Digital Strategy in colleges – what if ‘back office’ really needs to be ‘front office’?


All too often when we talk about ‘Digital Strategy’ in colleges we are addressing the issue of delivering teaching and learning through digitally-enabled techniques. Naturally the focus goes to virtual learning environments (VLEs), discussions about ‘flipped classrooms’ and lecture capture, adaptive learning and perhaps apps that deliver teaching.  There may be ventures into discussions about badges, gamification and quizzes. We feel we can tick the box when we can demonstrate that students have access to online learning resources.

And then, once we’ve started on the digitisation of the learning journey, there’s the hardware to consider – debates on wifi and Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD), on-premise versus Cloud or a managed service.

The drive to do more with less in IT departments might also have seen a move away from bespoke in-house software to commercially supported solutions; less configuration in favour of more ‘out-of-the box’ solutions. This can often be the extent of the consideration for the so-called ‘back-office’ systems when it comes to the digitisation agenda.  In some instances, there may even be a foray into portals and self-service to allow users to input their own data or improve efficiency. That too might be seen as a tick in the box for digital.

Bringing alive critical information that drives quality and success

But what if ‘back-office’ really needs to be ‘front-office’?  What if the digitisation of back-office could bring not only efficiency savings, but bring alive critical information that measures and drives the quality of learning and student success, that allows us to have a holistic view of learners and teach them better, be more responsive to their needs and enable learners to manage their own learning?

Take for example attendance reporting. A back-office system collects register marks and may have been ‘digitised’ to the extent that marks can be captured via a portal on a PC, tablet or phone and fed into the system. Reports will then be produced – static, retrospective views of what attendance has been like. Yet, we all know that if a learner hasn’t been attending then they are not accessing the learning. A ‘front-office’ attendance system delivers real-time data on a dashboard to both learner and tutor and, if appropriate, parent and employer. It triggers alerts to encourage attendance. It gives live access to drill-down into data to spot emerging trends. Its digital future is perhaps plotting lates and non-attendance with distance travelled to college, or access to transport and mapping.  It might be cross-referenced against student feedback or HR records -  perhaps students aren’t attending because their staff are absent or the lessons aren’t engaging them.  This one statistical report comes alive when plotted with student achievement data – perhaps they are not attending because they are discouraged?  Or perhaps their lack of attendance is the cause of lack of achievement.  In any or all of these cases, this critical piece of data needs to be in the hands of those that pull the levers, those that have the ability to make changes and put interventions in place in a manner that is timely and proactive and is part of an easily accessible and holistic view of learner.

"What if the digitisation of back-office could bring not only efficiency savings, but bring alive critical information that measures and drives the quality of learning and student success"

The holistic view of the learner – for the benefit of all parties

To gain that holistic view of the learner a wealth of useful information traditionally held in the back-office student record system needs to be harnessed through digital tools to become instantly available to teachers, support staff and managers and to the learner themselves so that they can become independent and enabled learners.

The answers to learners' questions should be able to be presented to them drawing upon data held in your MIS:

  • What I’m learning (Curriculum)
  • What qualification I’m aiming to achieve (Outcomes, Exams)
  • My suitability for learning (Prior learning and achievement, any special needs)
  • How I’m doing (Formative and summative assessment tracking)
  • What I need to do next (target setting)
  • Am I happy (Pastoral issues, student feedback, student support requests)
  • Where is my learning taking place (timetable)
  • Am I managing my money (fees, bursaries, etc.,)

All these critical pieces of information need to be seen alongside the other learner requirements which the digital revolution tackles:

  • I need to be able to find help when I need it
  • I need good quality lesson delivery and great teaching resources at my fingertips
  • My feedback is important and things change because of it
  • I need to know how I can improve
  • Teacher feedback needs to be accessible and timely so that I can respond
  • I want to be able to use the modern tools I’m familiar with to achieve this
  • I don’t want to queue
  • I don’t want to wander around college trying to find you
  • I don’t want multiple log-ins and passwords to remember
  • I don’t want to have to go to lots of different systems to get the information I need, I want it pushed to me, to remind me, notify me and help me out
  • I want it on my phone, in an App, and only on a desktop when that’s the most appropriate means of presenting the data
  • I rarely check my email and I’m used to very visual presentations so don’t show me lists and drop-downs
  • I’m bored by forms, I like pictures.

And yes, that means we need robust wifi and for phones, tablets and BYOD to work in college.  It also means addressing hardware considerations so that learners can access a PC in college whenever needed. They do expect the teaching and learning content to be easy to find, engaging and visual and it should be easy to upload work. The traditional digital strategy, as far as it goes, is good for learners.  But if you leave the student record system information in the back-office and don’t improve the operational efficiency then you’ve only done half the job.

An instant, accessible, timely and engaging toolkit for learners, teachers, quality managers and leaders that gives a 360˚ view of learners and what’s really going on in the college – that should be the goal of a true digitisation strategy. It takes advantages of everything that modern technology must offer to drive quality, drive efficiencies, help learners to drive their own learning and equips all parties in the learning partnership for success.

So, is it time for back-office to take a step forward?