People, Process & Technology with UCF’s Dr. Jennifer Sumner

Episode Cover Art: People, Process, and Technology with UCF's Dr. Jennifer Sumner

We’ll be talking with Dr. Jennifer Sumner about people, process, and technology, within the University of Central Florida‘s online program. In this wide ranging conversation, we hear about UCF Connect, the university’s success coaching program for online students. We hear how the university is leveraging SalesForce and other technologies to improve the student experience. We talk about ways they’ve helped build a sense of belonging for online students and how, despite the enormous size of the university, the UCF online team has fostered productive collaboration among dozens of stakeholders and departments.


Jarrett Smith: You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith.

Jarrett Smith: Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher ed in the broader world of marketing to find actionable insights you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment efforts. In this episode, we’ll be talking with Dr. Jennifer Sumner about people, process, and technology, within the University of Central Florida’s online program. In this wide ranging conversation, we hear about UCF Connect, the university’s success coaching program for online students. We hear how the university is leveraging SalesForce and other technologies to improve the student experience. We talk about ways they’ve helped build a sense of belonging for online students and how, despite the enormous size of the university, the UCF online team has fostered productive collaboration among dozens of stakeholders and departments. I had a blast talking with Dr. Sumner and the perspective she shared, I think, will be relevant to anyone thinking deeply about modern higher education. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr. Jenny Sumner.

Jarrett Smith: Jenny, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for being here.

Jennifer Sumner:  Thank you for having me. I’m excited.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to this conversation. Maybe before we dive into everything you’re doing at UCF, if you could just give folks a little bit of your background and your role at UCF.

Jennifer Sumner: Certainly. What I would term myself would be a UCF lifer. I started at the University of Central Florida as an undergraduate and then got my master’s degree and my doctoral degree from the University of Central Florida and have loved every minute of it. When I graduated with my doctoral degree, I then stayed in the faculty realm and then transitioned into some directorship for some different programs. I was the director of internships for a while, which I really really enjoyed and then in 2013, I had the opportunity to begin work with, what was then termed, regional campuses, it’s really the extension of the university out into the community.

Jennifer Sumner: Our portfolio is very very extensive and then last year, regional campuses, we rebranded ourselves to what we call, UCF Connect, and making those connections, making those partnerships and those relationships with business, with industry, with our state college partners, internally with different units. It really fit the moniker of our new brand. UCF Connect really fits with what we’re trying to do and what our mission is, so it’s been just such a fantastic ride. I am the executive director for the UCF online connect center and I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit more about what UCF Online is all about and then I’m also director of strategic initiatives for UCF Connect and it allows us to be very creative in what we do, very innovative in what we do.

Jennifer Sumner:  Our vice provost, who leads our unit, Dr. Jeff Jones, is such a brilliant forward thinking leader and he allows us to really experiment with different innovations, to be outside of the box in what it is that we do, be an incubator for some different things at the university, to try out UCF Online is certainly a partnership that we started to incubate and really grow and foster, which has been so fun. I really appreciate just his vision for a unit at UCF Connect. That’s where I’m at and what I’m doing right now.

Jarrett Smith: Really cool. Yeah, let’s talk a little bit about UCF Online, obviously online learning has been such a big area of growth over the past several years. Can you tell us a little bit about what UCF does online, what kind of programs you have, the sort of volume of students moving through the program?

Jennifer Sumner: Sure. At UCF, we’ve had a history of online teaching and online learning. We have a specific unit at UCF called, center for distributed learning, and they’ve been in the online space for over 20 years. As a student, I took online classes. They’ve really set the standard for teaching online as well because all faculty at the university that want to teach online, they’ve got to go through two semesters of intensive training in order to teach online and be qualified, if you will, to teach online and then they have a very good support system for students that are learning online. In that history, that 20 year history, students have been flocking to us to take online classes. Some will take online classes here or there, some will actually develop their entire program around being a fully online student.

Jennifer Sumner: Around 2015, the university started thinking about, what can we do for those students that are fully online? And so there were three units at UCF that got together. Again, all of these leaders are very forward thinking. There was the center for distributed learning, who I just mentioned, that’s very engaged in the online space in terms of teaching and learning. Center for distributed learning, and that is overseen by Tom Cavanaugh and then we had communications and marketing and that’s overseen by Patrick Burke and then UCF Connect, which is my unit, and that is overseen by vice provost Jeff Jones. The three of those leaders got together and started visioning about what UCF Online could potentially look like and they pitched it to our provost, who was very receptive to the idea that we build internal capacity around this thing which would soon become UCF Online and what that looks like. The benefit that we have now for students that we didn’t have before, is that those students that want to be fully online, they’re either at a distance or life circumstances mean that they have to be fully online, they can apply to this fully online program and they get some of their campus based fees waived.

Jennifer Sumner: If they’re not engaging in the rec and wellness center or they’re not using some of the services that are campus based, those fees are waived for them. On the whole, the money that they’re paying to the institution is less just because they’re an online student and then the other benefit is that they get assigned a success coach and that success coach works with that student because they are not engaging in the traditional sense, they’re not coming to campus. That success coaching engages with them from the moment of inquiry all the way through graduation. They’ve got a champion, a motivator, that’s going to be with them all the way through their entire student experience and their student journey at UCF. In 2016 is when we really launched and our five year projections for UCF Online was about 3,200 students and in our third year, our current enrollment right now is 4,800, so we’ve surpassed our five year projection in about two and a half years, which is so exciting. Students are really starting to understand what UCF Online is all about and are really very receptive to being a fully online student, saving in terms of those fees and then also very receptive to the success coaching that we’re providing for them.

Jarrett Smith:  Yeah, so is it actually the same person from inquiry all the way through graduation or is there a hand off once they actually enroll or how does that … just out of curiosity.

Jennifer Sumner:  UCF Connect, my unit, has been in the forefront of success coaching at the university and what’s interesting is that we’ve got two versions of that, to answer your question. With UCF Online, the way that our coaching works with the students is it’s three layers. The student is first introduced to what we call a prospective student specialist and that prospective student specialist picks up that inquiry and works with that inquiry to answer basic questions, to make sure that they fit with online learning. They’ll ask questions around, have you ever taken an online class? Do you have a computer, which oddly enough, some students that want to do online do not have access to computers or to broadband or high speed Internet connection, which is often essential. That prospective student specialist will do some qualifications around that student and then that prospective student specialists hands off the student to what we call an enrollment coach and that enrollment coach helps that student from that handoff, all the way through the first week of the first semester.

Jennifer Sumner:   The enrollment coach will help the student through the application process, getting documentation together like transcripts and immunization records and helping them through financial aid and those particular questions and then help them through orientation and then enrollment into that first term and then after that enrollment coach, they’re handed off to a success coach and that success coach is the one that works with them from that first term enrollment all the way through to graduation. Yeah, so that’s the one layer of coaching that we provide. Interestingly enough, when we were regional campuses, the expertise that we laid in terms of servicing our state college partners, especially through a pipeline that we call Direct Connect. Direct Connect to UCF is a nationally renowned transfer pipeline for transfer students and we have staff that are stationed on our regional campus locations that are with our state college partners.

Jennifer Sumner:  We’ve got six state college partners that we work very intently with and have, historically speaking. Direct Connect UCF is about 15 years old now. We have staff in those locations that have been working with students historically and this past year, we have turned them into success coaches. We’ve trained them and that coach works with a student all the way from inquiry to graduation. We have two different spectrums on how we’re working with students. One is multi tiered, just because of the nature of the UCF Online connect center and the other is very much working with that student from first inquiry all the way through to graduation. Two different spectrums of coaching, if you will and both very very successful I must say.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, that is really good stuff. I kind of want to talk about that student journey because I’ve heard you talk on this topic a little bit and I think it’s really interesting how y’all have really taken, I think, a thoughtful look at that entire student journey from inquiry all the way through graduation and kind of found areas of opportunity and there’s a lot of specific stuff that I’m excited for us to talk about but before we get to that, I’d really like to know, how have you gone about understanding the student journey in the first place? It’s such a relevant topic in marketing. As a marketing practitioner myself, we’re always trying to wrap our brains around the student journey, around the customer journey, and understand how to make it better. How have y’all sort of gone about probing that and assessing the areas of opportunity that exist there?

Jennifer Sumner:  Well first of all, I need to mention that at UCF, we are an access driven university. Our mission is access for students. Along with that, we also have a success mission as well. We want every student to be successful, that enters our door either as a freshman or as a transfer student and we’ve historically grown in our transfer population. Right now, we’re the second largest institution in the nation. We’ve got about 67,000 plus students and we’re very intent on what success means for every single one of those students. To answer your question, the experience and looking at the student journey is intentional conversation that we have at the university and it’s one that started a few years ago and it really is … The services that we’re providing to the student, what does that mean to the student, right? As we’re growing as an institution, as more and more students are coming into the university, it’s very intentional and it’s necessary that we understand what each point of service means to that student, what each challenge or barrier means to that student.

Jennifer Sumner:  These conversations started several years ago and the first point is, it’s really driven by partnership. You’ve got to have your stakeholders at the table, that are going to be with you in this conversation and really plot out what that full student experience means because you’ve got admissions, you have orientation, you have different offices at different times, that come into the student’s life at different points of their journey. If each one of them are looking at the student experience in isolation, you’re not going to get a full picture and to your point, you can do this across any industry, right? You need to understand your customer and we need to be honest, that students are our customers in higher ed. Understanding what that looks like, it involves a partnership mindset and it involves getting all those stakeholders at the table around a truthful conversation about how every unit touches that student and then how every unit actually works together.

Jennifer Sumner:  It becomes a symbiotic conversation and I’m happy to say that the more that we do this, the more people are engaged in these types of conversation because it’s such a necessary piece because you think of it like a domino effect, right? What happens at the front end is ultimately going to have an effect on the backend. That domino is going to fall and what I often say, that first domino has to be so successful with that student if that student is going to feel connected to the university, if they’re going to feel like they have a sense of belonging with the institution, that first domino has to be successful and then conversely, the second domino has to be successful, right? They have to successfully work with the student and as those dominos fall, every single one of them in succession, has to be successful for that student and here again likewise in the industry, I think for every customer, that same premise applies.

Jennifer Sumner: It’s very intentional. It’s a lot of work to have these types of conversations but it’s such a critical piece of what we’re doing at UCF to understand how everything aligns and works together for the success of the student through their entire student journey.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, that’s so interesting and I think when I’ve heard you talk about this topic before, you mentioned that your success coaches are sort of fluent, I guess we could say, in different aspects, so they can answer some questions that maybe an academic advisor might answer but they’re obviously careful not to sort of cross the line into academic advising but they provide a little bit of continuity, they can sometimes maybe help the student get to the right answer faster. Maybe talk a little bit about how you’re going about doing that.

Jennifer Sumner: My vice provost, Jeff Jones, says this so eloquently. He calls it the T shaped model, right? If you’ve got all of your folks that understand 80 to 90% of your business and what you do, they’re generalists across the board, that’s the top layer of that T, right? And then the vertical, right, that vertical bottom of the T are areas of specialization. Not ever student is going to need that area of specialization but if they do, we have people at the ready to answer those questions and to have those conversations with the student. That’s the approach that we’ve taken, especially with the success coaching model, that we have trained all of our coaches to have that T shape understanding, right, at the horizontal, that top of the T, everybody has general knowledge.

Jennifer Sumner:  They can answer general questions around things like financial aid or around orientation or around enrollment and those types of things and then we built up these specialists, right, that are that bottom of the T, that really work with the student more in depth and or that are at the ready to answer questions for other coaches that may not be in that level of expertise.

Jarrett Smith:  it’s so funny that you mention the T shape model specifically because I’ve talked about that with our staff here and in our world, it’s not good enough these days to have a designer who just understands design. If it’s ultimately going to be implemented on the web, they have to understand what’s possible in code. Maybe they don’t need to be a great developer on their own right but they need to be fluent in development to a certain extent and kind of understand where kind of the outline of that is and so that they don’t design something that can’t be built and likewise, a developer needs to understand what makes for good design and why they’re asking for the things they’re asking for and that sort of thing.

Jennifer Sumner: We can also liken this back to what we were just talking about about the student journey, right? If somebody in advising doesn’t know what somebody in let’s say, admissions, is doing, right, or somebody in the faculty realm is doing, if they don’t understand at least in a general sense, what that top of the T if we’re using that analogy, what the top of the T looks like, then they’re not as efficient as they can be, right, in working with that student. They’re not as efficient in terms of the conversation that they have with students and or liaisoning with the particular office that they need to be. Back to your point specifically, right, is that if we are asking our students to understand what they’re going through from a student experience, we have to understand what they’re going through as well and seeing that whole picture.

Jennifer Sumner: The more that we can get our staff, especially through UCF Connect with the success coaching model, to understand the general layers of everything the student is going to experience, then they can be with that student and have those conversations and then know where to direct those students to in terms of the expertise and know where to direct them in terms of the specializations that they need but it always comes back to that coach as the generalist because they want to be that champion for the student, they want to be that motivator for the student, and being that point of contact, that point of reference for the student, I just think that T shaped model is a perfect example and illustration about how not only we can affect our student but to your point, industry as well. When you just look across the landscape, the more that you know about certain little things, the more value you’re adding to your knowledge set, just in general.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, that’s really good stuff. Let’s talk about some of the specific things you’ve done along those lines. As you’ve taken a look at that student journey, what kind of changes have you made over the years, tweaks, maybe big changes? I’d love to hear about some of the specific things.

Jennifer Sumner: Certainly, certainly. I’m going to speak in two areas because I would say that my areas really are UCF Online and then also because our unit, UCF Connect, we’re so specifically with our direct connect to UCF transfer model, there’s some things that I can certainly add to that as well. From a UCF Online perspective, we’re relatively new. Like I said, we just started in 2015, so that entire start up and the learning process has just been phenomenal in that UCF Online space. How do we do change management? How do we work with all of the internal and external stakeholders to build what we call UCF Online? Because as I mentioned, if every domino has to be successful, everybody has to know what’s going on. Specifically for UCF Online, one of the first things that we did is we established what we call the, UCF Online systems and processes review committee, and there were about 48 people from 14 different units all across campus that got together routinely to think about what UCF Online and the structure of this new program is going to look like a the institution and something that you would never think about if you didn’t have these stakeholders at the table …

Jennifer Sumner: It’s great to think that you’re the expert in something and you’re going full boar but then somebody comes out of the blue and says, well did you think about this? No, we didn’t. We’ve got to bring that into the equation as well. Having all of those people at the table, it really is essential if you’re doing any type of a start up, if you’re doing any type of program that you’re initiating, the first thing that I would recommend is having those stakeholders at the table because it really just envelopes the entire conversation and you have all of those people that are contributing to the conversation and again, adding things that you might not have thought of. Early on for UCF Online, it was, how do we track these students? How do we monitor these students? And because we’re an institution that has a history, there were a lot of processes that were manual, that were, dare I say, antiquated. How do we move the needle on bringing those, in terms of innovation, right?

Jennifer Sumner: How do we uplift those in terms of innovation? How do we automate some of these different processes? So that was a big conversation and it’s still ongoing because we’re continuing to grow UCF Online, we’re continuing to learn in that space. When you ask about, what are some changes, those were big ones for us for UCF Online. How do we become innovative in this environment? How do we provide a great student experience for what the students are doing? We had to think about it from marketing, how do we get out there in front of the student and get those marketing campaigns and those conversations had with the student, even if they’re thinking about coming to UCF and that’s where communications and marketing were critical to this partnership and then it was about, okay, how do we deliver these services online? How do we take the online learning and make it such an engaging experience for our student and that’s where center for distributed learning came in to play and then for us, for UCF Connect is, how do we take those services that we traditional give to students in a face to face manner, and how do we put those in an online format?

Jennifer Sumner: How do we make the student, across the country, feel like he or she is connected to the university, so that there’s a sense of belonging for that particular student and all of these things we’re learning as we go and so the conversation we had to build around partnerships, organizational structures, moving the needle on different innovations and how we can employ different innovations, new customer relationship management systems, we’ve mentioned SalesForce before, so some things around SalesForce and so it’s just a wonderfully inventive and creative conversation that we started and that we continue to have around UCF Online. Those are some big changes just starting up that program and then for our unit, UCF Connect, I had mentioned before that we were regional campuses, we have expertise in working relationships externally to the university and one of our premier transfer pipelines is direct connect to UCF, so we have that historical expertise on working with those students that are in our regional locations. How do we continue to transform that because not only in higher ed but in any industry, you don’t want to be static, right?

Jennifer Sumner: You always want to be dynamic and you always want to be innovative, so with direct connect, some of the new things that we’re deploying there are the success coach model, which we’ve not had until this past year and students are very very receptive to that success coaching model. How can we continue to innovate around those services, so we’re looking at things like mobile apps, developing mobile apps for students that help ease their transfer journey. We’re looking at some different technologies like again, SalesForce and the CRM and that big note taking and tracking and monitoring system that we’ve not had before. Deploying different technologies and really, again, uplifting direct connect to UCF in some of those technological advances. Those have been changing for sure.

Jarrett Smith: Well let’s have a SalesForce conversation because I think when I heard you speak of this, you kind of mentioned having all the information needed on a single pane of glass. Could you talk a little bit about that? How are you using SalesForce? What capabilities are you getting out of it now?

Jennifer Sumner: At the university and I’m sure any industry is probably notorious for this, especially if they’re a large industry, it’s a lot of systems, right? There’s a lot of technological systems and sometimes, unbeknownst to one unit or another, you’re going out, you’re purchasing these little industry licenses or these individual units for technology purposes, right? And they work great for you but when you start to expand that scope, they oftentimes are not integrated with one another. At UCF, we have a lot of systems and the question is, how do we take those systems and how do we integrate them for the benefit of not only the staff but the benefit of the student as well because if we, as a staff, have to open up multiple systems and if we’ve got to go through and pull data from multiple systems, that’s time we’re taking away from actually working and interfacing, if you will, with the student and interacting with the student and building those relationships with the student.

Jennifer Sumner: It’s time wasted, it’s time lost in having to go through all of these different hoops. One of the things that we’re very cognizant about right now, especially through UCF Connect, our unit, is, how do we develop, to your point, that one pane of glass? And what we mean by that is, how do we develop that one interface that brings all of those systems to bare? If I’m a success coach and I’m working with a student, I have all of the information that I need at my fingertips and I can have a robust conversation with that student built along all of those data points with all on that single pane of glass. I don’t have to close out those applications, sign into this other application, go over here-

Jarrett Smith: Wait for it to load.

Jennifer Sumner: Wait for it to load, that’s a big one. Wait for it to load. All of that information is right there in front of the coach and here again, we can continue to develop those relationships and save time and energy around having to access all of those different places when we have it in one pane of glass. UCF Connect has been at the forefront of looking at SalesForce. It’s one of the things that we’ve invested in because at the university, we have not had a robust CRM system that works from the prospective side and for UCF Connect, especially when we’re working with students that are prospective students, we needed that.

Jennifer Sumner: We needed that type of a system in place and we looked across the landscape and SalesForce is one that we started partnering with and so now the conversation is, how do we integrate SalesForce with some other systems that we have at the university and how do we continue to develop those SalesForce platform to meet the specific needs that we have in terms of student relationships and we’re confident we’re going to get there but back to what we had talked about earlier, it’s, how do you bring those key stakeholders to the table to make those connections work, right?

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, so you mentioned on that committee, the systems and processes review committee, 48 different folks. How on earth do you have that many people, presumably in a room all together at certain points, how do you make that productive? How do you keep it organized and on track? That blows my mind.

Jennifer Sumner:  It’s a process. It’s a process, I have to say, and it’s been such a fantastic opportunity to get people in the room and we’ve gotten so much out of this particular committee beyond the conversations around the student journey and the technology needs and the restructuring of some of the organizational processes, it’s the connectivity, it’s the networking, it’s, oh, I’ve talked to you 100 times on the phone but I’ve never met you in person, right? To answer your question specifically, a lot of planning, a lot of organization, having oftentimes these one off conversations and saying, listen, we’re starting this committee. You would really be a great voice on this committee. Would you commit to being a part of this conversation? And oftentimes when you approach people like that, they’re going to say yes, right?

Jennifer Sumner: They want to be involved. A case in point, we have a fantastic unit at the university called, institutional knowledge management, and it is our unit that collects data at the university that is our go to unit when we want reports or need information about this student, right? Especially in the aggregate, what do our students look like? What are the profiles? If I’m doing this program, what’s the data set behind that? And oftentimes, I can come into the conversation at the end, at the end of that thought, and so we were very intentional about bringing in to the table in the beginning, right?

Jennifer Sumner:  If we were to look at this program, let’s say UCF Online. If we were to look at this program of UCF Online, thinking it through all the way, well we’re going to need ICAM in this conversation, we need to bring them to the table early and here again, it comes back to one of the things that we had talked about before is, they had such insight into what we needed to build on the front end to give us great assessments and great results on the back end, that had we not had them in the conversation early, we would have lost all of that and we would have had to have gone back to the starting point to bring them into the conversation and we would have lost that.

Jarrett Smith: Right, it would be so hard to retrofit onto your existing process.

Jennifer Sumner:  Exactly, yeah. That’s a great word. Yeah and so the committee itself has been so fantastic in bringing not only their areas and their focus and their expertise but then also being very thoughtful in the conversation from the 30,000 foot view, from looking at it from a holistic standpoint and that right there has been the success of UCF Online because if we would not have had these folks at the table, we would have lost that rich conversation. We, early on, scheduled every month, a meeting with this group and every month, we had fantastic turnout for this group because they were excited about what we were doing, they were excited about being asked to come to the conversation.

Jennifer Sumner: They were really engaged and they really helped move the needle on UCF Online and building that as a structure and then as we start to roll out UCF Online, the frequencies of those meetings got less and less. We would meet as needed or we continued to meet if there’s an issue that we needed to resolve but all of those people now have connections with one another, which I think is one of the biggest takeaways.

Jarrett Smith: Oh yeah, that’s priceless. I have a question and hopefully this makes sense within your context but, sort of this issue of prioritization. There’s only so much time to go around, there’s only so much budget, you have this team, a very large team of folks who are working well together but they may have different views of what the priorities ought to be. How did you all go about saying, okay, here’s where we start and this is the most important thing we need to address right now and then here’s kind of second, third, fourth. Bob, sorry you’re pet thing is eight on the list. How did you go about doing that? Sorry to Bob, by the way. I don’t know if there’s a Bob on your team.

Jennifer Sumner: There is a Bob.

Jarrett Smith: Oh no.

Jennifer Sumner: There is a Bob with center for distributed learning. Bob Reed, I’ll just mention him and he’s fantastic. He is my partner in crime along with Courtney Borden and the three of us together run UCF Online and from the daily operational perspective. They’re all fantastic individuals. Yes, there is a Bob.

Jarrett Smith:  Sorry Bob.

Jennifer Sumner: That’s all right. He’ll completely understand. I think there’s two ways to answer this question. When you talk about prioritizing, there’s the key focus, right? You come into the conversation and the initial conversation that you have is, all right, what needs to get done in the immediate? What do we have to focus on right now in order to move on to the next step? And that is a consensus, so if we knew that we needed to track UCF Online students, I’ll use this as an example, there was no mechanism in place for us to say, Jarrett, you are a fully online student and this is how we can identify you at the university. We had students and we had students that took online classes and we had students that took fully online classes in terms of their course load, but we couldn’t identify them. It was just a student at UCF.

Jennifer Sumner: One of the priorities that we all agreed on was, all right, how do we track all of our UCF Online students and that’s again, back to my conversation about ICAM, they were at the table and allowed us to think through, all right, if we put some type of a designation on these programs that the students are enrolling into, that’s our way to track them. Now we can tell you how many UCF online students that are fully online, that are at the university, which we had never had before. We sit down together as a group and we talk about what the initial priorities are but I think the second thing that we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about was, immediacy.

Jennifer Sumner: Something will pop up that needs immediate attention and you’ve got to be nimble enough to go chase that rabbit hole, to go down that direction in order to make sure that that need is met and that you get that situation resolved and solved before you come back to setting the other priorities. How you set priorities, it really is first of all, getting everybody at the table, I think is number one. Number two, setting a consensus around what needs to happen and knowing that there are so many experts at the table that are going to help guide that conversation and they’ll tell you and they’ll help you to formulate what those priorities are. I think that’s the second one. Coming up with a consensus of what your priorities are. The third really is, as I mentioned, being nimble, not to be so focused on, okay, this is our list of things we have to do. Check one, check two-

Jarrett Smith:  We cannot change.

Jennifer Sumner: We cannot change, right. Exactly.

Jarrett Smith: We must not deviate.

Jennifer Sumner: Exactly but being fluid enough to change and then come back as needed to your list and then I think the fourth one, it really is just being organized around what it is that you’re doing. You’ve got so many people in the room, having somebody that’s going to take ownership of that and really keep everybody on task and on track, I think is also a key as well.

Jarrett Smith:  Very good. This is a little bit of a back track but I remember this from your talk, you were talking about how important it was to build community and related a story, I think about a student that was in a fully online and how you had kind of helped her feel like a knight at UCF. Would you mind kind of relating that story?

Jennifer Sumner: Sure. Where I come from is, it’s so essential that students have a sense of belonging and I think when you look at the research, especially for online learning, there’s a critical point that’s easily forgotten. You go through kind of the mechanics of getting the student to approach your university, to be interested in your university, to get enrolled in classes, and then well they’re here, right? They’re in our classes, so we don’t have to engage with them, we don’t have to make them feel like a knight but I think it’s such a critical piece of the conversation because we want that student to engage with us in different ways that they might not be able to because they’re at a distance, so how do we translate some of those traditional on campus experiences to the student that’s online.

Jennifer Sumner: A sense of belonging to me is very very important, especially for our online population, for all of our students but for me and where I’m coming from, particularly for UCF Online, developing that sense of belonging because that’s, I think, where you’re going to lose a student. If they don’t feel like they’ve got a champion, if they don’t feel like they’ve got somebody that’s going to motivate them and continue to connect with them at the university, they’re going to check out and they’re going to find someplace different. One of the things that you and I talked about before we started chatting here on our podcast is that, there’s a fantastic book that I’m reading. It’s called, The Experience Economy, and what the authors argue is that services and products, they’re not the thing anymore.

Jennifer Sumner: What’s going to connect with them from an industry standpoint, what’s going to connect with your constituents, is the experience that you build for them. The Amazon experience, right? The Airbnb experience, developing an experience for them that they’re going to want to continue to come back to, that’s going to stick out in their mind and that they want to come back to. Probably the story that you’re thinking of and the one that I use routinely is, I was sitting in the library and we’ve got a traditional, in fact, I think at some point it was ranked one of the national traditions across the country is what we call, spirit splash, and during homecoming week, students on campus are able to jump into what we call our reflection pond. It’s the only time of the year that students are able to rush-

Jarrett Smith: Campus security looks the other way.

Jennifer Sumner: Exactly, they do. They do. You’ve got all of these throngs of students that want to jump in and rush into our reflection pond and one of the things that they do is that we throw in these rubber duckies, right? And every year it’s a thing to get the rubber ducky and they’re themed, some have top hats one year and goggles and stuff the next year but they’re themed and so that’s the thing for students. Not only do you get to rush in spirit splash but you try to capture one of these rubber duckies and I was sitting in the library and there was a student that was sitting across from me at a different table and he had gotten a rubber ducky and that could have been the end of the story but he was Facetiming his mom and he was talking to his mom about, look, I got one of these rubber duckies and he was explaining to his mom about what it meant and how cool it was and only a few people were able to get them.

Jennifer Sumner: I think there’s only a couple hundred that they throw in but for him, it was a tangible. It was a tangible that he could hold in his hand for this traditional that we have at the university and for him, it was a connection and then to relay that connection to his mom was even a bigger thing for him. That connection and that sense of belonging is what we need to capture and what we need to continue to think about in terms of our students and I would argue that you need to think about in any industry. How do you develop that relationship with your customer, that they want to come back, they want to engage with you, that you’ve had such a meaningful and moving experience with them that it’s impactful and I would argue that that student was impacted in that moment, in that tradition, getting a piece of that traditional, that rubber ducky, that he could hold in his hand that was so very meaningful for him and made that connection to the institution and again, to that traditional, that’s of the institution.

Jarrett Smith: Well and I know in an online environment, certainly experience this maybe when I’m working with somebody who’s remote. I mean you have to be so intentional about the communication and about passing along, in our case, say the company culture and all of that and it’s no different online. I mean you can’t just … If you’re on campus, if nothing else, you’re going to pick it up through osmosis. You’re going to have to attend some events and you’re going to pick that up but online, left to it’s own devices, it’s not going to happen.

Jennifer Sumner:  And back to what we were talking about before, the word that I love is intentional. You’ve got to be intention about how you create those experiences for the student. Exactly to your point, how do we connect with that student that may be in Colorado? That is a UCF Online student that’s taking their major fully online with us, how do we make that student feel like a knight and I would argue that you’ve got to use innovation, you’ve got to use technology, you’ve got to find ways that are going to make that student feel just as connected as the one that jumped into the pond and got the rubber ducky. It’s things like podcasts, it’s things like reaching out to the student on a routine basis just to check in. Hey, we had this conversation two weeks ago, I’m just checking in to see how you did on that exam or how you’re doing in that particular class. I’m checking in with you to see what’s going on in your life and that’s where success coaching comes in for us, to bring it back to success coaching.

Jennifer Sumner:  It’s how we relate to the student and again, give them that experience and even when we’re talking about just processes, right, is the application a good experience for them? Filling out an online application. Is filling our their financial aid forms, is that a good experience for them and for us at UCF Online, those are the things that we continue to monitor and check. Not only the traditional processes and how we can translate them to online mechanisms but then how do we continue to use innovation to continue to reach out to those students and really pull them in.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, that’s something that’s really been on my mind a lot lately is kind of this idea of usability, user experience, as kind of the new competitive advantage and I feel like, especially with our students these days that are growing up as digital natives, they’ve never known a time when they weren’t connected to the Internet and they’re used to interacting with really carefully refined tools like Airbnb or Facebook or Amazon and they’re expecting things to be seamless, they’re expecting it to be easy, they’re expecting you to have tied together all the data on the back end. Something you said earlier, you mentioned Amazon. On the front end as a consumer, you have Amazon Prime and it’s so easy to use and I click a couple of buttons and stuff shows up at my house two days later or a day later or same day but then you think about, what had to happen on the back end to make that possible? I mean they’re just moving mountains and you don’t see any of that.

Jennifer Sumner: Right and to that point, that’s what we’re trying to do at the university because there’s so many processes that are decades old and you oftentimes hear somebody say, well it’s always been done that way. You have these ingrained orthodoxies around different processes and you have these ingrained orthodoxies around how things are “supposed to happen,” so the word that I keep hearing more and more in terms of innovation is disruption. How do you disrupt those common held beliefs and those orthodoxies that have been ingrained in the culture? How do you disrupt those and disruption doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it could be a very forward thinking take on how we continue to build that student experience because at the end of the day, if a student can say, to use your great word, seamless. It was seamless for me to go from application to submitting my documentation to getting accepted to the university to going through orientation, it was a seamless process for me. That is the most rewarding thing that we can hear from a student.

Jennifer Sumner: There may be craziness behind the scenes that they don’t see and that’s kind of where we’re at right now and at one point, it’s going to be seamless for us behind the scenes as well but if we can give the student, our customer, that seamless experience, that’s the key and how we’re using success coaches to do that is … and I also want to pick up on something that you had mentioned that we have the digital natives but it’s amazing how many students want that human connection, they really do, and so when … for our success coaching model, we’re using telephone, we’re using Skype, we’re building in mechanisms for text and those types of things but right now it’s a traditional model of reaching out.

Jennifer Sumner: We get them by phone, we get them through Skype, obviously there’s a lot of emailing that’s going on but they very much are drawn to that human connection, that there’s a wizard behind the curtain, right, that’s helping them and motivating them through the university experience, that they’re not alone in this and it’s really easy to think about if I’m a student, it’s really easy for me to get caught up in the fact that UCF is big, that there are 67 plus thousand other students that are right along with me but this institution made me feel like a one, that they were concerned about me, they were concerned about my success, and that’s what we’re trying to do as a success coach model.

Jennifer Sumner: We’re trying to give that student a champion, we’re trying to give that student a motivator, somebody that’s going to use that T shape methodology, that they’re going to have that general knowledge for the student, work them and walk them through their experience, they’ll reach out to the experts as needed, and they’ll be that connection with the student that I think is clamoring and maybe me even shifting back towards wanting that human connection.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, I think we’re in such an interesting time right now where we are watching kind of these various pendulums swing back and forth. I know I heard Jay Baer, the big social media guru, I don’t know if you’ve come across him at all. He’s written a ton of books and I saw him speak one time and he said, in my generation … He’s, I guess probably in his 40s. He said, in my generation, we were there when MySpace first came out and then Facebook-

Jennifer Sumner: MySpace.

Jarrett Smith: -but he said, the first generation to encounter that basically our reaction was, oh, I’m going to share everything. I’m going to post my breakfast, which kind of became the cliché and I’m going to share everything and he said, if you look at the up and coming generations, they’re withdrawing from that. They’re not sharing everything. They’re gravitating towards platforms like Snapchat or WhatsApp, where they’re dealing with ephemeral messages that are with much closer tight knit group of people. I know anecdotally, I’ve talked to so many that started on Facebook, started over on Instagram, and they kind of restarted on Instagram and said, this is a much more curated group of people, so the fact that you’re sort of noticing this trend of, well okay, yes everything is digital but there’s a big caveat there. People are hungry for that personal attention. That’s really interesting.

Jennifer Sumner: Yeah and when we do this … Again, using the success coach model. When we reach out to students, particularly by phone, one of the things that you’ll hear is, wow, you’re calling me. You’re reaching out to me and oftentimes, sometimes we have to continue to knock on the door again and again and again. We will call them, we will call them, we will call them and then one day they’ll pick up and they’ll say, wow, this is an experience that I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t expecting that human connection and that human contact but when they get it, that coach becomes their lifeline and they’ll continue to come back to that coach for whatever reference they need again to be successful at UCF and oftentimes, from a coaching perspective, we partner with the academic advisor but where we’re coming from is the how.

Jennifer Sumner: The academic advisor is going to work with the student along the what’s, you’ll need this particular pre requisite or you will need these core courses or you will need these elective courses to be successful in your major, an internship, a practicum, those types of things. It’s the what around what the student needs to do in order to successfully get the degree at the end of the day. The coaches help the students through the how, all right? So your academic advisor has told you that you need to take 15 credit hours this semester. How are you going to juggle those 15 credit hours with working full time, with having kids, with juggling different things in your life, a sick parent perhaps, or something like that. How are we going to do and be successful with the what’s that you’ve been told that you need to complete as you’re doing this academic journey and so that relationship that we build with the students, oftentimes we will call them to talk about how they’re doing in this academic piece but then it gets into a conversation of, my mom has been sick or those types of things.

Jennifer Sumner: You’re really developing that, again, I keep using this word but that human connection with the student and it gives them that resource that they need at the university but then also gives them that support mechanism that they need and that somebody that they can talk to and talk through some of these different things that are going on in their life and I think that that has been very rewarding for the student that we work with.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, that’s really good stuff. We talked a little bit about the importance of sort of embracing disruption and being open to new ways of doing things. I’m curious just you personally, where do you go to find those kind of sources of inspiration? How do you keep your own mind fresh? How do you keep from getting in a rut? What does that look like for you?

Jennifer Sumner: This is getting into the mind of Jenny Sumner question.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah.

Jennifer Sumner: Sometimes it’s a scary place, Jarrett. Well first of all, I think that … Well I know that having a place that you enjoy working is paramount and having colleagues and coworkers that you work with that are right there with you and that support and encourage you, I think is essential in order to be creative in this space. I had mentioned Dr. Jeff Jones, our vice provost for UCF Connect, is such a wonderful thought leader and has this vision for our unit that is very very inspiring. He knows where he wants to take us and he’s been very encouraging about allowing us, each individually, as somebody in his unit, the autonomy to work through helping him meet that vision. He’s such a phenomenal leader and then I also say our associate vice provost for UCF Connect, her name is Dr. Pam Cavanaugh, another just wonderful, very innovative, very partnership driven leader and so working with both of them has just been so inspiring to me.

Jennifer Sumner: When you talk about where we find inspiration, it’s having leadership like Pam Cavanaugh and Jeff Jones that will support you in the ideas that you have and sometimes I’ll go to both of them, I’m like, I’ve got this really crazy idea, what do you think? And they allow you to test the waters. They let you test the waters and they are very supportive. There’s been some things that I’ve brought to them that didn’t go the way that we had planned and that’s okay. You move forward, you come back to the drawing board, you think it through, and they’re also very encouraging on professional development as well, continuing to find opportunities to really hone these skills that you have. I think, to answer your question, the first thing that I would do if you’re talking about from a work perspective, how do you find creativity and how do you energize yourself around the work? First, it has to be leadership.

Jennifer Sumner:  You have to have leaders that are encouraging of that type of skill set in you, that acknowledge that type of skill set, and that on some levels, allow you the autonomy to continue to explore that and while you’re exploring, they’re also very supportive. First and foremost, it’s certainly leadership and Jeff Jones and Pam Cavanaugh are just wonderful in that regard and it’s with everybody. They foster that type of environment throughout our entire unit, so it’s been so inspiring, so wonderful, to work with UCF Connect, particularly because of the leadership. Yeah.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, good stuff.

Jennifer Sumner: And I guess the second thing I would say is I’ve got one of those minds where I’m like, okay, let’s do this, let’s do this, let’s do this. Talking about leadership, sometimes they have to reign you back on what it is you want to do because I’m like, all right, how can we do this?

Jarrett Smith: Pump the brakes.

Jennifer Sumner: Right, exactly. Exactly. Slow down, we can’t put a station on Mars just yet but maybe we’ll get there. One of the things that I’m working on right now is, I think I mentioned it before, is this mobile app that I’m really excited about and I think it’s going to be a game changer for how students interact with the university and some of the things that we can put where they are and where they are is on their mobile devices. If we can get in front of them, the information that they need and do it back to our experience type of a conversation, give them an experience that’s fun, that’s exciting, that is energetic, that’s engaging with them. I’m pulling a lot of game theory into this mobile app.

Jennifer Sumner: There’s no reason that higher ed has to be dry, right? How can we bring in game theory? How can we bring in accumulating points and badges and those types of things and give them a really fun experience as they’re needing to get their forms together, as they’re needing to fill out their application, give them again, an experience that they can enjoy as they’re going through this.

Jarrett Smith:  Yeah, is there anything else on the horizon that you’re very excited about? Maybe technology wise or just something you’re interested to try out?

Jennifer Sumner:  I’m generally excited about everything, so yeah. I’m generally just excited by nature but certainly I think the big thing for us at the institution is, if we can integrate our systems, that is going to be transformative for what we do. Not only for, again, the student experience but definitely for the staff experience as well. Having all of that information in one location that we can absorb it in one pane of glass, that will completely transform how we’re actually doing the work at the institution, so I think integration is a big one that I’m looking forward to. Continuing to stay on the forefront of the different technologies that are out there, things like this podcast. How can we use this medium to reach students?

Jennifer Sumner: Especially for UCF Online, some of our students are non traditional, they commute, they are working adults that possibly will listen to these types of conversations in their down time or when they’re driving their kids to and from soccer. I don’t know how interested their kid would be but it gives them an opportunity to interact with us in a different way. Utilizing different technologies, different mediums, obviously mobile technology is big in our vision right now. There’s a lot of things out there and a lot of cool things that we can try that might not have been tried in higher ed before and those are the types of things I’m really excited about exploring.

Jarrett Smith:  Yeah. Good, well you’ll have to email me when you guys-

Jennifer Sumner: I will, for sure.

Jarrett Smith:  We’ll circle back for another conversation.

Jennifer Sumner: Yes, yes. The different technologies that we’re using, absolutely.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, yeah. Well Jenny, this has been an awesome conversation.

Jennifer Sumner: I’ve enjoyed it.

Jarrett Smith: Thank you so much for your time.

Jennifer Sumner: Thanks for having me.

Jarrett Smith: Yeah, so if folks want to connect with you to continue the conversation, find out more, say hi, what’s the best place to find you online?

Jennifer Sumner: They’re always able to email me. I always give out my email address. It’s my first name dot last name at ucf.edu, so it’s Jennifer, J-E-N-N-I-F-E-R, dot Sumner, S-U-M-N-E-R at ucf.edu and that’s probably the best way to reach me.

Jarrett Smith: Good deal. Thank you so much.

Jennifer Sumner: Thank you.

Jarrett Smith: The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, the full service marketing firm dedicated to helping higher education institutions drive enrollment, increase yield, and capture donor’s attention. For more information, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes and as always, if you have questions, suggestions, episode ideas, or just want to reach out and say hi, drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co. See you next time.


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Jarrett is our VP of Strategy and the torchbearer for all things digital. Since joining us in 2014, he’s made it his mission to help clients seize the power of smarter marketing strategies—and reap the rewards.

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