Reflections from THETA 2023: The future of higher education and technology

The future of higher education and technology is evolving at incredible speeds, and so is our understanding of the new student experience 4.0, reflecting recent trends and technologies.  

Should we be brave enough to take on the opportunities, we are prompted to deeply consider the role of teaching, hyper-personalisation at speed, assessment and credentials, and the design of digital and physical student spaces. 

All of this was covered at CAUDIT's THETA conference, a three-day event exploring emerging trends and technology's intelligent use in higher education. As a participant, I found the conference an excellent opportunity to contemplate the sector's future in my new role at Liquid Interactive.

I’m incredibly privileged to again be at the interface of an exciting new area – the connection between the university, technology and the student experience. Here are my top three takeaways from the conference. 

Ocean Mark Sam_1700

(Liquid team members Ocean Cheung, Mark Young and Sam Daley at the THETA 2023 conference)


Student experience is about more than service delivery 

What is the idea of a university in 2023, and how is this brought to life across digital and analogue modes? Clearly, the HE delivery model's changing nature has influenced all university services. A common theme of this year’s conference was new approaches to service design and delivery. Listening to some of the sessions, I thought about Theodore Levitt's Harvard Business Review article about Marketing Myopia and the idea that we need to focus on the business we are really in.  

A good example came from UTS and the central experience of the library, in that it increasingly became the hub to the spokes of education and learning. It provided a social and event space and sought to become a destination to learn and interact with peers. We heard how the university was crafting a new peer-to-peer service design to enhance the sense of connection and authentic engagement in the life of the university. Further, we listened to the process that involved taking 1,900 web pages and reducing them to 200, significantly rebalancing its need to provide information with a human-centred design of how students might access this information.  

Rumblings about “earning the commute” of students has prompted thinking about how to extract the sometimes-dormant value of participating in campus life. So while higher education is still focused on teaching, research, and civic engagement, the nature of place and the student experience has increasingly shifted over the past few years and requires a strategic approach to rebalancing university resources in designing these experiences. Central to this idea is that the complex service models and silo thinking are at an end, as we see an uplift in collaborations and authentic service engagement. 

In the words of John Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself” we’re reminded that the value of the student experience is interaction and community across all campuses.  


:: How can digital transformation and human-centred design converge to drive better student outcomes and business resilience? Find out more


How can you show students you care? 

A 2007 report published by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education on Making Caring Common was a leading piece of thinking and influence on the US HE sector in expanding its selection criteria for admitting students to study. The report provided recommendations on promoting a concern for others, contributing to the common good, and using these indicators as the basis of admission into the university.  

Similar thinking was presented at THETA by Dr John O’Brien, President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, who proposed augmenting the digital student experience (Dx) and caring experience (Cx). He pointed out that 37% of students don’t have confidence in university IT, and 44% don’t trust universities to use information ethically. So how might our digital strategies help improve student engagement, build confidence and realise brand affinity from students? Here are my three suggestions for a low investment and medium gain within universities to improve student care: 

  • Improve access and transparency of student information that is valuable to the learner

This might be through learning analytics or success indicators available at students’ fingertips. We make informed judgements or develop hypotheses about how we might improve the student experience with help from data and research. There's also an opportunity to share these insights with students to support their learning, increase engagement, and ensure they benefit from personalised information. 

  • Elevate your understanding of students

Take student experience research to the next level by listening to students' voices and considering their digital behaviour to design experiences unique to them. We often have data points within divisions and quantitative and qualitative data that, in isolation, are challenging to draw any conclusions from. However, emerging data strategies are beginning to inform decision-making as Chief Data Officers partner across the university to initiate conversations and validate the use of data to improve divisional performance. With so many touchpoints across the university and multiple interactions daily, we sometimes are paralysed by complexity. Still, common data platforms connected to single student records are assisting us in elevating the student experience through better understanding.

  • Connect data and engagement feedback to inform university strategy and practice

This can be achieved by moving beyond compliance reporting within isolated legacy systems to connect data around the student. While there’s nothing better than a shiny report, there are often deep insights that support our connections to the students. Student connection is at its best when we take time to engage in conversation and use timely information to advance the relationship. It’s pleasing that many universities have moved beyond call campaigns by professional staff and asked leading academics to own the student relationship. It shows real engagement, care, and respect for our students, who consistently tell us that the academic experience drives as much as 80% of the university experience; support services and administrative interactions drive the other 20%. The role of the academic is central to students' success and pivotal to their academic pursuits. 


Putting students first will require solutions that can scale 

My most significant takeaway from THETA 2023 was that the digital experience should be humanised for all students. We can inspire, create new thinking, and heighten energy to demand more services. As we try to “earn the commute” of students, we must find a way to underline the sense of place and campus to make the experience more remarkable. 

Putting students first has always been a priority in higher education, and it’s a strong legacy of all the fantastic people, colleagues and friends I have worked with over the years. There is endless passion and drive to put students first. However, as universities continue to grow, student enrolments reach levels beyond the ability for analogue solutions to scale and meet issues of complexity, with almost 1.5 million students studying in Australia. Therefore, the challenge is how we now take that approach at scale to surprise and delight our students, visitors and alums.  

With as many as 86,000 student enrolments at a single university, we must augment our design for the student experience by collaborating with designers, content creators, and technology companies and co-design the 4.0 student experience by working with data across our systems, surfacing it for the student.  

I was fortunate to join a business working with a university to deliver hyper-personalisation of the student experience. CQUniversity’s solution provides a whole-of-system view to enhance the focus on well-being, experience and knowledge by connecting over 30 systems and hundreds of data fields.  

It ensures students don’t miss critical milestones, assessment deadlines, or census dates generally buried in emails or student administration systems. But it doesn’t stop there; it requires an advanced understanding of how customers engage, how we anticipate needs, and through learning, initiate new content to meet the unknown demands of students in our care. 


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