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How systems can transform the student experience

06 Sep 2019 | Prof Colin Turner Colin Turner, Professor of Engineering Education and one of three new National Teaching Fellows 2019 at Ulster University, reflects on how we can create better systems to liberate staff and student time and attention and transform their experience.

When faced with the challenges of providing the best possible student experience to hundreds of students you personally teach or work with, alongside projects, research or your other commitments, how can we best focus our attention on what is most important?

When taking an engineering view of higher education, it is natural to consider it from a systems perspective. Our students and our colleagues encounter systems everywhere and indeed their work forms the most important part of all HE systems. Some of these systems are entirely human, some involve copious amounts of paperwork and increasingly many involve IT.

People are the key part of all our systems

Of course, IT “systems” are never a whole system. It is people and processes that give IT systems their value and purpose. The time that staff and students have is a precious resource. Their attention and focus is even more so. Learning systems should seek to allow us to channel that time and focus into the most important, rewarding and high-value activities. In most cases, this is allowing us to improve the quality of our conversations together.

The use of IT in HE has been driven in some cases by the sheer volume of data now available, and the need to turn this into useful information. I believe another important factor is that IT systems excel at necessary but boring, repetitive and low-value tasks which most of us find difficult and tend to lose focus while undertaking.

Creating, changing and refining systems can be pivotal to transforming student learning outcomes but there can be many pitfalls in achieving these goals. There are some guiding principles and questions that I have learned and found useful in maximising the gain while minimising the pain.

Building better systems

Ideally, systems should be user-focused, sustainable and scalable. These are closely related and overlapping concepts. They apply to systems whether they use IT or not but they can take on even more importance when IT is involved.

User-focused systems are best created when all categories of users are involved and included from the start. This could include students, academic staff, professional services staff and others from outside in industry and beyond. It is useful to consider what incentives all these stakeholders have for working with the system – what aspect of their experience will be transformed or at least improved by the system? Why will they actively want to contribute to this system? Systems work best only when everyone has some sort of win from taking part. The staff and student experience are inextricably linked, though the latter often receives more explicit attention. Supporting staff can transform student outcomes.

Sustainable systems help prevent us from getting bogged down maintaining the very systems that aim to refocus our attention. Useful questions to consider here include: can we create systems a step at a time? Can we reuse or repurpose an existing technology? Equally, can we reduce complete dependence on other technologies? Will the work required next academic year on this process be less than for the previous one? How will data get into a system? How can we get it back out? One of the most common pitfalls for IT approaches to avoid is that their very exactness that makes them helpful and powerful can introduce a lack of flexibility. We should always design our IT systems to embrace and promote change in good practice.

Scalability is sometimes difficult to build into the inception of any new system but it’s very worthwhile to do so. If your system is successful in a department, is it easy to add another department, or roll it out to a whole university, or more? It is helpful when developing any system to consider how it might be designed if other universities were to be able to use it. You may feel no ambition for other institutions to use a system, but this might change. Importantly, every university tends to be a different university five years later in one way or another – so build your systems with the needs of many universities in mind.

Talk. Experiment. Measure. Repeat.

My work in this area has shown me the importance of good conversations with academic and professional services colleagues and students, asking the questions above in an honest open way to inform a good initial direction. Don’t let “perfect be the enemy of good”, any innovation will need to pass the usual cycles of experimentation and improvement after examining the results. Many problems worth solving are too big to deal with in one chunk but we can look for the biggest blockers that are preventing us spending our time and focus with each other and our students and tackle them one at a time. My work building OPUS, a solution for placement learning that students described as vital in enhancing their placement learning spanned over a decade and was taken up by several universities. It involved constant discussions with all users which developed me as well as the system.

Openness of process helps us along. It can force us to be honest and reflective about the problems in our approaches and seek to change them and it promotes conversations with colleagues and our students as partners where we can obtain unexpected epiphanies or help in improving our work. In my case, sharing my code, and bugs, with students that I teach – students who may be using these systems – leads to many valuable conversations where I and others have learned a lot.

What will you change?

I hope these thoughts help you consider the systems in your own practice. Where do you see the opportunities for a systems approach to enrich your HE experience? How can you best ensure valuable time and focus can be spent on the high-level tasks that enrich us as practitioners, our students and others? I hope you find that journey as rewarding as I have.


Professor Colin Turner is Professor of Engineering Education at Ulster University. He has designed, developed and open-sourced a number of award-winning IT systems to transform both the student and staff experience. You can find out more about these systems on his GitHub page or personal blog.

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