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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: UWS CIO Claudette Jones on using data to improve the student experience

Claudette Jones left her role as CIO of the City of Edinburgh Council more than a year ago to join the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), for two main reasons; she wanted to work in an environment which was not completely outsourced; and because she liked the lofty ambitions that the university had for the future.

For the former reason, she says she needed to prove for her own personal development that she could work in an in-house environment. And for the latter, Jones was excited about the possibilities of using new technologies at the university.

While the budget and size of the university – which has about 16,000 students and 1,500 staff – is smaller than the council, Jones says it’s easier to get things done – and it’s also easier to get customer feedback.

“In the council I worked in the headquarters building, so I didn’t see any of the end customers. It’s quite difficult to get hold of people in the street and see how IT was affecting them. In the university, you’re so much closer to customers, and you can overhear how IT is impacting them when you’re at the coffee shop,” she says.

In just over 12 months, Jones and her team have been looking to make some big changes in the way technology is used to support staff and students.

A step ahead with data

Universities, like most other organisations, are using data to help make better-informed decisions, and the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) is no different, but Jones wants the organisation to go a step further than most.

For example, universities have invested heavily in engagement tracking to ensure a better rate of student retention.

UWS has a dashboard for students to log into which shows their engagement compared to their peers. It gives figures on how often the student is going to class, how often they’re entering the library and how often they’re reading relevant journals. The tool alerts the university of students who could be thinking of leaving.

“They don’t generally just wake up and say they’re gone. They miss some classes and stop engaging for a couple of weeks,” says Jones.

But UWS wants to enhance this even further – because while it may get alerts, its staff are often too busy dealing with other important matters.

“We’re looking to use artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots that connect to this system. So students will be prompted automatically and asked if they’re okay and the AI can have that conversation and can then escalate it to a member of staff if necessary,” Jones explains.

In addition, UWS will attempt to do some sentiment analysis to get a better understanding of what prospective students like about the university and competitor universities. Jones says that UWS hopes to use the analysis to check whether marketing campaigns have been successful or not in changing perceptions.

But one area where UWS won’t currently be investing in with regard to data is with the Internet of Things (IoT).

“We would like to put beacons in but our students are concerned about data protection and data tracking, even if the data was anonymous,” she says.

The data would enable the university to know where people are, which areas are used the most, and generally which areas could be better utilised – but the project will have to be shelved for now.

Integration is the priority

For Jones, integrating a lot of the technology is critical. She says she was surprised to find how many different types of systems students needed to know about at university; with different log-ins, addresses and applications needed for courses, timetables and coursework submission, for example.

Her team have implemented a single sign-on feature, so now students have a portal for the majority of these systems for which they only need one username and password.

UWS also wanted to implement an end-to-end student CRM lifecycle. This would help the university get a bigger picture of areas in which students are having a good or bad experience, and what generally makes a good trajectory for success at the university. Jones says it was critical that the university had one single CRM system to do this.

“Other universities have four different CRMs because different faculties can’t agree on how it should be set up and I didn’t want to do that as it’s not cost effective or easy for the students to use,” she explains.

The university chose Crimson Accelerator as its CRM, which is provided by Crimson Consultants and is built on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform.

Jones understands that integrating all of the university’s systems can be a lengthy process – and therefore a stopgap she suggests is an automation or robotics pilot.

“In busy times such as recruitment and clearing, we could do a pilot in which a PC acts as a member of staff. It isn’t extensive but as integration can take time, this is a quick and easy way of doing things and also allows us to see where inefficiencies are,” she states.

Technology for more than support

In the university’s biggest campus, UWS had introduced an app so that students could navigate around. However, the app wasn’t as clear as UWS wanted it to be, so the university worked with a Netherlands-based organisation called Silverback Wayfinding Consultancy to develop a more user-friendly way-finding application.

“The app allows users to walk through the buildings using pictures rather than following a map and it has been really popular with students,” she says.

But the relationship with Silverback has gone further than developing an app. Now, if a UK-based organisation wants to use the technology, they can do so via UWS.

“Hospitals in the Netherlands use the application, and if UK companies wanted to do the same, we could send our technicians to help them set up, rather than Silverback sending people from the Netherlands, so this is has also led to revenue generation,” she says.