as well as strategies to ensure authenticity in your student engagement efforts.

The following edited excerpts are key takeaways from the event.

Paul Muller, Director of Admissions, Bemidji State University
Mark Armstrong, Former Chief Strategy Officer, Campus Management
Dr. Jennifer Beyer, Vice President of Product Management for CRM, Campus Management
Chris Bunio, Senior Director, Higher Education, Microsoft

How do we foster a campus culture that is focused on thriving, elevating both the institution and the students who participate?

DR. JENNIFER BEYER: This has certainly become a challenge as we see the profile of the student body shifting. We're seeing an increase in nontraditional students enrolling.

What we also find is a disconnect between the curriculum that is being offered and the job requirements for students post-graduation. At the same time, we are seeing continuing challenges with declining enrollment, increasing competitive pressure, and changes in funding sources. At state-funded institutions, the percentage of the funding is decreased.

Ultimately, fostering a campus culture that creates a positive sense of community with a level of well-being will contribute to a persistence towards graduation – increased relationships that then result in donations and giving back in the future.

Who does it mean to survive or thrive for institutions?

MARK ARMSTRONG: ‘Survive’ means maintaining basic operations and little innovation. In many respects, it is an ongoing and chronic risk that, over time, can really sap innovation and create a reactive culture. Versus thriving, which I associate with growth and innovation. Even if institutions view that in a negative way, at some point, you just have to lean in. Thriving means getting to the next thing.

PAUL MULLER: I agree. If you just keep doing what you're doing, you're certainly not going to thrive. At Bemidji State, we've taken the approach that we really want to focus on some strategic marketing that's rooted in data. I you listen to what students are telling you, they're giving you lots of answers even before you ask.

If you think of the Amazon model, it's very evident that consumers prefer to be targeted with appropriate information that adds value to their lives. Students are no different when it comes to inbound marketing or digital marketing.

So you need a digital marketing expert on your team. These people are pretty insatiable about staying on top of trends. That in itself adds a healthy discussion to not just what you're doing, but how you're listening to students and using your CRM.

How can institutions begin to deliver the experience that is being demanded by their new student population?

PAUL MULLER: At Bemidji State, we first made sure we have a very diverse staff to go along with support services, and a very diverse faculty. We created an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, ultimately giving students that authentic connection to other students, faculty, staff. When it comes to inclusive technology and making sure that we're supporting diverse student needs on campus, we want to make sure there is thoughtful adoption of technology that helps to bring those students into the classroom and helps set them up for success.

DR. JENNIFER BEYER: Chris, I know Microsoft has invested heavily in education, not just the technology, but really fostering this kind of time of transformation.

CHRIS BUNIO: One of the biggest indicators that Microsoft looks at, particularly when it comes to higher education institutions, is the graduation rate of students coming out. Are they ready for the workforce?

Microsoft is a fairly large employer. We look at it from the point of view of, "Are we getting the skills that we need in the marketplace?" But then, looking more broadly at our students coming through programs and asking if they are ready to go directly into employment.

With the transformation that's happening in the industry in general; and the impact of things like artificial intelligence and transforming jobs, we know that these skills are more required than ever. There is much more demand for that base level of technical knowledge, or even just understanding data and data science.

We’ve also got some trailing indicators, graduation rates, and enrollment levels, that are telling us what's happening in the system. It is interesting to see this evolution at the macro level.

We’re getting a lot of data that tells us we may need to be thinking more carefully about how we actually drive the level of innovation on campus that's needed to keep students engaged; and make sure they're coming out with those skills that they need, particularly as we see all of this technology transformation happening around us.

Having thoughtful plans for adopting new technology is a key success factor for institutions. We hear about things like machine learning. We hear about cognitive services. Those are amazing tools to use in the right context. They are helping to support student engagement and making sure that they can get access to information through things like bots that get integrated into a system. Campus Management has certainly been leading the way and thinking about that kind of engagement level.

How do we use innovation to drive improvements?

CHRIS BUNIO: We're getting more institutions starting on this path. They are looking at data within their institution to determine what they can start acting on. They are capturing and analyzing SIS data, financial planning, and student engagement systems to better visualize what that data set is telling them.

If you can see that you've got an enrollment trend happening with certain students coming from particular K-12 schools, you may want to take action on that. It's being able to visualize those kinds of trends.

Then you can apply innovations like machine learning; and generate new insights or generating new processes that come through. Those are just some of the things that, as we look broadly at the ecosystem, we're seeing that kind of visualization technology.

PAUL MULLER: I would add, at Bemidji State, we're not unlike a lot of institutions where we have multiple CRMs across campus. Because Athletics wants their own and so does Alumni, Resident Life, and other departments. I think we have at least six different CRMs, and they don’t talk to each other.

We're now making much greater strides in bringing efficiency to the process and the data living in the CRM systems. It's not only better for serving the student, but it's obviously more efficient and cost effective.

CHRIS BUNIO: One of the interesting things that we've seen is around the cloud and cloud capability. We're seeing less of the traditional sort of rip-and-replace approach. More institutions are thinking about data strategy as spanning all of the different data sets they have; and looking more at a strategy where they can map out and consolidate to something like a data lake. You don't necessarily have to get rid of all those CRM systems to be able to get value from the data they hold, as long as the data strategy can look at those different components, and adequately bring that together.

How can artificial intelligence help impact campus success?

MARK ARMSTRONG: AI is for real and rapidly becoming part of the deployment infrastructure. The questions and the help that an incoming freshman needs navigating through some of the business processes are much different than they will be when they're a sophomore. You can look at their profile data and ascertain what is most likely to be important to them. At Campus Management, we're harnessing the Microsoft platform of services and building a digital assistant, starting with some very basic things to answer questions. But in the process of answering questions, we can use the cognitive services to get a sense of the constituents' mindset. Are they agitated? Are they happy? Based on that sentiment analysis, we can automatically create cases in our engagement platform. Their counselor at least has the choice of reaching out to them.

CHRIS BUNIO: Microsoft has been deeply invested in artificial intelligence. Our CEO, Satya Nadella, sees artificial intelligence as a tool for pursuing good outcomes for a particular user group. The onus is on AI users to make sure that it is being used for the right things and not in ways that can harm a population. We want it to be a tool that helps to accelerate and augment the capabilities of humans.

What does the student system need to look like from a practical perspective?

PAUL MULLER: For our institutions, we would ultimately look forward to one single system, if we can get to that point. I'm not talking about just the multiple CRMs. We spent so much time and energy talking back and forth between student information systems and CRM.

We tend to, like many institutions, to watch the wheels spin when we're looking at our student information system. It interferes with our ability to do our work. We haven't been able to get all units across campus living in one system. But that would bring an incredible amount of efficiency.

MARK ARMSTRONG: It’s important to define what the student system of the future will look like. When people say student system, they think, "It's the SIS." Then we just keep grafting more stuff on. How do you get the benefits of some level of loose coupling and flexibility without creating a kind of a Frankenstein that ultimately locks you in? Or becomes very expensive?

I think the shift to the cloud creates a lot of clarity and understanding about how and where you can do that. One of the tradeoffs for gaining a modern architecture can be the level of integration, depending on how it's done.

It can result in some sub-optimization around performance and other things. When we look at the student system of the future, we look at a lot of what happens in a SIS today. The transaction engines are much more like supply chain management, a manufacturing system versus customer support and constituent engagement.

We view that loose coupling as a first step towards having an engagement platform that can not only surface the work that 90 to 95 percent of your users and customers need to do, but gives customers the flexibility to plug in other value-added products, partners, services, and innovation. Increasingly, those engines in the traditional SIS are not accessed directly by customers anymore. They're in the back end. It can be optimized around performance, regulatory compliance, and become more plug-and-play. You can't really make those complex engines more plug-and-play until you extract them away from the day-to-day users. That's just a reality of systems architecture. Then you think about bringing the LMS, and general teaching and learning applications. That's what we're shooting for. Not only to advance the architecture for what we know; but the things we see on the horizon.

It’s more important than ever to have an architecture that keeps advancing, but one that is flexible enough, and has sufficient R&D to enable our customers to start incorporating those things as we go. Embracing flexibility is something that we think we know how to do with the architecture. We're starting to talk to our customers in the community about embracing that as a philosophy.

CHRIS BUNIO: We're seeing a lot of the technology that's out there today creating new opportunities to think about student success and student systems in new ways. We're not going to move away in the short-term from a SIS platform. But we can start getting more value out of these systems. We're starting to integrate that data in new ways. For example, being able to merge data from the SIS with engagement systems; and then connecting that to mobile applications that students use as they move around campus.

That starts to build a much stronger and more complete view of what a real student experiences as they're going around campus and actually engaging in the classrooms and social activities. You start to get more of a holistic view.

Using cloud capabilities helps us accelerate some of that change. We gain new data tools that can move data between systems or create new ways to visualize that data.

Those are all really powerful concepts that augment what we might be doing today from a technology and architecture standpoint. Again, as we bring in things like machine learning, and having thoughtful application of that to the different scenarios that we want to engage on are really critical.

There's a lot of depth across Microsoft’s technology platform and Campus Management’s solutions. They can really solve some of those key problems. It's a really interesting space.

MARK ARMSTRONG: From our perspective, education is more critical than ever. It literally drives the future of the world. And everyone in this organization is mission driven.

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