Cal Poly Pomona pursues digital student experience

The public university's digital experience initiative, which builds upon its use of ServiceNow, aims to help students focus on their education rather than administrative tasks.

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona aims to flip the transcript on the traditional student experience, offering digital avenues for obtaining information and handling administrative tasks.

The public university, located 30 miles east of Los Angeles, has embarked on a multiyear digital student experience journey, which will see its use of ServiceNow expand from IT use cases to student-facing challenges. The technology rollout will unfold over the next couple years, noted John McGuthry, vice president and CIO for the division of information technology at Cal Poly Pomona.

"We wanted to get away from students who are either having to walk into an office or pick up the telephone, because that's an experience that they have with very few organizations outside of higher ed," he said.

The new strategy is rolling out amid a surge in student applications. Cal Poly fielded 49,634 first-year applications, a 21% year-over-year increase and the highest number of applications for any California State University campus.

John McGuthryJohn McGuthry

"Every single one of those students will have had classes online as a result of the pandemic," McGuthry said. "Every single one of those students probably will have engaged in purchases on Amazon and other services, not just social media online, but commerce. They're all going to be used to doing just about every single thing on that mobile phone. So, there's no reason why we shouldn't fit into that future model."

Toward the digital future

ServiceNow provides the technology platform for the evolving student experience. Cal Poly Pomona originally used ServiceNow with an "IT-centric view for how we engage with that service," McGuthry said. The SaaS application's main role was to manage help desk tickets and automate employee workflow. The school's financial aid office, for instance, uses ServiceNow to track tickets. The president's office employs ServiceNow to handle requests and assign tasks to the various vice presidents.

From those employee-engagement beginnings, ServiceNow's use has "slowly shifted to engaging with students," McGuthry said.

Matt SchvimmerMatt Schvimmer

Matt Schvimmer, senior vice president of products at ServiceNow, said the digital experience, whether for students or employees, has become a strategic focus across a range of industries. "What person under 35 wants to walk into an office or make phone call?" he asked. "Everything is self-service or digital."

We wanted to get away from students who are either having to walk into an office or pick up the telephone, because that's an experience that they have with very few organizations outside of higher ed.
John McGuthryVice president and CIO, division of information technology, Cal Poly Pomona

At Cal Poly Pomona, the first step in that direction is the university's student dashboard, which informs students when they have an important issue to address. "There might be a hold on their account, maybe there's a bill that they have to pay, maybe they haven't signed up for the appropriate number of credits," McGuthry said. An SMS text message prompts students to check the dashboard when such action items surface.

But telling students what they need to do doesn't always resolve their concerns. They also need to know how to get something done, such as removing an account hold. The university now plans to add functionality to the dashboard that would let students click a button if they need more information on how to accomplish a task. If the information proves insufficient, students will be able to open a service ticket -- also using the dashboard -- to resolve an issue. Those features are under development.

Also in the works is what McGuthry called a "student history" that maintains information on a student's dealings with the university's administrative offices. The student history takes a page from consumer contact centers where representatives can refer to a record of a caller's previous interactions with the company. The Cal Poly Pomona version of this feature seeks to change the age-old university experience of students trekking from one campus building to another to find help. The goal is to provide all the relevant information on a student's interactions, so an administrator with appropriate access can assist the student or help them get to the right office without an additional handoff.

Preparing for digital change

The Cal Poly Pomona student experience initiative isn't all about technology. "We're going to have to rethink how employees engage with students," McGuthry said. "There's a lot of additional training that needs to happen."

University staff are accustomed to working directly with students, about half of whom are first-generation college attendees. "One of the scariest things that you can ever ask some [employees] to do is to shift their work style to digital," McGuthry said. "It's terrifying because it kind of redefines the way that they engage with students."

The self-service aspect of the digital approach, however, will address many students' needs, McGurthy suggested. This will reduce the lines of students seeking help in administrative offices and enable staff to focus on students requiring the most assistance.

"Because we'll be digitizing so much of this, employees will be able to spend more time engaging with those that truly need help," he said.

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