When COVID-19 hit, college students freaked out, universities went remote, and millions of students struggled with the impersonal functionality of Zoom—even with tropical backgrounds. But more than that, the pandemic exposed the shortcomings of legacy student information systems (SIS) that stymied university efforts to limit virus spread and help anxious students cope with pandemic stress. But sometimes it takes a crisis to start a revolution. In other words, the chaos of COVID was the tipping point for a digital revolution in higher education with wider adoption of low-code development, artificial intelligence, process mining, and automation leading the way. Though 75% of universities in the U.S. are still running on retro SIS systems that are over 10 years of age, according to The National Research Center for College and University Admissions, turns out over 40% of university leaders have prioritized digital transformation to improve student outcomes, reduce operational costs, and modernize legacy IT systems.
Which brings us to the University of South Florida (USF). About nine years ago—long before higher education had to navigate the choppy waters of COVID and the omicron wave—top USF technologists decided to embrace low-code development and composable architecture as a platform for implementing their digital transformation strategy. The move has been so successful that USF was recently recognized by analyst firm Gartner as an innovator in higher education. (As a side note, USF serves over 50k students in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota-Manatee.)
“Technology in the higher education industry has been stagnant for quite a while,” says Alice Wei, USF’s Senior Director of Digital Innovation. “For the past five years,” says Wei, “schools have been debating about which student information system to move to. COVID highlighted the shortcomings of the legacy systems to meet the need to transform quickly. At USF, we’ve used low-code technology to address the need for rapid transformation. But looking ahead, process mining is going to be a big trend in the future of higher education,” said Wei. “I think process mining holds a lot of promise as a tool to help colleges and universities optimize their operational processes,” says Wei. “Because even if you’re using RPA and BPM, you don’t always know which specific processes you should be optimizing.”
In the following interview, Wei and Sidney Fernandes, USF’s Vice President and Chief Information Officer dish on digital transformation at USF and higher education in general. They also give us an inside look at how and why USF embraced digital transformation before the pandemic to meet the ever-changing needs of students, faculty, and staff for the long term. The commentary has been edited for brevity and clarity. Enough said. Let’s roll the tape.
Last year, Gartner recognized USF with the Eye on Innovation Award for Higher Education for its response to COVID-19. Talk about the significance of the award in the context of the pandemic and USF’s digital transformation journey.
Even before the pandemic, we were early adopters of low-code development as a vehicle for automation and digital transformation. We started that journey about nine years ago. Back then, we felt strongly that if you had an API (application programming interface) engine and a low-code platform on top of it, you could respond to business needs faster. The ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems we used in the past weren’t able to do that. So, we bet on low-code and it paid off during the pandemic.
So, what kinds of solutions did you build at first, and what kind of problems were you trying to solve?
We created several solutions on the Appian Low-code Platform. We have a provost who believes in digital. So, we started our digital ecosystem initiative two years ago before the pandemic hit. We partnered with the head of our Innovative Education program to build higher education solutions for the future. So, when the pandemic came, we were already exercising our digital muscles to transform. We made sure we had the infrastructure to implement a digital strategy. We didn’t just react to COVID. We were already using low-code to build and deploy applications to ensure student success.
What other kinds of things were you doing with low-code before COVID hit?
We were using low-code to make sure our students were graduating on time. When we first started using low-code, we focused on improving our student retention and graduation rates. We built a case management solution on Appian which was part of the strategy to get students help when and where they wanted it. Many of our developers were USF students who we brought in to learn how to build applications on the Appian platform.
What was it like training students to be developers on a low-code platform? How did students respond?
We picked students with non-traditional backgrounds. We had students who were majoring in English, civil engineering, and mechanical engineering. We had business management majors and students from a wide range of other degree programs. We benefited from that diversity of thought and training. It also helped us solve the problem of helping students to figure out a career path in terms of what they wanted to do after college. Some students were just curious, but we definitely changed some career trajectories.
We sent students to Appian bootcamp and put them on teams and made sure they learned and grew with the consultant groups that we had at the time. Fast forward and those same trainees are running our development teams today.
Development teams are a big success factor in digital transformation. But talk about the alignment you need between internal business partners and IT and why that matters in digital transformation. Also, how do you see low-code fitting into your long-term digital strategies?
No technology project ever works if it’s just the IT department deciding they want to do it. You have to be solving a business need that a client brings to you. So, at USF we always talk about meeting client needs in our strategic plan. And we do that deliberately because we want to create a plan that reflects the expectations of end users. The head of our Faculty Senate advised us not to look at our relationship with end users as transactional. He said it would be better to think of the people who use IT services as clients because it’s a bidirectional partnership.
I think our strategic intent came out of that kind of mindset, to always be in partnership with the business whether it was frontline or back-office users, the registrar, head of academic advising, the vice president in charge of student success or the provost. We need to be in alignment with these leaders, as well as with the people who use our systems.
(PS: Watch this space for the final episode of the University of South Florida’s digital transformation success story.)