Centering the Student Experience: Adopting New Technologies and Ways of Working in Higher Ed

Pulling off an enterprise-wide technology rollout—and the organizational changes, cultural shifts, and operational recalibrations that come with it—is no small feat, even for an elite higher education institution with ample resources.

The university in question is nothing short of an academic powerhouse, with a $4 billion annual academic operating budget, more than 50,000 students, and nearly 18,000 faculty and staff. 

Given the university’s size and complexity, leadership is accustomed to taking big swings in the name of innovation. But this particular project was a super-sized technology investment poised to impact every student, faculty member, and most administrators, totaling more than $50 million over the course of several years and across 10 iterative deployments. 

To call this mission a big undertaking is an understatement, as it amounted to much more than simply swapping one platform for another—in fact, the tech was just the tip of the iceberg. Moving to an entirely new platform for everything from class registration and financial aid to student records and degree advising required a masterful rewiring of how the organization operated. Because of its scope, the project garnered plenty of internal attention, including from the president, provost, and board of trustees, and “getting it right” wasn’t merely an objective, it was a necessity. 

As if the task at hand wasn’t complicated enough, the high level of emotions added an extra layer of complexity. Numerous stakeholders had long-standing roots at the university and strong loyalty to the staff, advisors, and students. Managing their hesitations and concerns about the widespread changes that lay ahead added to the challenge and further proved an empathetic, people-centric approach was necessary. 

The university needed guidance from an external partner adept not only at digital and technology enablement, but one that understood the complexities of higher education and could wrangle multiple stakeholder groups, expedite strategic decisions, communicate them across a decentralized organization, and inspire widespread adoption of the new system. Navigate’s perspective—namely, that the true drivers of performance improvements in higher education stem from changing the way people work together—set the tone as the project teams moved through critical planning phases and successive deployments. 

Putting the Adoption Puzzle Together, Piece by Piece

The technology had been tried, tested, and validated. Still, the biggest hurdles lay ahead: getting the entire university community on board. Tasked with leading the charge, the Navigate team dug in quickly to understand the complexities of four distinct user populations—students, faculty, advisors, and staff, how the new system would impact their day-to-day lives, and how to help them through the changes that lay ahead.  

Navigate operated at the epicenter of a large collective of systems implementers, contractors, university employees, and various councils and advisory boards, collaborating directly with these groups and sharing progress along the way. With Navigate at the helm, the team built an array of tools to engage each stakeholder population and identified the right channels to distribute those messages. In support of these efforts, multiple change agent networks were formed and clear modes of communication were established, including informational sessions, playbooks, and other materials tailored to different segments of the university community. 

As a result, the stakeholder groups had more trust in the process and faith in the planning. Slowly but surely, the pieces were falling into place, and stakeholders gained peace of mind knowing what was coming, how the changes would affect them, and where to look for support.


Building a Two-way Street

Far too often, large-scale change is funneled downstream with little room for input from those using a new system or living and breathing operational change. Without a bidirectional feedback loop in place, one-way streets lead to total roadblocks (and a total lack of ROI). 

Like most leading higher education institutions—and other decentralized organizations, for that matter—all of the university’s key stakeholders, including faculty, advisors, and administrators, had their own needs and distinct ways of doing things. While this created a challenge for change makers tasked with shifting mindsets and behaviors in a different direction, it was also an opportunity to glean valuable insights, bring them upstream, and integrate this feedback into the new platform’s interface and functionality. 

With a two-way communication mechanism in place, stakeholders now had a vehicle for voicing concerns, sharing comments, and asking questions related to the rollout. This set the stage for authentic dialogue and substantive contributions, ultimately leading to better engagement and adoption across the community.

Centering the Student Experience

The ultimate success of the new technology platform was due in large part to the team’s focus on keeping the core purpose front and center throughout the duration of the project. Even when momentum slowed due to inevitable COVID-fueled delays, the team never lost sight of the “why,” striving to weave this into all aspects of the project and related communications. 

In tandem with the technology implementation, Navigate was also engaged to assist with a parallel, in-person solution meant to streamline administrative activities and reduce the “run around” students encountered when registering for courses, processing financial aid, and more. The new location served as a single-stop shop for students seeking all types of information, and building it required all levels of leadership to adopt a truly student-centric approach—one that matched the innovative spirit the university’s reputation was built on.

This pilot program was the perfect testing ground for how the new system, in conjunction with new ways of working, could bring a much-improved experience to life for students, and with it, greater efficiencies for administrators. 

Reaping the Rollout Rewards

After 10 phased deployments of different modules to a variety of user groups, the university community is now equipped with a single, sustainable system that puts the student at the center. The leap had been taken—and landed safely—proving that adaptability and agility are possible, even in the complex world of higher education. 

Although additional deployments remained, the biggest hurdles had been cleared, which allowed the Navigate team to start the hand-off process and equip the university’s core team with the tools to be successful moving forward. With the hardest work in the rearview mirror, users could now focus on reaping the benefits of optimized interfaces, more streamlined workflows, better potential for collaboration, improved reporting capabilities, and then some. 

In the end, Navigate’s in-depth understanding of higher education, empathetic approach to preparing thousands of stakeholders for a major transition, and emphasis on two-way communication led students, faculty, and staff to feel seen and heard. With this major step forward into the modern era, the university succeeded in creating a more student-centric experience. The result? A system that meets their needs, reflects their input, and increases efficiency for all. 

After 10 phased deployments of different modules to a variety of user groups, the university community is now equipped with a single, sustainable system that puts the student at the center. The leap had been taken—and landed safely—proving that adaptability and agility are possible, even in the complex world of higher education.