CourseCompare founder studies the evolving student experience amid back-to-school season
It was the kind of conversation Robert Furtado has found himself having with educators of every kind — the notion that delivering education online will never measure up to the traditional experience.
In this case, however, the founder of CourseCompare was getting feedback from a professor of engineering who had been forced — like so many of his peers— to begin offering learning via Zoom. Some of the content he gave students, however, was delivered asynchronously — meaning they could tune in whenever they had the time.
“He would have to get their modules into the LMS,” he said, referring to a learning management system, “but he found that he now has more time for discussions and to work with individual students to understand what their stumbling blocks are.”
For most postsecondary institutions, the discovery that technology could actually help improve their customer experience (CX) would represent an ideal, if unexpected outcome to recent challenges. At the moment, however, the majority are still figuring out what kind of experience they can reasonably provide — on campus, online or via a hybrid model.
“Academic institutions have traditionally been reluctant to think of their students as ‘customers,’” Furtado, whose startup serves as an online marketplace to connect learners with the best courses in their area of interest, told 360 Magazine. “The circumstances we’re facing now means they may need to change that.”
The Pandemic Plan(s) So Far
CourseCompare has created a database that offers a deep dive into the various pandemic plans schools have put in place so far. Only four per cent are offering classes in person, while 53 per cent are offering classes online and 40 per cent have a hybrid model. (Disclosure: I served as an advisor to CourseCompare for several years and briefly oversaw its content marketing efforts). Though Course Compare’s data is focused on Canadian schools, research from the Chronicle of Higher Education paints a similar picture.
According to Furtado, academic institutions are much like other enterprises in having to truncate digital transformation plans from four years to a matter of weeks. Beyond merely pivoting online, though, he said many are now working just as hard with instructional designers on the kind of content students will experience as well.
“Schools are definitely rethinking their product,” he said. “They’re taking this as a really valuable moment to reassess what they’re doing. And I think the benefits of that won’t be limited to what they do online. They’ll trickle down into in-person classes as well.”
A good example is Ryerson University in Toronto, which Furtado said is preparing to deliver classes in chemistry, biology and physics using augmented reality (AR) technology to bridge the distance the pandemic requires. Other institutions, such as Dalhousie University, are bringing out courses that cover the foundations of online course design to empower other educators.
“These schools are developing strategies that are more than a contingency plan,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of investments that are going to hopefully deliver a more flexible and accessible university experience.”
Surprise and Delight Moments
Of course, a student experience is different from other customer experiences because it is, essentially, far more immersive and multi-faceted. Higher education institutions are recognizing that, however, and in some cases are looking for opportunities to introduce “surprise and delight” type of moments that those in retail, hospitality and other sectors could learn from.
This ranges from washable university-branded masks that are being handed out to students at Western University in London, Ont. to meal delivery services for students at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Furtado said he is also seeing universities rolling out virtual, voice-guided campus tours to help make students more comfortable before their first visit or a return from the holidays.
Some aspects of the student experience — think dorm parties, pep rallies and other crowd-oriented events — may be impossible to replicate or even imitate digitally, Furtado admitted. However frequency of contact and greater availability could go a long way, he said.
“It’s going to be important to create as many touchpoints between instructors and students as possible,” he said. “It possibly requires them to harmonize all the different points along the journey — from instructors to campus staff to facilities managers — in a way that they’ve never done before.”
VoC and Metrics Considerations
Schools may also differ from organizations in other sectors in lacking typical “voice of the customer” style feedback mechanisms, and there hasn’t been a history of CX job titles in academic institutions. Then there is the matter of metrics: although a lot of things are having to change quickly, schools will need to think about how best to gauge whether what they offer is working or not.
“When I speak to administrators, it’s enrolment, retention and revenue. I don’t get the sense that they have really developed metrics for each stage in the journey,” Furtado said. “A lot of them don’t look at things like the lifetime value of customer, which is a missed opportunity. As things move online, they’re going to start looking at attrition rates and satisfaction scores for online versus in-person models and variations thereof.”
Schools, in other words, are changing the student experience, but it may take a term or two before they get the CX equivalent of a report card.
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.