Low Tech Ways to Promote Change in Higher Ed

By Anna Drake Warshaw
July 17, 2019
Share this

When we talk about how to make higher education more student centric, we talk a lot about innovation. Innovation, however, isn’t synonymous with technology. In fact, a lot of the improvements we test and adopt across the UIA are simple, low tech changes aimed at simplifying the systems students navigate every day.

When we’re trying to create systems that are more supportive of student success, we first look at the design of the system or the process rather than asking which platform or piece of technology could solve the problem. Often these systems and processes just aren’t designed in a way that’s intuitive to students. That’s particularly true for students who are the first in their families to attend college and/or who come from low-income and underserved communities.

Taking the Student’s Point of View to Remove Roadblocks

Iowa State staff members identify the processes most ripe for redesign

To make the university experience more supportive of student success, we go back to the drawing board. What does it really take for a student to register for classes, navigate financial aid, or figure out where to go for advising? We use process mapping to get a view of the student’s experience of these things. Process mapping helps us to identify all the possible steps and hidden complexities.

If a university’s processes are needlessly complicated, outdated, and/or inefficient, they may be creating roadblocks to students staying in school and completing their degrees. For instance, if a student and her advisor agree that a particular major isn’t a good fit for her, it’s important that the student be able to change majors in a clear, efficient way. Without that supporting process, the student’s GPA could suffer and she might find herself adrift in college, accumulating courses that don’t align with a degree program and increasing the cost of her education. Statistically speaking, she becomes less likely to earn a degree.

Usually, such roadblocks are more easily removed by first looking at things from a student’s point of view rather than trying to shoehorn the latest technology into an often already overly complex system. New technology can be great, but like universities themselves, it’s often designed around the needs of administrators, not students, so technology can just as easily compound students’ challenges versus resolving them. It’s important to understand the problem thoroughly first before trying to apply a solution, including a technological one.

Cross-Campus Collaboration Can Promote Human-Centered Design

This spring, UIA Fellow Alex Aljets made the trip from Oregon State University to Iowa State University in order to facilitate a daylong process mapping workshop there. Alex has extensive experience using process mapping to help redesign university processes to be more human centered and supportive of student success.

L to R: Oregon State UIA Fellow Alex Aljets, Iowa State Associate VP of Enrollment Laura Doering, Iowa State UIA Fellow Darcie Sprouse

On the Iowa State side of things, UIA Fellow Darcie Sprouse and Liaison Laura Doering were pivotal to organizing the event as well. Laura is the associate vice president for enrollment services at Iowa State so she brought great perspective. This workshop was for Iowa State staff members from a wide variety of student affairs units across campus, so it was important to involve stakeholders who deeply understand the organizational landscape and are well connected within it.

Before the workshop, Darcie and our Iowa State colleagues identified processes that were outdated and/or inefficient for students. They came up with a list that included changing majors, making schedule changes, and adding and dropping classes. In some cases, a process like changing majors at Iowa State (and at many other institutions) still required students to walk around campus and collect a series of signatures on paper. More than one student advisor commented that students would sometimes have to collect signatures from faculty or staff members they didn’t even know.

To start, Iowa State decided to focus on processes that operated out of the registrar’s office. That unit had recently gone through a leadership change and was open to trying some new things. Starting with the registrar’s office would also give the university a chance to pilot changes in one area first to see how effective they would be.

Darcie and Iowa State put together seven teams for process mapping work. These teams were comprised of people who rarely if ever have a chance to sit together in the same room. Cross-unit collaboration is, in and of itself, a profound way to promote change in higher education. Since Iowa State wanted to focus on registrar-hosted processes, it would have been easy to have only registrar staff participate. Instead, they used the workshop as a chance to bring people together from a wide variety of student and academic affairs units, such as advising, athletics, financial aid, and admissions. This ensured the new or improved processes would incorporate a variety of perspectives. This kind of cross-campus collaboration and creative spirit fuels our work at the UIA.

Process Mapping Makes Things Easier for Universities Too

By the end of the workshop, the teams had identified opportunities to redesign several core processes to be simpler and faster. The goal, of course, was to simplify things for students, but it was also exciting to think about how much staff time Iowa State could save by making some of the changes that had been proposed.

The evaluations from workshop participants also pointed to the potential of process mapping: the majority of those who evaluated the workshop said they would be able to use process mapping again in the future and wanted to learn more about it. Darcie is working with Iowa State’s process mapping teams to support their next steps and measure the impact of the changes being implemented.

Again, process mapping isn’t difficult. It isn't expensive. And it doesn’t require any new technology. It just takes a little time, practice, and a lot of Post-It notes. All UIA fellows are trained to use this simple approach to identify and address logistic challenges affecting students. How can you put this tool to work for students on your campus?

Resources: