A 2018 TDX study1 reports that most Higher Education IT leaders are disappointed, if not overtly frustrated, with their existing portal experience for students, faculty, and staff. Yet replacing a widespread technology, despite its lack of function or connectability, is seen by leaders as everything from an episodic nuisance to outright painful.
The key to harnessing the untapped power of a modern, central, connected experience is not only in choosing the right replacement, but crucially in finding a partner who can assist with ensuring implementation is not only smooth, but also transformative, safeguarding both technological and human integration, adoption, and usage.
This multi-case study will look at three institutions of higher education, their leaders’ desire to create a much more connected experience for all users, and describe the partner they chose to assist in this work, ensuring an implementation that considered all technology and business drivers.
- Cornerstone University (CU): an independent, non-denominational Christian university in Grand Rapids, Michigan, following the move from Ellucian’s portal product to a modern, mobile, and connected tool.
- Montgomery County Community College (MCCC): a public community college in the city of Blue Bell in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, following a pilot (paid sandbox) to ensure complete functional and business requirements were met.
- Tallahassee Community College (TCC): a public community college in Tallahassee, Florida, seeing more transfer students than any institution in the nation, following the move from the Luminis portal.
Many Academic, Student Affairs, Communication, and IT leaders find themselves ‘settling’ for poor solutions, often feeling as if they are at the mercy of past (poor) choices. As education technology came into its own in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, serious integration, user design, social, mobile, and data support were more hope than reality. Some schools felt the sting of ‘over promise and under deliver’, making costly, one-time investments at the time.
But, as Moore’s law predicted, all of those dreams became reality, seeing multiple sectors take advantage of increasing, meaningful integration between systems, legitimate social solutions, mobile applications, and more. Yet due to early adoptions of non-integrative, unsocial, non-mobile solutions, coupled with tighter and tighter budgets, many institutions of higher education have settled into (now) poor systems and platforms, trying to overcome dysfunction with people resources, although even that is often difficult as schools try to do more and more with less and less.
However, as modern, omni-channel, hyper-connected experiences become the norm in almost every other sector of life, from banking to health care to personal life, higher education is starting to seek better options. Many schools find themselves forced to deal with utilitarian “link farms” as their jumping off point for students, faculty, and staff. A few institutions have tried to buy or build “skins” that sit on top of these pages of links, making them prettier, tile-based versions, while still suffering through the paradox of choice as users are forced to navigate their way among 50-400 different links. Similarly, some institutions have purchased or programmed mobile access to their sea of links, only to find that adoption is often low and that users need a great deal of support.
At the same time, institutions have sought more community and communication options for their people, only to fall short time and again. Nice-to-have, off-to-the-side social solutions rarely work, and communication seems to be regulated to email, which study after study shows students dislike, and many recipients ignore entirely.
So, while a portal makes tremendous sense as a central hub to an institution’s platforms, people, and information, this is rarely the case in practice. Old portals seem to actually increase the silos and fracted behavior, with stand-alone mobile solutions and stand-alone social experiences doing the same, while leaving efficiencies, better communication options, community, and data on the table.
“A lack or a deficiency of connection makes people feel unsupported, left out or lonely. When we feel disconnected, our bodies move into a state called “stress response,” which triggers a “fight or flight” readiness. That’s good if we are facing a short-term threat… But it becomes a problem when people are stuck in a constant state of stress response because they will always feel disconnected. Research has shown that feeling disconnected over time sabotages our productivity and happiness, and shaves years off of our life expectancy. However, many colleges are under enormous financial pressures to do more with fewer resources to support more students. This reality contributes to a drift toward indifference on campuses because people are so busy they don’t take time to develop supportive relationships.”
– Michael Stallard, The Connection Culture (2019)2
As stated, the product or service does matter. Without a usable, effective product to implement, partnership or no partnership, the implementation will struggle all the way through to adoption and usage.
The three schools in this multi-case study chose Campus for their modern portal, mobile, and connecting system replacement. The Campus platform connects the right person to the right thing at the right time, employing a highly-modern interface as well as infrastructure for institutions looking to connect everyone to everything.
So with the question of the “right product” answered, the implementation from a trusted and potentially strategic partner was the next big question for these institutions.
It is not uncommon to hear the term “partnership” from commercial entities in 2019, but the term often falls flat in practice. As opposed to the more one-off, transactional-based vendor relationship, a partnership is indicative of transparency and trust. As Dan Murphy3 writes for Abila (a provider of software and services to nonprofits, associations, and governmental entities, helping them improve decision making, execute with greater precision, increase engagement, and generate more revenue), there is a big difference between a ‘vendor’ and a ‘partner.’
- A vendor sells you a product whereas a partner sells you a relationship
- A vendor moves your data whereas a partner takes a holistic approach to implementation
- A vendor isn’t in the training business whereas a partner knows training is a key to your success
- A vendor doesn’t play well with others whereas a partner offers an extensive ecosystem
- A vendor will sell you what it has whereas a partner offers you choice
The question for the three institutions in this multi-case study was whether they would experience a vendor or a partnership relationship with Campus?
Campus has, by design, set out to not only hire world-class programmers, operations personnel, and leadership, but has very intentionally brought in former college / university administrators and leaders as part of the Executive team. Collectively, these Campus leaders have more than 75 years of formal, higher education experience, sitting on the customer side of the equation through many engagements. So, from the CTO (a former Systems Architect for Australia’s largest university) to the CAO (a former Chief Innovation Officer at a private university who also implemented the Campus platform) to the Director of Partner Success (a former Director of a consortia of community colleges as well as a hands-on implementer of the Campus platform), the Executive team is flush with credibility and experience.
As such, these Campus leaders have pushed the company to promote and engage in genuine partnerships over traditional, sell-and-go product offerings. The result is a company culture that values the relationships, transparency, and dialogue far more than quick fixes or opportunities for upselling.
This also means that Campus leadership and employees speak the language of higher education. From CIOs to Provosts to Student Success or IRB, Campus stakeholders inherently understand the pain points, the bureaucracy, the committee-centric nature, and more.
As a result, the strategic thinking around partnerships is far beyond many education technology providers as Campus attempts to assist with everything from integration programming to change management to adoption recommendations. This includes project management throughout the implementation process, but also sees checklists and planning which involves business stakeholders, not focusing solely IT.
Each of the three institutions in this study were in three different places with regard to implementation of a portal replacement. These nuances to the process should highlight the value of a partner-centric approach to implementation for both the institution as well as the solution provider.
All three institutions have technology teams who dedicated some resources to the implementation effort. Of note, the personnel and / or time resources spent on the project ranged greatly. Each institution had at least one technology champion for the project, but also included stakeholders from non-IT offices, such as Academic Affairs, Student Success, Student Affairs, Communications, and more.
From the Campus side, all three projects were managed a bit differently, seeing the optimal persons from Campus working on each project as things moved forward. In application this saw the CEO, CTO, and head of Product performing most of the project management with Montgomery County CC (MCCC); the CEO, CTO, and Partner Success team ensuring the optimal implementation for Tallahassee Community College (TCC); and a technical implementation experience handled by Partner Success as well as the CEO and CTO, with change management and strategic planning being broached by the CAO for Cornerstone University (CU). In a company of 20 people, it is fair to say that everyone helps with just about everything, but the intentional positioning of people in these implementations is worth noting.
TCC had been struggling with student / faculty / staff adoption and usage of their previous portal, a legacy system from one of the two largest providers in that space. At the same time, the school was working toward more mobile tools and more integrated elements for their own ecosystem. With a nationally recognized and lauded Vice President for IT (Bret Ingerman) at the helm, TCC was interested in both bringing their portal experience into the most modern terms, while also seeing the tool create a lot of value. Aided by his team, but spearheaded by Systems Analyst Brad Nagawiecki, the team had a strong sense of what they needed and what they wanted to accomplish. So, after aggressively vetting the product and performing due diligence, their implementation was fairly “standard” for higher education, seeing work performed over the summer in preparation for launch in Fall of 2019.
MCCC took a different approach to both discovery and implementation. Montgomery leveraged a paid sandbox (pilot) to kick the tires and really look at whether the Campus portal could do everything it claimed. So, for the cost of server space, the school was given an instance by which to test integrations, mobility, accessibility, user experiences, and more. Throughout the beta-like experience, MCCC (led by Joe Mancini – Executive Director of IT) worked with Campus as if they were already a full partner, seeing stakeholder meetings, shared documentation, and everything else Campus uses to manage new instances of the platform.
CU utilized grant money to pay for the first year of the Campus license but was also fairly traditional in scope and sequence. Following a search committee process, Campus was chosen and implementation began over the summer months. Notably, the Director of IT (Dan Mills) and team slated the Campus platform for an October (2019) “soft” launch and a January (2020) “full” launch, as a strategy to work smartly but also to avoid surprises. However, the implementation was so successful that Cornerstone performed a full launch in September of 2019.
All three instances of the Campus platform came at the implementation from very different viewpoints.
It is likely obvious that each institution launched successfully. But beyond that is the question about the experience. A successful launch does not make for a “good” launch, nor for a partnership. To illustrate the power behind these experiences are the notable words and quotes in and around the process from each school in this study. Perhaps no greater accolade can be given about this process than by Dan Mills from Cornerstone who stated, “In my 25 years in I.T., I’ve not experienced a simpler system to implement than Campus.”
To break down the implementations, it is important to go back to the differences between a vendor and a partner.
A vendor sells a product, but a partner creates a relationship.
When TCC’s Bret Ingerman was asked about the implementation experience with Campus, he said,” ….so implementing with Campus has been a great, great process. They have been a real partner in helping us make the best use of their product to reach out to our students and engage them in ways we’ve never been able to do before… They’ve been just delightful to work with.”
Adding to the notion of relationships over products, Brad Nagawiecki, who lead the implementation for the Campus project stated, “I think of a partnership as two individuals working toward a shared goal. And I think especially with Campus, they have made a focal point of feeling like we are in this together and we are working toward a shared goal which is increased student engagement, and overall the success of our students.”
A vendor moves data while a partner implements holistically.
The Campus team not only took a phased approach to each partner implementation, but they did so systematically and with the use of dozens of internal checklists, with a handful of partner-shared checklists, covering integration while also including training, setup, change management, adoption, usage, and more.
Mr. Nagawiecki went on to discuss the notion of a holistic implementation in collaboration with his Campus partners in saying, “Especially given our aggressive timeline for implementation, and balancing all of the integrations that went into our implementation, Campus did a very good job of focusing on what needed to happen first – making sure that was in place, then quickly moving onto the next one”. Joe Mancini (MCCC) added his thoughts on the partnership question in this way, “For Montgomery it’s important that the vendor understand the uniqueness of our students and the needs that they have. So far, I have found the relationship with Campus to be very accommodating. They’ve taken the time to listen to our stories, input, and have turned some of that into actual functionality, featured within the product so that it better matches and aligns with our needs.”
While a vendor may not wish to perform training, a partner understands that training people is the key.
Dan Mills (CU) acknowledged the people aspect of the implementation in saying, “Campus gave us some good ideas and they gave us recommendations. I do feel that internal marketing and how we go about selling Campus really is unique to each school…we need to have ownership in what we’re doing. And I would say the ideas that Campus gave us helped spur on that ownership.”
Summing up the interplay between holistic implementation and working with their organization’s people, Mr. Mills went on to state, “…the thing that has impressed me the most in the process, starting with [conversations with the CAO] and then Steve (Director of Partner Success) was the years of experience you’ve had in Higher Ed. Because of that experience you were able to relate directly to where we were at, some of the challenges that we have, and frankly that you had been an Ellucian customer, as we are, in implementing with a similar type scenario that we had, with a portal product…wanting to replace it. That connection of having like experiences and hearing what you [CAO] said told me you had real life experience, real knowledge, and real wisdom that could relate to what we needed to do.”
Vendors lack of collaboration versus a partner’s generation of an ecosystem.
Bret Ingerman (TCC) was clear that their four-month timeline and aggressive nature were surprising to Campus, who had typically experienced more conservative implementations. TCC has a competent, confident team of technical workers who, once vetting and contracting are performed, can work quite quickly, efficiently, and effectively, so they needed a partner that could flex and move accordingly. According to Mr. Ingerman, “So like most other educational institutions, we can be pretty aggressive when it comes to timeframes.” He went on to state that TCC wanted to go live in the Fall, like most Higher Education institutions desire. “They (Campus) were able to work with us by making sure we chose a scope that was right, with the right number of departments, and that we weren’t overly ambitious so that we could meet our ‘go live’ date. And, we did.”
But the Vice President for IT concluded his thoughts by speaking directly to the nature of ecosystem creation when he said, “When you find a product like this, that you’re going to use as a hub of communication for your entire campus, you don’t always know all the ways you could possibly use this thing going forward. You have an idea of the features it brings and how you want to use it, but when things go well, suddenly ideas keep spring boarding off each other. Could we do this? Could we use it for that? What’s been great about working with the folks at Campus was the fact that they’re very receptive to those [ideas] and wanting to make sure the platform can meet those kinds of needs. What that’s done for us is we sit in a meeting and someone has an idea. So we go, you know, we can’t do that right now, but let’s check. And then a few weeks later, now we can…it’s been great to work with a company that wants to partner with early adopters to figure out exactly how can it grow to meet the needs. So, we haven’t said no we can’t do this or can’t do that. We’ve been able to say we can’t do it right now but we feel confident we’ll be able to add those features into the product.
Mr. Ingerman’s implementer agreed with these notions of partnership and congruence for goals and work. “I think that was really important and very impressive because normally quick timelines, relative to the recommended one by a vendor normally don’t happen. But in this case, it happened very easily.”
“We went live more than two full months earlier than we expected.” Dan Mills, Cornerstone University
Vendors push single solutions, but partners offer choices.
Sometimes called a “Swiss Army Knife” solution by partners, Campus partners with institutions who leverage the system (or parts of the system) in numerous ways, based on dozens of configurations. Schools have options regarding use of the system for various constituencies, from prospects to current students to alumni to staff and/or faculty, etc. Some Campus partners use the system as a staff development and communication tool, whereas others use it as a campus wide connector for all stakeholders. Some institutions make use of the mobile application, where other schools leverage mobile, web, and responsive, taking advantage of total parity via any modality. Bret Ingerman again relates a crucially important aspect of this kind of partnership when he says, “I have been looking for a partner who understands that they are only custodians of our data, rather than the data living in a filing cabinet the vendor controls where we have to pay every time we open a drawer.”
Campus CEO Chase Williams does not believe in holding a partner’s data “hostage” like some systems might. Even though the kind of data (largely affective) in Campus is extremely unique in the Higher Education space, Mr. Williams knows that data can save students, promote connectedness, and more, which is the goal of Campus, not solely the goal of Campus’ partners.
Former Chief Innovation Officer and heavy proponent of big data used for learning analytics, Dr. Jeff Borden agrees with the sentiment wholeheartedly. “When mixing Campus data with the typical uni-directional signals and markers that success systems seek, there is tremendous power here. Why would we keep that data locked up? Not only is the data not ours, but it could be the key to a student graduating and changing their life for the better.” When this information is contextualized with the Campus vision statement: “Our partners don’t have students who cannot succeed,” and when dovetailed with the Campus purpose statement: “Campus wishes to foster the human capacity to learn, connect, and succeed,” the notion of a partner-based approach to implementation makes more and more sense.
“The key is listening to partners needs, making recommendations, but being flexible enough to handle the various options and choices made,” says Steve Rheinschmidt, former college and university administrator and current Director of Partner Success. One method used by Campus Partner Success implementers is a “Yes, and…” context, coming out of improvisation but speaking to both a positive affirmation of needs, plus a collaborative spirit.
Campus partners agreed that all of these things added up to a successful launch. From TCC’s aggressive timelines being reached with breathing room, to Cornerstone’s launch weeks prior to the target, and even MCCC’s short window for beta testing before a recommendation was made to executives, these partners saw smooth implementations.
And perhaps that is really the better question. Was the implementation process timely, efficient, and even satisfying? After all, many colleges and universities implement lots of ed tech each year. If you throw enough money, people, or time at a project, even if it does not launch on time, it likely will launch eventually. But was it a good experience?
Did the project not only launch on time, but was the experience a good one for the institution? With phrases such as, “the implementation was perfect,” or “Campus created delightful experiences,” or “it really could not have gone better,” it seems that the context around successful implementations matters.
It appears to start with genuine partnership. Do your commercial providers feel like partners? Do they use your language, understand your context, and flex appropriately as needed?
Do you have a regular cadence of contact with appropriate stakeholder groups from around the institution, ensuring more than just technology integration, but actual transformation and change management?
Do your partners look for opportunities to help you succeed, even when those occasions are not money-making ventures?
This case study has explained how three institutions found a genuine partner in Campus as they traded up to a modern, mobile, community-engaging portal. Each explained how their partners at Campus established collegial relationships, implemented holistically, trained and worked with all of their people, established strong desires to work with other suppliers thereby creating a very intentional ecosystem, and offering choices throughout the entire process.
If your current ed tech suppliers are not providing this level of service and support, perhaps it is time to look again. If your current portal, or potentially the absence of a central hub for connecting everyone to everything, is lacking, perhaps it is time to contact Campus for more information about becoming their newest partner.
- Graf, Andrew. TDX website. 2018
- Stallard, Michael. Reprint 2017. Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding. Association for Talent Development.
- Murphy, Dan. Abila Blog. n.d.