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A New Age of Digital Unity from the University of Surrey Students’ Union

The University of Surrey is a top 20* UK university made up of four faculties providing higher education to over 15,000 students.

From teaching to research, the University is consistently recognised as a thought-leading institution; one that embraces and adapts to change. This attitude is embedded through-out the University, including the Students’ Union (SU), and it’s this progressive approach that led to an innovative way for the SU to interact with its community of students.

The situation

The University of Surrey Students’ Union (USSU) is central to a student’s university experience. Going beyond the expected co-ordination of activities, events, entertainment and information, the Union is a representative voice and presence for all students on (and off) campus.

Although universities have grown larger and more spread out, the perception of the Students’ Union as a sole physical building in a single location still pervades. The USSU recognised that the days of the physical building, physical meeting places, and physical information points are becoming antiquated. A new approach was needed; one that fused physical and online to create a wider, more accessible Students’ Union and better Student-University experience.

The solution/vision

Going beyond a physical presence and creating an online environment seemed sensible, but it was important that this idea wasn’t to transform into a typical, unused information repository.

The solution would have to capture and hold the attention of various different students groups and disseminate all necessary information to them, whilst also bringing those students together as a community.

The Union undertook extensive research to help dictate how its vision would be interpreted. Using a third party to conduct the research, a pre-defined sample selection of the various demographics within the student body were spoken to. Research methods involved face-to-face interviews and focus groups.

The results of this research painted a picture of what was important to students and how they wanted to consume and interact with information. It highlighted a low tolerance for multiple, pervasive email notifications and an exceptionally low tolerance for ‘perceived spam messaging’.

Interestingly the results pointed towards how the solution should function, as opposed to how it should look – a clear indication that an approach of ‘function over form’ was needed.

So, with a structure, and an insight into how its students would interact and use the solution, the Union set about identifying the technology upon which it could deliver this digital Union experience and potentially re-engineer the way it carried out its operations.

The technology would have to have;

  • broad functionality,
  • flexibility
  • reliability
  • scalability
  • and, crucially, be cost-effective for the educational institution.

Fit for purpose technology

The search for the technology to serve the Union’s vision didn’t take long. It already had existing investment in SharePoint 2007 and was fully aware of its capabilities. Coupled with the fact that Office 2007 and 2010 was being used throughout the University, the decision to upgrade and adopt SharePoint 2010 was made.

Business Agility and USSU

After identifying the right platform, the institution’s next step was to engage with an SI delivery partner, one that would understand and have the technical ability to realise and deliver its vision.

After an initial tender process, in which Business Agility submitted a response, the Union was able to make its choice of SI partner for this project.

“After the response to tender and attendance at our Q&A day, Business Agility demonstrated a complete understanding of our vision, requirements and how SharePoint 2010 could serve as the solution. They shared our innovative approach and explained precisely how functionality that was previously thought to have been either not possible, or in need of a lot of customisation, was achievable ‘out of the box’.

This level of expertise, Agile approach and eye on cost made Business Agility the only choice of SI to partner with.” Alan Roy, Director of Member Services, University of Surrey Students’ Union.

Business Agility recognised the requirements as;

Communication
The vision needed to be based on a “Web Portal” and had to facilitate better information sharing with different types of people within and related to the University. Business Agility understood that the current reliance on “broadcasting” emails with information was proving to be ineffective, particularly for Students, whose mailboxes become full every day, meaning important information was being missed.

Communities
Students belong to multiple networks (communities), based on multiple factors such as, their country of origin, club and society membership, course faculty, halls of residence etc. The Portal should allow Students to manage their networks of colleagues and friends and their memberships.

Access
Students need to access the Portal from all over the world; therefore strict security has to be enforced. The Portal had to be accessible from browsers supported by SharePoint 2010 and should meet accessibility requirements.

Integration
The Portal had to integrate with, rather than replace, Facebook, on which the University of Surrey/Students’ Union has over 11000 fans. The portal should also show aggregated information from the Students’ faculty, clubs and societies and integrate with the Student’s Facebook account. It should also integrate with the Students’ calendar, (of which Gmail was recognised as most popular).

Solution delivery
With an Agile project delivery method, Business Agility implemented an extensively branded Portal, including a personalisation framework to automatically target content at demographics within the student population. New Clubs & Societies are managed using workflows where an approved Club/Society results in a new site being created. The Portal integrates with a 3rd party payment system which is used across processes such as hiring equipment and purchasing tickets.

‘Wow’ factor functionality

  • Live streaming of events
  • Personalised content and relevant display
  • Facebook integration
  • Seamless events  integration
  • Completely automated processes (Case management); e.g., extenuating circumstances form/process – seamlessly integrating with Dynamics
  • Rich search experience – controlled by Active Directory, Students have an ability to refine and extend searching (by course, by date, by name, by photo)
  • Tagging content – The Students have the ability to tag pages they like in the site.

The results

“The solution is still in its early days as the nature of the vision and the ideas of how and where to apply it are immense. Therefore the results are still being realised for this far-reaching project.

That said the project is maturing fast with rapid response to user-feedback.

The awareness campaign behind getting students online is huge, and the Portal is getting exceptionally good feedback – the design, look and feel of the site is enabling a high level of adoption (not just from students, but from internal staff too). In fact, the biggest ‘wow-factor’ has come from staff, because they knew precisely how difficult things were before.

The end result to the project will be the USSU having a powerful, community-driven social web portal that is self-evolving, and delivering all relevant information in a transparent way to the entire student population.” Alan Roy, Director of Member Services, University of Surrey Students’ Union

*Guardian University Guide 2012

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