Joe Gottlieb: (00:02)
Welcome to transformed, a Higher Digital podcast focused on the new whys, the new whats and the new hows in higher ed. In each episode, you will experience hosts and guests pulling for the resurgence of higher ed while identifying and discussing the best practices needed to accomplish that resurgence. Culture, strategy, and tactics; planning, and execution; people, process and technology. It’s all on the menu because that’s what’s required to truly transform. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President of Higher Digital. And today I am joined by Alessio Papa, product owner at Higher Digital. Alessio, welcome to transformed.
Alessio Papa: (00:45)
Thanks, Joe. It’s great to be with you today. So what do you wanna talk about?
Joe Gottlieb: (00:52)
In this episode, I’d like to examine the entire higher education landscape through the lens of organized student relations, i.e. Student government. Especially regarding the importance of the student experience and how it is being effectively transformed or not by various institutions. Knowing your experience and prior roles in student government. I think that would be a great conversation for us to have. How does that sound?
Alessio Papa: (01:17)
It sounds great. My only question is where do you wanna start?
Joe Gottlieb: (01:22)
Well, before we dive into that ultrarich topic, I think it would be great for our listeners, for you to share some of your background on your own student journey, along with how that journey really shaped and developed your perspective on the topic.
Alessio Papa: (01:35)
Well, fantastic. So I think it’s a good place to start where I joined first at the university here in the UK. So the whole Panorama and the old landscape of universities here in the UK it’s a great inspiration for someone like me, who was always very interested in making a difference and making an impact. My academic representation journey started during my second year of university. When I got elected as faculty officer for the faculty of business at Greenwich. And that opportunity gave me the possibility of making a direct impact to the student experience in the faculty of business at Greenwich. It was one of the greatest experiences during my second year of uni that then led me to run for election as a student officer institution wide in my third year of university and luckily thanks to a great campaign manager and a lot effort and the countless sleepless nights, I ended up getting elected as a Vice President of Education at the University of Greenwich.
Joe Gottlieb: (02:54)
Awesome. And remind me, I know that the vice president of education is one of several representatives in that student government structure. So help our listeners understand just exactly how that structure worked and what VP of education focused on.
Alessio Papa: (03:14)
Absolutely the context of a student government role in the UK arise from institution to institution and different student unions have different roles or specific ways to call the student representatives in order to be more inclusive and especially in order to be compliant with the type of student experience in that specific university at Greenwich, we had four officers who was the president the vice president education, who looked after academic experience and assessments. And realistically the teaching learning of the university, you had the vice president of wealth for who was in charge of the overall mental health strategies and support of students and advice and support. And he had vice president student activities who was looking after societies and sports groups. In my specific case, being a vice president of education allowed me to really make a difference under an academic perspective. I was involved in multiple projects regard my time at Greenwich from helping the vice chancellor drafting, the new assessment strategy to creating and implementing a scholarship scheme that was supporting refugee students before coming a Greenwich and also helping the it department in developing the new and updated mobile app that made a huge impact at the student experience at Greenwich.
Joe Gottlieb: (04:54)
Wow. Okay. So you got a chance to touch. Well, first of all, I’d observe that your role amongst those in the student government structure at the university of Greenwich was focused on the core value proposition of, of the institution, right. Education.
Alessio Papa: (05:09)
Joe Gottlieb: (05:10)
And it sounds though, like you, you, you were able to leverage that role to, to actually have a pretty fair amount of latitude for projects that you could, you could help impact. So I think first and foremost how did you see the leverage point of that role as a way for leaders at the institution to accomplish things that were gonna have a greater impact on students? Did you, did, it sounds like you had a little bit of a unique situation going there.
Alessio Papa: (05:50)
I did. I did. So I think one of the, one of the biggest challenges and the best way to understand exactly what was my role in there was the amount of meetings I was involved in. I spent countless hours in the different meetings in the university steering groups, because I wanted to make sure that the student boy voice was heard throughout different parts of the universities. And, you know they were meetings regarding academic success. So they were meeting regarding SIS implementation. They were meeting regarding retention of students and, you know, being a, a keen being, as we say, here in the UK, I wanted to always chime in and always make sure the student voices were representative across. And it was one of the key life lessons I’ve learned. I can’t do everything, I need to learn how to say no.
Alessio Papa: (06:45)
And I needed to make sure that my role was impactful in different areas of the universities without having to attend every single one of these meetings. And, you know, having support within the student union of the chief executive officer and the deputy chief executive officer helped me grow the role. And by the time I reached, I believe it was the, the end of my term, I was a 360 degree student leader that was able to influence different parts of the and different stakeholders without having to run around campus and trying to attend every single meeting. So I think to go back to your point, the understanding how important student government body and general student union is, is a great way for senior stakeholders and institutional leader of the university in order to really grab student experience and make something out of it, even having the possibility of understanding what are the student needs by collaborating with student leaders towards a better and improved experience at the university.
Joe Gottlieb: (08:00)
Interesting. So you must have gained a pretty holistic insight into the institution. And for that matter, how higher education operates I know in your work at higher digital, that’s been very, very clear, but maybe for the benefit of our listeners, you can share some of your OB there before we get into this whole student experience topic.
Alessio Papa: (08:25)
Oh, sure. So I was very privileged to look at higher education through the lenses of a student governor. It’s a great opportunity for someone who was young as I was at a time and having the, to sit at the same table of you know, senior stakeholders, vice chancellor, and deputy vice chancellor, and having the possibility of being listened to by these folks and drive change was an incredible privilege. You know, I learned that when collaboration between student governors and institutional leaders happen, there is a, a, a fantastic and super powerful way to really get rid of those mentalities that have been that have been very challenging throughout the years in order to achieve what we like to call the perfect student experience. And one of these overarching mentalities that, you know, hamper cultural change is that classic mentality of we’ve been doing the same thing for this X amount of time.
Alessio Papa: (09:39)
Why should we change? And, you know, every single decision that university makes needs to have the student at the center of it, driving student driving change and improving the student experience, it’s something that ‘s extremely challenging and there is no recipe for it. There is no magic wonder that is going to help you out throughout and solve all the student tissues at the same time, but only through effective collaboration throughout understanding and leveraging technology. But most importantly, by announcing communication across different layers of the institution that, and only then really you can be on be and taking the step in order to improve the student experience.
Joe Gottlieb: (10:35)
Well, I think you’ve, yeah, yeah. You’ve highlighted it here. One of the known challenges in the higher ed space, right. And that is just the fact that so much success over so many centuries of delivering education has led to a greater than average. When compared to other industries, it’s been more of a supplier’s market than most other industries. And that unavoidably reinforces that, which has been done before. And of course the, the, the counter to that is the, the implication of that is, it’s harder to make changes. But what’s interesting now is that it seems that the market even in higher ed is shifting towards a context whereby institutions are trying to figure out what is necessary to truly lead in the coming generation, this digital generation, where we have more choices where our cons ers, our customers are more intelligent, even if they’re just mere students in the early stages of their lifetimes, they are very discerning customers and they can be very tough customers.
Joe Gottlieb: (11:56)
Absolutely. And so I think that that creates an opportunity for those institutions that are willing to, to be aggressive, to be progressive and, and make the changes that they see necessary to delight their customer. We’ve seen this in other industries happen perhaps earlier, right? Where, or even I think of hospitality, trying to figure out how to make sure, you know, you’ve got your, your receptionist cues managed more effectively. So customers have to spend less time waiting in line to either check in or check out a simple example, but hotels traditionally never had to care. Right. They had a scarce resource that was a bed and they could afford to do the routine job of, you know, serving customers. And they really more so competed with marketing and with, with some levels of quality and convenience and, and you know, the investment in the property, the appearance and all that right customer service.
Joe Gottlieb: (13:01)
Wasn’t really at the top of mind. It’s happened in airlines because of disrupters like Southwest. Anyway, you get the point. And so I think in higher ed, despite the fact that we have in many cases, fixed revenues in the UK, at least for higher ed there’s a great pride in the institutions in the UK in particular, they’ve been amazing institutions, a great source. It’s a great export for the UK, right. To bring in international students. And so even though the revenue line is, is relatively fixed. And so it’s not about competing for higher revenues, being able to raise your price. It really is. I think, retaining that ability to attract the best students in the world that then results in strong alumni and, you know, just a great reinforcement of the machine. So huge opportunity by changing market conditions. Let’s now let’s, let’s then talk about what’s at stake with the student experience, given that backdrop, given that landscape or change is a foot, even in some of the more, most traditional scenarios. Why is the student experience so important then to to, to actually activate this delightful customer?
Alessio Papa: (14:22)
Absolutely. You, you know one of the key aspects that I came to learn after I graduated as a student, and when I, when I became a student officer is understanding the student experience is not just about you know, engaging students and keeping them interested in what they’re starting, the course, the program and the the books are a minor part of what is an university experience for someone who comes to an institution, either as an international student, either as a mature student, it’s about, you know, the universities need to build an overall reputation around exceptional student experience, and this can happen you know, multiple ways nowadays in the UK. It’s very there is this very competitive market about, you know, different universities trying to you know, selling an incredible student experience throughout providing for example, specific facilities or a great campus areas or student rooms or libraries, but really what is the main driver and what is the key success for a great student experience is actually listening to the student needs and letting them have a say on and how the university is run.
Alessio Papa: (15:49)
You know, in my case, from personal experience, I had a very hard time doing universities, balancing a part-time job, a full-time education, and also keeping a social life together. Life was stressful at the time, but the countless opportunities that university Greenwich provided me from you know, the employability career service to a great student run space where I could, you know, pursue my interest in a society or having the possibility of doing a specific sport. All of this was possible because of the great relationship that was between the university. And this still is actually between the university and the student union collaborating together. They are able to guarantee an overall 360 degrees student experience that can ensure that students have a wide range of extracurricular activities to engage in and also have a great and world class leading teaching at the university. So the, the, the balance between the two is really what universities should strive for and the recipe and the key secret for that is really listening to students. I think you’re muted, Joe.
Joe Gottlieb: (17:16)
Thank you. It’s a great example of, of, of it’s a great description of that, of, of, of how institutions are delivering on a 24 7 experience, right? They’re, they’re, they’re not just delivering education, but they’re off they’re, they’re, they’re maintaining a residence, right? They are supplying health services, they are supplying, you know, food and, and, and, and also activities. And so, and when, and it was interesting through that lens of the three areas, right. Of the, the three deputies and the student government structure education, activities, and welfare, right. Those, those are, those are big categories and there’s a lot within each of those. Right. , but if you then also consider just the fact that the, you know, the residential component, what a tough job to think about how you are in fact, managing a continuous 24-7 experience for these students for typically four years in our lives, you know, sometimes less, sometimes more, right.
Joe Gottlieb: (18:19)
But it’s a, it’s a, it’s a fantastic challenge. Now that said, thinking about how to deliver an effective experience that’s reliable and is also delivered via the tools, the devices, the contexts that students are expecting today. I think that is the kind of the new lens. So it’s more asynchronous than the synchronous model of old. So, the face to face delivery during business hours of things has, is the old model of business. So now we’re thinking about, all right, I want data to reflect the current state of things. I want to let my customers interact with that data or the current state of things on their own time. I want to be able to advance open issues, whether it be chasing down a prerequisite requirement that the student is asserting. They have evidence of that.
Joe Gottlieb: (19:22)
I haven’t yet gotten my system all the way to dealing with a health issue or, or you know , working through an assessment, a grade, right? Like all the above, right? All these things. So the asynchronous nature is also really important. And to do that, then with, for example, the mobile experience being attacked, cuz that’s the way they wanna do more and more of these things by elevating the design. So that is, it can work on a mobile and also be effective, right? So it’s easy to get overwhelmed by saying it’s 24 * 7 continuous experience across all these domains. And if we’re really trying to delight the customer with perfect design, the perfect student experience, as you mentioned, wow, let’s just quit now. We’ll never get there. My contention would be, or, or, or my suggestion is, is that like with any, anything else, right?
Joe Gottlieb: (20:12)
When you have a very difficult problem to solve, you have to break it into pieces and you have to deliver what you can, but then everything you put into that scope is delivered consistently with reasonable quality, right, as high quality as you can make it. So you’re not adding more problems that are gonna cause you more cost you more energy while you try to get onto the next things. And so in, in delivering a student experience that translates to right, that translates to picking off services and priority order and making sure they’re, they’re, let’s say made effect made effective through the mobile in priority order, but it also means elevating the design to make it useful, paying attention, to feedback, to correct it where it’s not keeping it and, and then, and then moving the bar forward only when you’re able to do so when that, which you’ve delivered thus far is, is still sustainable. Does that, how does that conflict with, or, or how did you see in the case of the University of Greenwich while you were there that wrestling match in Sue?
Alessio Papa: (21:24)
I think, you know, it was I, I I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it through two different lenses, the lenses of a student that was very naive at the, the, the multiplicity of challenges that were across the institution. And then I’ve seen it with a more mature lens as a student officer. And as I said before, there is no there is no secret recipe for this, but there is a a solid way in order to make steps towards getting a 24 7 experience. And, and this, in my opinion, having you know, having been in that specific position is to make sure that academic representation is implemented across different factors, impacting student experience. Academic representation is incredibly important in order to make sure that student voice is represented across different areas of the institution and closing the feedback loop between stakeholders and faculty and students, what actually manages to close this feedback loop and what actually keeps them together like a glue is academic representation is having someone which could be a student officer like I was, or it could be someone who is an elected volunteer or part-time officer that can help institutions, institutional leaders that can help faculties in order to make sure that students are listened.
Alessio Papa: (22:59)
And, you know, as I, at the beginning of this beautiful conversation, I spoke to you about how I was a faculty officer, a faculty officer is one of the O layers of academic representation. And the university of Greenwich was an advocate of this implementation. And, you know, that translated into a great success and into understanding a bit more about the issues of a specific faculty, but these, you know, the, the, the limits on a academic representation are you know, as big as the student body, you can have an officer that can represent the rights of disabled students, the LGBTQ plus students, international students, and so on and so forth. And it’s really, really about closing this feedback loop.
Joe Gottlieb: (23:50)
Interestingly, much like many IT organizations are bombarded with a variety of requests coming from different customer stakeholders that they have departments coll you know, colleges students, themselves, etc. I imagine that you were right in the middle of a challenging prioritization exercise. And I’m just wondering if I’m to take what you’ve said so far and then consider the implications, I would say those faculty officers w that you occupied initially before you had the holistic cross cross university role as the VP of education, the student, student union those faculty officers represent sort of delegates in, in different domains representing indeed their elements of of the faculty and, and the, and the structures of the, I imagine you relied upon them for input, but, but did you also broker a collective understanding of the institution wide prioritization? That made sense, given all those inputs such that you were able to feed back to all of them and they could help you, you express the wisdom of what was moving forward holistically as a priority for the university. And, oh, by the way, that’s a great service to the leaders that you were serving in the university that we’re trying to find the holistic best priorities across all those factions. Right. How did that, maybe you could share some, some perspective on that.
Alessio Papa: (25:30)
Yeah, that’s exactly what happened, you know, as every, as you said, as every IT organization, you also, as a student, have those low hanging fruit, those quick wins universities col collaborating with for example this bank for placement in to help. Oh, and do you want to create more opportunities for students within your course? Fantastic. I’m gonna put you in a specific meeting and that is the meeting where you can share what are the challenges in your faculty and, and, and university can help you the, the important and the, you know, the, the important factor as you said, is priority to, but it’s also to make sure that you are in the right place at the right time, because I believe, and I’m a strong believer of this, even though I haven’t been to every single university in the UK, but I’m, I’m a strong believer that every university in the UK has the students its core.
Alessio Papa: (26:26)
They want the best for themselves, they want everything they do is because of the students. The challenge, as you said, might be about prioritization. The challenges might be about the fact that as an institutional leader, you don’t know what’s going on in different areas of your institution. It’s simply impossible. And again, bringing back the value of collaboration and bringing back the importance of institutional leaders and faculty and students collaborating together, this is what student unions in the UK are known for. And that’s why this model is so successful. And that is why you know, students tune the national unit of students here in the UK. I is the main driver for change at a student and especially at an institutional level.
Joe Gottlieb: (27:24)
Fascinating. So I wanna shift this conversation into a what, what I find to be sort of the next challenging order of after, you know, after prioritizing and then getting stuff done, new things, built reflecting the priorities that are at hand. It really comes down to a option. So if, if something is done, whether it’s a process level or a technology level or a combined, it’s a, it’s a change that is, is meant to address a new requirement or an old requirement that hasn’t been met yet. , you can do a lot of work and then still not accomplish the adoption is necessary for the work to be to, to, to, to translate the value. Right? So when we, and in particular with systems, right, we, we all are familiar. Anyone closest to technology is familiar with the fact that you can, you can develop the system and you can test the system. You can even do acceptance testing of the system with, with live customer experiences. But if you ultimately don’t accomplish adoption by the, by the, the target population in mind, not just samples during your test effort, then you’ve really expanded a lot of energy for not. And so tell me about how you experienced the challenges of adoption and maybe what insights you gained in terms of accomplishing adoption with change.
Alessio Papa: (28:52)
Absolutely. I think, you know, I worked as I said, I worked in hospitality throughout my university experience, and I still believe that the, the, the most difficult cost customer segment I had to work with are the students hundred percent. No doubt on the fact, the students are very difficult to, they’re very difficult customers. It’s not because of their nature, but it’s because of the fact that it’s such a it’s a never changing, and it’s such a different demo across the student body that you need to realize a student officer that it’s impossible for you to make everyone happy. And for the concept of adoption, it’s it’s something that I would’ve never been able to reach without an effective collaboration with the it department. I was very fortunate at Greenwich to have one of the biggest sponsors of the work I was doing, which is the still is the director of it library services at the us Greenwich.
Alessio Papa: (30:00)
He was the real champion in terms of student experience. He was the person that was always believing about was believing the fact that students were at the heart, all everything the university was doing. And, you know, that made it easier. The possibility that I had to sit in specific meetings and had impact that impact on the way the it department was developing the new mobile app at the institution and the ability that I had to, to influence the development of this app by providing feedback, leading on steering groups and focus groups with students, it was a fantastic opportunity. And, you know, it’s way easier when someone which is at the time I was 24 years old talks with the its peers about, Hey guys, what would you like to do? What would you like to see in the, in the upcoming releases of the app, rather than someone who is kind of out of the context of the student body, doesn’t really understand and drive the conversation perhaps into a, a more technical and not very student friendly conversation.
Alessio Papa: (31:10)
I had the possibility of, you know, having a direct conversation with students and drive the roadmap for the mobile app and making the changes that then resulted in into a significant increase on that load on the mobile app at the time. And, you know, the concept of adoption is it’s very much based on who can you rely upon within the, the, the institution who is the, your main you know, your driver for cultural change. And I was, and I was fortunate. I was very lucky, but I I’m sure that every institution has a, a person who is a, a champion in cultural change has someone they can rely upon. And that is you know, the biggest and most important factor.
Joe Gottlieb: (32:04)
Well, in that champion, I’m pretty sure you’re talking about Paul Butler.
Alessio Papa: (32:07)
Joe Gottlieb: (32:07)
Talking shout out to Paul Butler, an exceptional executive who also has been on this podcast. So you’re in good company for sure, but you’re quite right. And, and what Paul and I talked about when we did our episode and I hope to do another with him sometimes soon is, you know, Paul really stressed what it took to, for him to get traction. You know, he made a long term investment in relationships and he demonstrated iterative value from the it organization that raised the level of trust and, and, and credibility of the it delivery amongst the different stakeholders the different leaders at the university at Greenwich. And it was just a great model. , it was just a great example about how you, if you consistently deliver and you invest in relationships, you can keep raising the bar for the things that collectively you can do.
Joe Gottlieb: (33:05)
And that, to me, you know, honestly we talk about top down versus bottom up Paul Butler’s story, and that you were, you were wound up being a part of you were in the swirl of that amazing journey that still continue is by the way, to me, it’s a, it’s a fantastic example of the bottom up where, where what you have to say middle up. I mean, Paul was clearly the leader of it and, and, and remains that, but he was, he was dragging the it organization forward in a form that the stakeholders at the university Greenwich could appreciate and grow comfort with and then con and then start to really invest in. And he’s achieved amazing things, for example, with common data model, which even has everyone understanding that they’d, they’d rather not impose their, their stakeholder sorry, their, their stove, pipe centric preferences to disrupt the data model, cuz they now know that gonna, they’re gonna not have their data flowing and the consistency and the ability to get insight from the data coming from the institution.
Joe Gottlieb: (34:06)
Anyway, we, we shouldn’t digres but you were indeed treated to a unique experience there, but, but that’s this example of bottoms up or middle up where you demonstrated the business enough value that they ultimately adopt you and make you their own so that they can then benefit top down is the opposite. And it’s a little bit different, right? It’s it involves leadership. Being able to know this in advance that this is the digital age. I do need to staff my it organization with capable leaders to execute. I do need to engage and guide them in a form that will make technology serve the, the institution as opposed to the other way around. So I, I think great snippet on adoption. The key is that feedback loop, the key is prioritization and feedback in concert, right? Picking your spots and then, and then seeing them through and then working with an it organization. That’s gonna take, take that responsibility cuz it’s it’s in it, particularly when we’re overwhelmed and we’ve got too many projects, too much work to do. We often shortcut adoption first we, we deliver more stuff and we don’t stick around to make sure it was adopted effectively and get it right before moving on. , so something to take away there. All right. I wanna, then I wanna then end this with one more question for you before we wrap and that is, do you believe institutional leaders understand what’s at stake with the student experience?
Alessio Papa: (35:40)
That’s a very, very good question. So I think they do. I think they, they understand what is at stake. I also do believe that you know, it’s not, it’s not easy to keep track of the evolving landscape, which is, you know, the, the student body, I think, you know, in order to just like businesses, we, we talked about this multiple times, the universities universities can make the most out of the student experience about a you know, enabling and especially use modern technology. I think that institutional leaders are the main drivers, but without a without collaborating and without having someone who can rely upon, they are kinda blinded by the amount of factors that are around, you know, leading an institution. And that’s, this is really what I would like for our listeners to take out of this podcast.
Alessio Papa: (36:55)
Collaboration is key institutionally. No, and they can do until a certain extent in order to drive a positive change, a positive change in an institution. It is fundamental that they collaborate with faculty and it’s fundamental that they collaborate with student leaders in order to improve the student experie and, you know, technology. It’s a great tool in order to make this happen. You know there are multiple channels of communication. There are multiple ways in this very strange time. We live in where, you know, digital learning has become part of our everyday life. Technology is re the best tool that institutional leaders can use in order to improve and very much understand what is the best student experience for their institution.
Joe Gottlieb: (37:51)
I like it. and so I, I think then that, that it just strikes me that I’ll reiterate student, student leaders, student government represent a very, very highly leveragable, you know, proxy or sort of sort of efficiency gain in coping with this very broad task of serving the student within the context of an institution’s operation. And it’s just like a product manager, you know, yearning for customer feedback, but then oftentimes being overwhelmed or being, or, or often defaulting to just the trouble tickets coming in the, the, the, the customer support issues coming in, which often focus things on the negative. You do have to, you do have to get that under control. You do have to be responsive to the issues that you’ve you’ve created, but you also want a proactive stance where you’re talking about what’s next. You’re, you’re understanding what’s the best calls on a holistic priority. , and while you’re maintaining the house handling customer support issues, putting your best foot foot forward in the most appropriate ways in this kind of context does require this representation at that leverage point. Otherwise it can be, it can be very overwhelming. Okay. So in s mary, what are three things that are listeners can learn from your direct experience? , greater, you know, student journeys at an institutional SEO.
Alessio Papa: (39:20)
So if I had to s marize my my countless meetings in three bullet points, it will surely be n ber one is that technology is a, a driver, a great enabler and a catalyst for student transformation. the second bullet point I would make is that student experience is at the heart of every institution, but only few on until this day manage to listen and act upon and make sure that student experience is encompass through our, the whole institution. And n ber three I have to say a former student represe as a former student representative student representation is fundamental for institutional leaders and high level stakeholders to close the feedback loop between themselves faculty and academics and students.
Joe Gottlieb: (40:17)
Wow. It’s a great summary for our listeners. Thank you so much for joining me today and thanks to our guests as always for joining us as well. Hope you all have a great day and we’ll look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of transformed.