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Biggest Wins Identified: How Student-Facing Software Transforms Services in Higher Education

min read

Software for students' online use can be incredibly empowering—for both students and staff. Northern Arizona University experienced the transformative effects after introducing an online self-service facility for student resources.

Universities are increasingly embracing technologies that support students carrying out their own tasks and transactions online. It's what today's tech-savvy students have come to expect but it also offers massive appeal for staff.

At Northern Arizona University (NAU), introducing an online self-service facility for equipment lending using connect2 software led to benefits which went far beyond meeting students' expectations. Here we explore the efficiencies and improved service levels that have pleased faculty while better supporting students.

snapshot image of connect2 web page

Background to Introducing the New System

The College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at NAU runs innovative degree programs at the forefront of contemporary communication studies. As part of this, their students in creative film, media, commercial photography, and journalism have a constant need to access cameras, audio equipment, and other resources for their studies and assignments. There's a wide range of specialized media equipment available, plus a range of lab and studio facilities that include a broadcast newsroom, virtual reality lab, radio station, and photography studios.

As a result, counter staff are under pressure to issue items efficiently and get them back on time. Lorensbergs spoke with Russ Gilbert, program coordinator at NAU, to hear how the checkout counter service has improved and student satisfaction has risen since introducing the connect2 reservation system to support equipment lending.

Challenges around Equipment Lending

Previously, equipment checkouts and tracking were managed by a system that fell short in a number of ways. The software hadn't been developed for the academic environment or with an understanding of students' needs. Support from the vendor was very limited, and the system was also very slow.

"Simply looking up the availability of an item in our old system took as long as three minutes, which was a drain on our time and delayed students getting what they needed," explains Gilbert. "There was often a long line of students at the checkout desk. Overdue items were commonplace, as the system was unable to remind students when their items were due back. This had an impact on students turning up to collect items that had not yet been returned and was especially taxing when they had previously waited in line to reserve these items in advance."

Staff understood that if students could reserve their own items online, this would relieve pressure at the desk and speed up the whole operation for all involved. Before, counter staff were having to make reservations on behalf of every student as that person arrived at the desk, which was taking a lot of time and causing students to wait in line for long periods. Unfortunately, the university's checkout system supplier required them to purchase an expensive add-on to the main system to facilitate self-service bookings. Incurring this additional expense wasn't an attractive option.

The Move to an Improved Service with connect2

Gilbert's team had previously heard about connect2 and noted how quickly universities had adopted the system throughout the United States. Gilbert contacted Lorensbergs to discuss how connect2 could improve their department's services. His team received an online demo and agreed that it would provide a better student experience while introducing the efficiencies they required. The demo made it clear that three key criteria would be satisfied as follows:

  1. The ability for students to make their own reservations, in an integrated online system
  2. User authentication with the university's Active Directory, enabling students to use their usual usernames and passwords to access the system, and with no need to preregister
  3. Control over which equipment categories students are automatically authorized to reserve in order to meet their classes' and tutors' requirements (through the Active Directory connection, students' classes and corresponding equipment authorizations automatically update in connect2 each semester)

"We could see that connect2 satisfied some important criteria for moving to a new checkout system, and it had some major selling points," comments Gilbert.

Colleagues in the IT services department were also pleased that connect2 provides a choice between on-premises or an externally hosted system. They opted for the SaaS model, which better suits their existing server arrangements. Plus, connect2 offers the opportunity to present the equipment lending service in a modern and much more positive light while prominently carrying the university's branding, which particularly pleased their marketing colleagues.

Tailoring the System to Meet NAU's Needs

The university prepared the connect2 system for their students' use. They received introductory training and found connect2 to be intuitive for both staff and student users. The process of preparing the system is an important part of the service from Lorensbergs. It reveals the full flexibility of connect2, with a dedicated Lorensbergs engineer walking the client through each stage and providing useful advice on setup and customization.

"In effect, connect2 is tailored to the needs of each customer," says Gilbert. "There are a lot of features to choose from, and it was an enjoyable, well-structured process hearing about everything it could do and getting it set up. It was a really good experience working with Lorensbergs."

Feedback on the New System

"Since installing connect2, it's taken a lot of admin work off me," comments Gilbert. "Each time a student added or dropped a class, I would need to generate a report in the old system and make category changes. This would be particularly time-consuming at the start of each semester, and probably averaged 2–3 hours every week in admin. I do not miss that at all!"

As students and faculty have started to use connect2 to reserve their resources, the positive feedback has continued. Gilbert notes:

Faculty can see that we now have a modern system that enables us to manage the inventory much more efficiently. And students like making equipment reservations using connect2 from anywhere they happen to be, simply by going online from their cell phones or laptops. They don't need to register, and they can use their regular university password because of the Active Directory connection. Overall, it's taking them half the time to access the equipment compared to the previous system. We've had nothing but positive feedback.

We now have a lot fewer late situations with returned equipment. At NAU, if students fail to pay their late fees they can't register for next semester classes. And it creates administrative overheads for staff, so it's in everyone's interest to keep these fees down.

The automated communications in connect2 ensure students are more prompt returning items and incur fewer fees. The system confirms when they've made a reservation, reminds them to collect items, and reminds them again when they need to be brought back. These communications also lower the incidence of students turning up to collect items that are still being used by other students.

photos of connect2-procured camera equipment and student using it

Inventory Management Made Easier

"Connect2 really helps with our inventory management. Since moving to connect2, we can track the whereabouts of equipment without any hesitation. And during our review times, we'll run reports to see what equipment gets heavy usage, so we know what we need more of. It's also going to be really useful to use the connect2 reporting to see our service volumes overall—how many checkouts we have in a given period," says Gilbert. "Plus, we find the repair log in connect2 very useful. It helps us to process and track damaged items being repaired, so it's an easy process to take them out and reinstate them back into service again."

Moving Ahead with connect2

Gilbert is looking forward to seeing how connect2 continues to improve how resource-lending services are presented and used by students, making use of further features in the software. He notes, "Since introducing connect2, we've started to include some photography studios to enable students to reserve them in advance. This has alleviated some frustration experienced from the 'first come, first served' approach we had in place for these facilities." The university is also interested in a new user profile picture feature that enables the addition of user photos. These are made visible in the checkout screen so it's possible to make an additional ID check when issuing equipment to students.

To those interested in finding out about connect2, Gilbert adds: "We've had a good experience using connect2 and overcome the problems we endured with our previous system. It's a stable and reliable application, and one that we enjoy using at Northern Arizona University."

With thanks to Russ Gilbert and his team at Northern Arizona University for participating in this case study. Their journey to improved services began with an online connect2 demo—to organize one for your institution, please go here.

See Lorensbergs at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference in Denver, October 31–November 1, Booth 1544.

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Philippa Bryant is CMO and Head of Research at Lorensbergs.

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