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Transformations Keele University - SAM

Project Name: The Virtual Student Advisory Model

Lead Institution: Keele University

Project Lead: Dr. Simone Clarke

See the full Transformations programme playlist




This project will create the first fully virtual student support portal in the UK; adapting innovative intellectual property originally developed at Keele (for learning and teaching purposes and subsequently used by the wider health sector for professional development), to support the enhancement of the wider student experience. The virtual Student Advisory Model, known affectionately as SAM, will address the problem of how a small University can, with scarce resources, develop and conceptualise high-quality services to meet enhanced student expectation during a period of major transition within existing resources/facilities, and without HEFCE capital funding. This project will also support the development of sector benchmarks in terms of service standards.


Based on existing decision-tree software, underpinned by key cross-functional business processes, and linked to animated avatars, students will communicate on either a smart phone or PC with a virtual student adviser, who will respond in real-time verbally and with supporting non-verbal responses. Students will be guided by the avatar to determine their needs and to provide an appropriate range of solutions at a time and location convenient to the student, including providing tailored advice, guidance and educational support.


The institutionally-specific version of SAM ( known as iSAM) will offer:


  • issuing electronic materials (such as transcripts) 
  • assistance with completing key administrative processes (such as course change requests)
  • scheduling meetings and workshops
  • reserving spaces on skills workshops or student events


This functionality will be developed after the JISC pilot. 


SAM will provide a 'confidential space' for asking questions that may be difficult to articulate in person to a member of staff. The avatars can be altered to represent the diversity of students in higher education and can be personalised to remember previous interactions with each student. This personalisation also provides the opportunity to log and monitor student interactions to inform ongoing development of services.  


Aims and Objectives


SAM will be available to all HE students and will provide information, advice and guidance on common student concerns such as funding, accommodation, and the transition to living away from home. 


The project aims to:


  • map the Keele student lilfecycle, in comparison with experiences elsewhere. This will build on an established body of work (partially funded by JISC) which was mainly undertaken before the recent changes in the funding and HE landscape.
  • evaluate student needs and service development through the establishment of a database to record the interactions of students with SAM. 


The following resources will be made available to the sector:


  • the first UK example of a fully virtual 'one-stop-shop' with transferability for other sector institutions
  • the establishment of benchmarks for customer services to meet agreed professional standards, as well as customer need
  • tailored training and development materials informed by student interactions which will be offered during the academic year 2012/13 for interested HE stakeholders
  • an evidence bank available to the sector of student-driven data concerning the student journey 




There is a sharp focus within the sector upon the emerging concept of the 'student as consumer' who, as fee payers, will have increased expectations of quality in both teaching and the provision of support services. In response, many HEIs are working on how they can both deliver and market a quality student experience to current and prospective students.


This project is a key deliverable within Keele's Strategic Plan, and underpins the delivery of 4 of the 6 University Strategic Aims:


  1. growing and supporting an increasingly diverse student population (including international students and those undertaking off-campus work-related learning)
  2. enhancing the student experience through provision of the highest quality facilities and resources
  3. developing a sustainable campus community (reducing our carbon footprint within the context of an ageing estate and business needs requiring estate expansion)
  4. maximising the effectiveness and efficiency of resources (developing streamlined services utilising technology to meet student needs) 


The Business Case


A project was undertaken during the 2011/12 academic year to explore the creation of a physical 'one-stop-shop' at Keele. During the course of the project it became apparent that a physical service may not be the most appropriate option, for the following reasons:


  • at a time of decreased capital funding, the creation of such a space may not be the best use of limited funds in terms of delivering value to the student
  • a physical 'one-stop-shop' would not address the needs of off-campus students. Keele, as a campus-based University, has an increasing number of off-campus students, particularly studying health-related subjects, or on placements. A creative solution was needed to meet their needs in a cost effective way.
  • feedback from students, obtained via an on-line survey and through focus groups, indicated that a co-located physical service wasn't their priority - they would prefer a quality on-line service supplemented by investment in existing resources so that the quality, ease of access, and timeliness of their overall interaction with central administrative services was improved.  


Based on the above factors and some additional considerations, it was agreed to develop a virtual 'one-stop-shop', which eventually developed into the SAM concept. SAM takes advantage of existing technology developed by Keele's School of Pharmacy for the teaching of students, and re-purposes it for use in a student support context.


Key Drivers


The project will demonstrate to the sector how Universities can develop high-quality services and support during this period of major transition, when student expectations are increasing along with fees, but when there are relatively little monies available to the sector to fund enhanced resources/facilities. This project will also showcase how a traditional campus-based University can work in a way that is counter-intuitive, by shifting the focus from the built environment and campus facilities to address creatively challenges affecting all types of University. This project aims to transform the way the sector operates by:


  • developing new models for service delivery to meet changing service expectations, which build on established research and small-scale studies (supported by JISC and AMOSSHE). These models will consider the relationship with, and interplay between, virtual and physical services and respond to the ways that the 21st century student interacts with their environment. 
  • delivering a new resource shared with the sector, which will provide an immediate service but will also gather intelligence on student behaviours and concerns to form a large scale evidence-base, that can drill down to individual HEIs and/or different student groups
  • developing new service standards based on student feedback and evaluation by involving professional sector groups, supported by training and development events 


JISC Resources/Technology Used


Three principle JISC resources would support the delivery of the SAM project. From the Service Design and Blue Printing in Higher Education thematic area:


  • the DERBI Project: service design in higher and further education (Derby University 2009). This resource will provide insights and approaches to the review of key student interactions and processes needed to develop appropriately the decision-tree which sits behind the student support avatar.
  • the SLRM (Student Lifecycle Relationship Management) Project (Chambers/Paull and Perry/Hollins study) will provide sector examples and lessons learned on the challenges/opportunities of developing the online resources to complement and enrich face to face contacts. This will help manage two project risks: 
    1. that there is a disconnect between the experiences and services provided by the avatar and 'real' student services staff
    2. that services developed do not fit student expectations and/or needs 


The JISC sponsored 'Impact Calculator' will also be used to ensure that the business process and information systems are developed effectively and efficiently, meeting stakeholder expectations and institutional needs.  




The primary outcome for the project is the development of a pilot virtual one-stop-shop, which will be available for all HE students, to provide information, advice and guidance on common student concerns such as student finance, living away from home and understanding the language of higher education.  In June 2013, Keele launched the pilot virtual one-stop-shop, known as SAM, to students and staff at Keele and Staffordshire Universities. The soft launch covered three topics: Student Finance, Money Management, and Living Away from Home.


The soft launch was the platform for the project team to test whether or not SAM was a viable model for providing interactive, tailored Information, Advice, and Guidance (IAG) via a virtual avatar.  SAM has also been showcased throughout its development at workshops and conferences, where valuable qualitative feedback has been received.


Feedback received at the soft launch, via an online survey, indicated that the SAM concept was a viable model:


  • 76% of respondents found SAM easy to use and would use the system again to find out information rather than finding a campus 'touch point' 
  • 62% found that SAM answered their questions well or very well 
  • 68% found SAM's answer well tailored to their level of study


Quantitative feedback received indicated that:


  • ‘It's quick and easy to ask a question without having to find the appropriate person to go to and a question can be asked at any time of the day.’
  • ‘Very easy to navigate, I like the simplicity and clarity of the interface.’ 
  • ‘The links provided were very useful and saved me doing searches for additional information’


The success of the soft launch means that development on a publicly available SAM service will continue and SAM will be available to the entire UK HE sector in the autumn of 2013 on multiple platforms (PC/tablet/smartphone).


The funding also supported:


The mapping of the Keele student lifecycle. This work, led by Keele students, provided a useful insight into the multiplicity of journeys (69 at Keele) that were possible for students and that, in many cases, the key elements of the student journey were shared - for example, all students enrol - but the 'when and how' might be different depending on level of study.  As a result of the student journey mapping, further work on service mapping has taken place and key intervention points were identified throughout the year where the University could be more pro-active in reaching out to students.  Plans are in place to use SAM to facilitate this work and the findings will be disseminated at conferences and workshops.


The evaluation of student needs and services development through the establishment of a database to record the interactions of students in the virtual one-stop-shop. The evidence bank would provide the sector with student-driven data concerning the customer journey, based on SAM (and the full Keele solution iSAM) as it is developed. The SAM software includes the database and has recorded 4,500 interactions on 86 different questions through the soft launch alone.  Frequently asked questions included (number of times asked in parentheses):


  1. Will I be safe at University (110)
  2. Where can I go if I've run out of money? (102)
  3. What do I need to bring with me to University? (88)
  4. When will I get my tuition fee loan? (85)
  5. How do I apply for a tuition fee loan? (71)
  6. What is a Hall of Residence? (49)
  7. How much money do I need to bring with me? (49)
  8. What can I do if I don't like who I'm living with? (44)
  9. When do I start paying back my tuition fee loan? (35)
  10. What are the interest rates on my tuition fee loan? (32)


The initial analysis of the database statistics confirms a key finding of the project team regarding the nature of the IAG that is delivered to students.  Feedback received through the SAM Student Group (one of 5 project groups formed by Keele to drive different aspects of the project) and through question and answer development events, indicated that students would like IAG to have a more 'human' face; not just avatar-based delivery but peer-to-peer IAG. It should provide advice and reassurance that they are not alone and what they may be experiencing (exam stress, bereavement, struggling to fit in, money issues) has happened to other students as well - and had a positive outcome.  The SAM system has been modified to allow for the uploading of supplementary information (known as assets) for certain questions to respond to this feedback.




  • The first UK example of a fully virtual 'one-stop-shop' (SAM) and a pilot institutionally-specific virtual adviser (iSAM) 
  • Enhanced service provision at Keele based on student needs and feedback gathered in the early stages of this project: improvements in the development and dissemination of IAG for Keele students and a better understanding of the complexities of the student journey and specific support requirements. 
  •  Enhanced knowledge and skills-base amongst staff: through shared knowledge of key processes and the student journey which has strengthened succession planning and career development.




The key benefits of the pilot one-stop-shop are:


  • The ability to collate information on students’ actual needs and concerns on key topics.  This intelligence can then be disseminated to front-line services and fed in to the development of alternative forms of IAG. 
  •  Providing what students say they want: a 24/7 signposting and triage service that is a confidential, safe space for resolving routine/high volume queries. 
  •  Provides consistency of response and avoidance of multiple referrals.  All students who access the service will receive the same basic information and supplementary assets.  For routine/high volume queries, this should reduce the need for students to access physical services.




  • The tailored, interactive model of IAG represented by SAM/iSAM may not be applicable to all institutions. 
  • The generic nature of SAM creates challenges in drafting answers with added value for certain types of student (see below).  This may mean that SAM needs to be limited to undergraduate students queries. 
  • The language used in higher education is not consistent; for example, Universities refer to 'taking a break' using a number of terms, including 'leave of absence' and 'intermitting'.  The way the technology has developed, incorporating a multiple-choice question approach with a limited element of free text search, creates challenges when students type a variant term or spelling of a key word.  Work is ongoing to address these issues. 


Key Lessons


  • Tailoring IAG to a diverse student body: The creation of a generic sector resource naturally raises issues of creating questions, and answers, which are suitable for a wide audience but are not so generic that they do not add value.  The six SAM topics (Student Finance, Money Management, Living Away from Home, Understanding University and the Language of HE, Learning and IT, and Coping with Difficulty) encompass a range of ‘generic’ answers, and feedback received to date indicates that some of the generic answers are more successful than others. Specifically, creating generic content for postgraduate taught and postgraduate research students is a challenge and this content may only prove to be suitable for use within the institutionally-specific SAM.
  • Receiving and managing a diverse and  high volume of feedback from students, staff, and partners and managing their expectations on what the SAM service can deliver.  The project was resource-limited and as a result a maximum of 200 animations could be uploaded to the system to cover all 6 key topics and 9 different student types.  This resource pressure meant the project team, in consultation with students, stakeholders, and subject experts, needed to make some difficult choices on what could be included.  The enthusiasm for the project at all levels within Keele and with sector colleagues, while extremely welcome, makes managing expectations difficult.  If we had anticipated the popularity of the project, the project team would have begun to explore alternative funding options earlier to expand the amount of questions covered. 
  • Ensuring the technology is future-proofed for iSAM development.  SAM is a resource for the entire UK HE sector, but is only phase 1 in a wider project to develop a Keele-specific service.  In order to ensure that time and resources were used effectively, the SAM system was scoped and developed to accommodate the goals for iSAM, mainly the layering on of Keele-specific answers and integration with the student records system. Involving colleagues in IT at an early stage was critical to project success and helped with institutional buy-in. 
  • Reliance on a limited number of subject experts who have to balance work on SAM with other priorities.  Although the project management team were experienced in developing and delivering institutional projects, SAM was based on taking an existing concept and applying it to a new area.  There was no template for the development of the SAM content, so a number of approaches were trialed, primarily a method whereby students and staff suggested questions and then subject experts refined them.  Very quickly it became apparent that, in some cases, only one staff member had expertise in relevant areas.  Reliance on an individual in one case caused a delay in the delivery of material and put back the animation schedule, compromising delivery of particular milestones.  Following this experience the content development was completely revised to ensure that there wasn't reliance on a single person for answers and to allow more time for answer drafting and editing. 


Looking Ahead


Keele is currently developing the full version of iSAM, the institutionally-specific virtual adviser, and this will be tested further in 2013/14. It will also examine process flows and redevelop these where appropriate.


Building a proactive and holistic student-facing services model: undertaking the project has prompted a review of how Keele manages and monitors its interactions with its students, both in terms of recording individual interactions, and the nature of those interactions. As SAM is rolled out to the sector in the autumn and iSAM (the Keele-specific content) is further developed, work will be undertaken to evaluate an appropriate case management solution that works for Keele, and with SAM. 


The insights into key student priorities at different points in the student lifecycle has fostered a debate about the role and nature of pro-active intervention with all students to support them during identified ‘risk’ points in their student journey, and will provide insight into effective forms of intervention.




The SAM service will be available to the entire UK HE sector until 2016 and will be maintained by Keele.  The generic content will be monitored and maintained by Keele staff as part of normal business processes in the relevant service area.