UVU’s Secret Sauce

In a recent opinion piece in the Deseret News, Samuel Benson writes that Utah Valley University (UVU) is leading higher ed’s tech revolution. He raises several key points:

  1. Many universities cut back or closed permanently during the pandemic. UVU, instead, graduated its largest class in its history — 6,410 students — last fall.
  2. Much of the credit goes to Dr. Astrid Tuminez, who now enters her third year as the university’s president. She’s the perfect person for the job — a veteran in the tech sector.
  3. Even before the pandemic disrupted in-person learning, she made sure UVU was prepared.
  4. UVU wants technology to drive and enhance every aspect of the student experience, from recruitment to graduation.
  5. The technological revolution is alive and well in the shadow of Silicon Slopes, and that will continue long after masks and social distancing are relics of the past.

In response to Mr. Benson’s article, several individuals asked the question, what is UVU actually doing that is different from other institutions? What is UVU’s secret sauce? Well, that is a question worth answering. It isn’t as much about what we are doing as who we are. The remainder of this post will address who we are, the culture of UVU, and what we’ve done and will be doing.

Higher Education

In Clayton M. Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, he discusses how established industries must change to stay competitive. If they are unwilling or unable to change, they are doomed to eventual failure. We’re all familiar with GAFA or Google (1998), Amazon (1994), Facebook (2004), and Apple (1976). I’m old enough to remember alternative search engines, bookstores, mySpace, and computer companies such as Digital Equipment Corp., Compaq, and IBM. While some of these still exist, they have become less prominent in the fields dominated by the big four. What happened? Innovators, who founded the big four, disrupted the existing market space, and the previous big players weren’t able to or chose not to compete. By the time they realized there was danger of losing their markets, it was far too late.

According to Britannica, the first true university in the West was founded at Bologna late in the 11th century. Interestingly, Britannica, a company older than the United States, but only 1/4 the modern university’s age, who up until 2012 sold a 32 volume encyclopedia set for $1400, had to adapt to a new market. Britannica stopped printing its collection it had printed every other year since 1768 and now offers annual online subscriptions for $70.

Like Britannica and many other companies in many industries, higher education must adapt to changing needs and demands. If higher education institutions are unwilling or unable to change, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant. Our students will demand and deserve that we offer education in a form that they can and want to consume. They will demand that their education leads to the acquisition of good-paying jobs. Employers want access to students and graduates with the hard and soft skills they need to be competitive. Finally, society demands higher education provide all of the above without sacrificing the education the students need to become productive and civil members of our world community.

History, Clayton Christensen, and GAFA teach us that if we in higher education are unable or unwilling to adapt, we will be replaced by innovators who take the initiative to deliver a more modern education. We see some of this already happening with Grow with Google, Microsoft Learn, Great Learning, HackBright Academy, DevMountain, Western Governors University Academy, BYU Pathway Worldwide, and many others. So, how do we adapt to changing needs and wants while maintaining our identity as a university? Part of the solution is taking advantage of information technology and applying it where and when it increases student success, learning, and completion rates and decreases time to completion and cost.

UVU’s Secret Sauce

While nearly every higher education institution is putting classes online, training faculty to work remotely, and strengthening IT infrastructure, UVU is truly transforming the educational landscape. This starts with the exceptional can-do culture developed over the years by our students, faculty, and staff. Our students are diverse, inclusive, and gritty, our faculty put student success above their own professional aspirations, our amazing staff proactively reach out to students to help them be successful, our administration focuses on student success, and our president, Dr. Astrid Tuminez, resonates with our students, understands what an education can do for them, and understands how and where technology can help.

Digital Transformation

Digital transformation is about transforming the way an institution does business. In our case, it is about making education better, more accessible, with fewer administrative burdens for students and faculty. Digital transformation is about using technology in the right way, in the right places, and at the right times to help students complete their educational dreams and be successful.

To do this, digital transformation efforts must be aligned with institutional goals and strategy. UVU has an exceptional strategy document entitled Vision 2030. Vision 2030 includes the UVU Mission Statement that reads, “Utah Valley University is an integrated university and community college that educates every student for success in work and life through excellence in engaged teaching, services, and scholarship.” Vision 2030 outlines three strategies:

  1. Enhance student success and accelerate completion of meaningful credentials
  2. Improve accessibility, flexibility, and affordability for all current and future UVU students
  3. Strengthen partnerships for community, workforce, and economic development

Strategy Map

To ensure our digital transformation efforts are aligned with institutional strategy, we created, with assistance from PM2 Consulting, a strategy map, which is a diagram that shows an organization’s strategy on a single page.

At the top and center of a strategy map, we place the organization’s mission or vision statement. Stacked down the map’s left side are four perspectives: customers or stakeholders, internal processes, enablers, and financial.

Within each perspective, we place a small number of strategic objectives. Arrows indicate how one or more strategic objectives help accomplish others. Our strategy map is illustrated in Figure 1. For details regarding the creation of our strategy map, see my post, Digital Transformation Strategy.

Figure 1: Strategy map for the UVU Division of Digital Transformation, including strategic objectives and associated weights.

The UVU Division of Digital Transformation pursues the institutional strategies of achieving student success, including all students, and engaging our partners. We accomplish this by delivering delightful experiences, providing transformative solutions, strengthening our partnerships, and practicing exceptional product portfolio management. These strategies are supported by a culture of being responsive, manifesting UVU values, and developing our staff.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

As much as I like our strategy, it is only as good as the associated tactics and our ability to make needed changes and progress. So what have we done? Like nearly all institutions of higher education, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we immediately bolstered our campus networks, increased cybersecurity, added classroom technology to enable multiple teaching modalities, including remote, live streaming instruction, acquired several hundred laptops for student checkout from the library, and procured a couple of hundred WiFi hotspots with unlimited data bandwidth to provide student connectivity. However, while we dealt with the immediate needs of our students and faculty, we also made changes for the post-pandemic world of higher education:

  1. We created an Academic and Student Digital Services (ASDS) organization to focus on the teaching, learning, and academic administration technologies and services that will be delightful to use and enhance our ability to achieve student success.
  2. We reorganized the existing Office of Information Technology.
  3. We combined previously distributed IT organizations.
  4. We organized a product portfolio management group to enable us to practice exceptional product portfolio management.
  5. Within these groups, we organized units to focus on:
    1. Identity and access management
    2. Communications
    3. Website, intranet, and mobile application design
    4. Business intelligence
    5. Academic systems
  6. We hired two associate vice presidents to lead our Office of Information Technology and our Academic and Student Digital Services groups.
  7. We named a Senior Director of Product and Portfolio Management and charged them to ensure our products and services are delightful and transformative.

In addition to these organizational shifts and adjustments to enhance our ability to focus and transform our work at UVU, we also initiated numerous critical projects that will enhance student success:

  1. We initiated a project to move from our traditional PBX-based phone system to Microsoft Phone System technology. This move will enable remote faculty and staff to reach out to students from anywhere in the world, using nearly any device, and appear as if they’re placing the call from their campus office. This change adds functionality, makes the experience more delightful, and saves the university money.
  2. We began a new student-centric mobile application that will enable students to accomplish many of their administrative functions on their mobile devices. They will be able to check their academic progress, set appointments and communicate with their academic advisor, add and drop classes, pay tuition and fees, and see events, classes, exams, and final exam schedules. In the future, the UVU mobile app will include voice recognition, be a digital assistant, and act as their ID card.
  3. We started a project to create a campus Intranet using MS Teams as the core component. Just today, Microsoft introduced Viva, a new product that may meet our needs. A modern intranet will provide us with the means to communicate better as a campus community.
  4. We continued creating a business intelligence system that will assist all campus areas in utilizing data and information to make informed decisions. This will help students track their progress, faculty reach more students, general communication, and facilitate the use of artificial intelligence (AI) across the institution.
  5. We began a complete rework of the UVU identity management system. This work will result in students, faculty, and staff being digital equals. While different roles and responsibilities will enable each individual to access the information pertinent to their roles, this equality will foster communication, calendaring, and virtual meetings.

These initiatives are a direct result of choosing to pursue activities that support our strategic objectives. In one way or another, they all increase the institution’s ability to help students succeed.

Summary

Utah Valley University is a special place where students, faculty, and staff understand its mission, strategies, and values. However, these are not merely the institution’s, but they’re ours, we know them, we love them, and we live them. We do all that we do to express exceptional care, exceptional accountability, and exceptional results. We are digitally transforming the university because we want our students to succeed in a digitally transforming world. So what is our secret sauce? It is a set of amazing people, driven by a common mission, directed by strategy, and guided by a set of values we’re committed to expressing in all that we do. Digital transformation at UVU is simply applying technology where, when, and how it helps people reach their full potential. We care, are accountable, and promise results!

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