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CATE 2019: Meeting students where they are - the power of digital

11 Oct 2019 | Prof Nick Morton As the team from Birmingham City University prepares to celebrate its CATE win at the awards ceremony next week, project lead Professor Nick Morton reflects on the rationale driving their innovative commercial partnership approach, and the benefits for a mobile-led student world.

We live in an age in which access to mobile devices is close to ubiquitous. Smartphone adoption amongst teenagers exceeds 96% (Deloitte 2018), while screen-time can significantly exceed teaching contact hours (Ofcom 2018). Yet our perennial academic debate is how to better engage our students. It follows that the opportunity to digitally reach out is unmissable. We need to meet students where they are – that is, online, mobile-led, consuming video-first content, backed by slick, simple and immediate forms of communication.

Going digital

This sense of opportunity has driven a remarkable series of initiatives delivered in collaboration between Birmingham City University (BCU) and a tech startup, Tandem Labs. Two years’ experience in developing pilot apps and proof-of-concept work has led to the rollout of University Assistant, a fully-featured digital student engagement platform. Through this app we can deliver targeted content, themed around a student’s course and stage of study. We offer relevant information in a contemporary style and lower the bar for them to seek help. In other words, we ‘cut through the noise’ so the most important messages are heard and provide a feedback channel so the student voice is loud and clear in return.

There is no doubt that our students, as millennial tech-savvy consumers, have embraced the University Assistant approach. The chat feature, for example, in which students can ask questions directly of our Student Success Advisor team, has resonated with a generation who were in primary school when WhatsApp launched. It has quickly become the go-to source of help for many of our students.

I really do believe the live chat feature is the most useful…being able to ask any question, no matter what and have a quick, real human response is amazing."

BCU student

Making better-informed decisions

As a management tool, meanwhile, the app has driven a culture shift in decision-making through the availability of live metrics. A major activity such as Welcome Week traditionally leads to a reflection process afterwards to plan changes for the following year. University Assistant enabled us to move from annual to 24-hour feedback cycles. We were able to review and (re)promote individual events, including important topics which might otherwise be neglected in the hectic whirl of induction and social events, such as mental health and wellbeing. Furthermore, because our target audience is used to an ‘always on, always with you’ mobile culture, we found that University Assistant acts as a digital proxy for wider engagement. We can encourage this in nuanced ways, for example, in-the-moment updates and notifications targeted to individual personal tutor groups improve the staff-student experience at a very local level.

Innovation through collaboration

For the academic team in BCU, a lean and agile approach to delivering this work was essential. We put together a seamless internal project team, working in daily contact based on relationships of trust and mutual values, and bringing together senior faculty leadership, Student Success Advisors, and, crucially, a placement student at the heart of the team. Our external partner brought a fresh energy to the approach, drawing upon their agility and market awareness to work in a consciously collaborative style. For them, too, the experience has been transformational.

As a tech startup, it’s essential to be close to your customers. Our relationship with BCU is outstanding – we have literally embedded ourselves on campus and work hand-in-hand with the faculty team on a daily basis. I cannot imagine achieving all we have without such high levels of shared trust, openness and ambition.”

Rob Pritchard, CEO, Tandem Labs

Since the CATE win was announced, the team have been hard at work launching University Assistant for incoming students in a second major faculty at BCU, with a third to follow in January. At the time of writing, we have almost 2,500 Monthly Active Users and in the first few weeks of the new academic year alone, we have resolved more than 800 separate chats. The reception has been fantastic, from staff and students alike. In the words of one of our brand new student users, ‘It’s brilliant... Absolutely love the app, it’s so handy!’

To the future…

Project TIGERS confirms beyond doubt that harnessing the power of digital is essential in connecting to our current generation of students. Our next challenge is the integration of this, and other support systems, into a more holistic offering to students, and we’re very keen to share with, and learn from, other teams and other experiences in the HE community. What’s worked for you? We’d love to hear.


Professor Nick Morton is Associate Dean in BCU’s Faculty of Computing, Engineering & the Built Environment. He’s also a National Teaching Fellow and Principal Fellow. If you’d like to know more about Project TIGERS or the University Assistant app, please contact him at


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