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Would your university work with an edtech startup?

When Swansea University wanted a better way of getting feedback from students, it looked to a tiny startup for the answer. Together they developed a platform that works in practice as well as on paper.

Educational technology (edtech) is thriving in the UK. But edtech businesses often struggle to test, pilot and prototype their products in real-life situations.

As a result, feedback can be limited, making it difficult to evaluate and refine the products.

Swansea University and a small edtech startup are bucking the trend by successfully developing a product together – and getting a Times Higher Education Live award nomination into the bargain. Swansea University was shortlisted in the technology innovation category for its work on Unitu, an online multi-device platform designed to disrupt the traditional ways students engage and better reflect the student experience.

Engaging students

In 2017-18, Swansea University rolled out Unitu following several small pilots. It enables students to post and comment anonymously on university-wide boards and staff can respond, which makes meaningful discussion easier.

More than 14,000 students have access to the system and in its first year there were more than 70,000 interactions with students.

Sophie Leslie, Swansea’s student partnership and feedback development officer, says that the traditional ways they’d sought feedback, which relied on highly motivated students, did not always provide a true reflection of Swansea students’ experience.

“Issues have been filtered and diluted when passing through the system, with student comments often having lost context upon reaching senior management.”

Challenging cultural norms

By teaming up with the Unitu team, Sophie says they were able to develop a product that challenged the cultural norms around feedback and positively changed staff and student views of how to engage with each other.

The new platform has also been important in providing a voice for those students who are often hard to reach.

For Swansea, that success is all down to the relationship with the team behind Unitu and the way they worked as partners to develop a platform that works in practice as well as on paper.

Working with a startup

Anish Bagga, founder of Unitu, says that Swansea understood that they were working with a startup. Anish says:

“They accepted that there were going to be some challenges. But we were learning, they were learning.”

Sophie explains:

“We currently have a fortnightly phone call with Unitu to look at any developments, issues or questions.

“We also work together on new software developments, which provides us with the opportunity to user-test new features, make suggestions and comments and they are also keen to gather feedback from the student users.”

Anish adds:

“Through the constant engagement we had with Swansea we were able to observe how they were using it and to make changes.

“I would class our relationship with Swansea as a partnership, a value exchange, not just of money and service but of knowledge transfer. This allowed us to build more value into that product.”

Disruptive impact

For Swansea, the platform has had the positive impact on feedback they’d hoped for.

Areas that the feedback has influenced include student wellbeing, catering, sustainable transport, study and social spaces. And the university has also seen an increase in National Student Survey metrics, with improvements in the Learning Community and Student Voice categories.

Sophie says that she would happily work with similar small edtech startups in the future as a result of this work.

“The ability to work closely with the partner and therefore help shape the service has been a big help in creating a platform that best suits our students’ needs and also the needs of our staff.”

Sophie and Anish’s tips for working with startups

Be clear about what you want from the technology

“You need very clear KPIs about what you want to gain from a project.”

Have the right resources in place

“You need those resources in place to embed it into the institution – something like Unitu needed student reps just to implement it.”

Involve staff and students

“The rollout of Unitu is a credit to our student partnership and engagement team, to the many colleagues who respond to student comments, and to the support and commitment of our student body as a whole.”

Keep regular contact between institution and edtech

“The close working relationship allows for us to better communicate the needs of the students and staff to keep developing the platform.”

Know your problem and focus on the solution

”For startups, the best institutions to work with are the ones who have an explicit desire to solve the problem that your team are working on.”