Reopening College Campuses During COVID-19


Part 8: Jeff Elliott, Director of Product Management at Jenzabar

In the scramble to move online during the early days of the pandemic, most colleges and universities already had systems in place to deliver at least some courses electronically. But replicating the rest of the myriad processes that institutions rely on—as well as the organic experiences that are so important for college students—was not easy. Jenzabar's Jeff Elliott talks with Sherri Hughes and Philip Rogers about the challenges campuses have faced as they work to improve all of their systems and bring the student experience into this new world, as well as some of the more promising solutions.

Jenzabar has worked with 1,350 universities to develop, launch, and scale online course offerings.


 Read this episode's transcript

Philip Rogers: Support for this podcast series comes from Jenzabar, who for over 30 years has been working with higher education leaders on over 1,350 campuses to provide creative enrollment and digital transformation solutions. Jenzabar, the smart choice for higher education.

Sherri Hughes: Thanks for listening to Engage Conversations. And this special mini-series focus on leadership and higher education in the midst of COVID-19. I'm your host, Sherri Hughes and today's dialogue is part eight in our series. And we'll be unpacking how one organization, Jenzabar is helping colleges and universities maintain a critical relationships with their students during this time of social distancing and virtual gatherings. My cohost and friend, Philip Rogers is with us today. Philip, I know this conversation is such an important feature in this series. We've heard over and over again from leaders about the importance of supporting and connecting with students during this pandemic and the challenges of doing so when so much has to happen at a distance.

Philip Rogers: Thanks, Sherri. It is really great to be back with you. And I'm particularly excited about this conversation. And if I remember correctly, I think one of the first podcast episodes that you and I did together when we started on this journey was with our mutual friend, Leo Lambert about his new book on Relationship-Rich Education. And as I think back on the conversation we had then, it seemed pretty difficult even in the midst of normal times. And I can guarantee you that we need all the help we can get right now to think about how to connect with students in more meaningful ways during a pandemic environment. And I certainly felt that and thought it was true during my time as a Chief of Staff on campus. And so I'm really eager to just jump right into the dialogue and hear how this focus area is unfolding in the midst of the pandemic. And we're extremely pleased to welcome in as our guest today, Jeff Elliott, who is the Director of Product Management at Jenzabar. So Jeff, welcome to Engage Conversations, glad to have you with us.

Jeff Elliott: Well, Philip, Sherri, thank you so much. It's absolutely a pleasure to be here. I appreciate it.

Philip Rogers: Great. Well, we're glad to have you, and we'd love to hear a little bit about your work at Jenzabar and your journey into the role that you have today, so our audience can get a better sense of a couple of things. One, what you do and the types of institutions that you serve in the work that you're doing. And then why is it so important right now in higher education to be thinking about these particular efforts that you're engaging in?

Jeff Elliott: Yeah. No, absolutely. I have always been a higher ed guy, way back when, in my own experiences that I'm way too old to go back and give dates and all that stuff. But even in my experience, in my own undergraduate and graduate program, I wanted to work with students. I love the college campus environment, virtual brick and mortar. There's something about higher ed where there's always this sense of renewal. There's always a new set of students coming. There's always students that you grow and develop relationships with, as we talked about, those are so important.

So, for me, I got involved in advising. I grew to be the manager of an advising program at a community college back at a time when I think investing in relationships through advising was known as intrusive advising. I had come across a really neat researcher, Susan Frost, Dr. Frost, who was one of the pioneers of that, which really was about even before student success was student success, engaging with the student and really trying to pull those layers apart, to understand them better, help them understand the importance of goals and where they want to be, and really drive away from just course selection.

So that's always been a passion area of mine, and I've always been in higher ed. I had an opportunity to become a trainer for Jenzabar some 20 years ago now, in our student product area. And that has grown at Jenzabar through becoming the product manager responsible for what our advising and student life modules are. And now I'm the Director of Product Management. So I lead a great team of PMs who focus on making sure schools have the right functionality to develop these relationships, to engage with students, to engage with staff and make sure these campuses have what they need to move forward.

Sherri Hughes: Well, Jeff, that really is an interesting journey. And like you, I remember the days on campus when we were excited about the concept of intrusive advising. So it is really important to be able to connect with students and see them in a holistic sense. So basically COVID-19 has created some significant challenges for colleges and universities to connect with and to support students. So can you tell us about some of the challenges that you're seeing and maybe some of the most promising solutions?

Jeff Elliott: Yeah. What happens I think in these moments of crisis is there's so much importance in that first reaction, that first, "Whew, what do we do?" Right? Everybody hopefully takes that step back, catches their breath. And what we saw a lot in the early reactions were an awful lot about online courses, everybody scrambling to get everything online and those types of reactions, do we have the right technology? Do we have all those pieces? And what I have found in talking to users a lot is making the move and leveraging the technology. Most institutions these days have some form of online learning, whether it's a full menu of courses or they're augmenting their traditional brick and mortar. What was interesting in that moment, as far as challenges go were the behind the scenes, the infrastructure, it's one thing to say, "Okay, we've always had a section of Psych 101: Intro to Psychology, now we have five." And it's another thing to say, "We have Chem lab virtually now."

And what does that mean to the instructor? Has the instructor had the right training to do this? Does the students sit at their dining room table with beakers of water and try to pretend they're facilitating an experiment? It's that infrastructure, it's that building up to you to utilizing that technology that really becomes so important long-term, that I think up front schools realized, "Wow, maybe we weren't quite as ready as we would have liked to be, to kind of get everything going in an online format." The other thing we saw that rings very important to me and I think fits what we're talking about today very well is the fact that the focus was largely on getting online classes going, and not necessarily right away, how do we facilitate registration online for schools that don't? Or how do we facilitate online housing selection, when we have a note card, bulletin board, cafeteria style process still?

So, I think a lot of those student engagement and those student service types of functions, weren't part of necessarily of that initial, "what are we going to do?" And we found a lot of folks kind of scrambling to figure out how to leverage technology. And again, it's more than just does your software do online room selection? It's, how do we take those note cards? How do we take our pedagogy, if you will, of how we do these things and translate them to that online environment?

Philip Rogers: It seemed like we obviously didn't see that in the spring because folks were just rushing to triage the chaos that was happening. And then there became some more intentional efforts to be able to unpack some of these things that you're talking about. Did you see that shift happen over the summer, as folks were preparing for the fall?

Jeff Elliott: Absolutely.

Philip Rogers: Is that when it started to move?

Jeff Elliott: And Philip, I think your term triaged was a great way to put it. That was that initial, "Holy cow, what do we do" kind of moment. And I think everybody turned quickly in that triage moment to go, "Look, fundamentally, we teach, we educate. So let's make sure we get that done." The reason it rings so true to me, the importance of it is I am one of those students who I learned a lot in the classroom, but I learned an awful lot outside the classroom. And yes, to see that kind of, not part of that initial triage was hard for me. For someone who's passionate about working and engaging with students outside the classroom goals, course selection, sure, but how do I become the best I can be? That was really important to me. And it's still something I think folks are struggling to find the right answers for.

Our hope is whether it's Jenzabar or any other vendor, folks are leveraging the functionality that's built in for students to become more engaged. And the word I want to use here too, is empowered. And that's another fundamental shift that I think has been hard for folks is you still have those schools who whose mission statement says, "It's our job to help students become better adult learners and move on to a four year school." And yet they hand-register every single student. And when you talk to them about it, it's, "Well, that's part of our charm. It's part of what makes us special." And when you talk to their students, half of them are like, "I wish they'd make me not come in. I'd love to do this on my laptop." So it's kind of embracing that idea, that technology can really help folks, especially in a time like this. And it's been good to see them fill up reacting to that over the summer and starting to see more and more of their entire campus and not just the virtual classroom.

Philip Rogers: Yeah. And I'm sure you've probably seen, as we've heard in this series, mission, values and programmatic infrastructure and what the students are pursuing to learn and how they engage with each other inside and outside of the classroom have been really an intentional focus area of how leaders have thought about making this shift. And we heard one chancellor say to us, "I've got to figure out how to engage students inside and outside the classroom, but particularly on the inside the classroom piece, I want them to learn how to use a nuclear reactor in this environment in a way that they're going to be able to operate it correctly one day. And if they can't come to be in person, how can we engage them in ways to be able to make sure their learning experience is a fruitful one?"

And I think a lot of the college experiences you know well, happens outside the classroom, there's these organic experiences that we all engaged with in our own college experience of sitting in the dining hall, having a meal with our fellow students, attending a sporting event and being able to engage with one another. Those just sort of eventful opportunities to connect outside of the classroom. And then you can press that with the educational relationship experiences, like living, learning communities and how campuses are thinking about supporting non-traditional students and figuring out ways when you're not face-to-face on how to uncover some of the unseen burdens that students might have and address those when you can't talk with them in the hallways after class, or you can't run into them walking across campus.

And so with social distancing and so much of everything happening online right now, what are some of the best practices that you're seeing emerging in terms of how campuses are trying to create some of those organic opportunities?

Jeff Elliott: Yeah. And it's the right question, right? That's where a lot of institutions are right now. And I think inside that answer, and Philip and Sherri, I don't know that I can tell you, I've seen too many very successful concrete approaches that folks are taking, yet it's too new. It's too soon. And again, it's part of the challenge of higher ed, right? Is most of our institutions are fall, spring. And nowadays summer, but I still don't consider that necessarily a mainstream term because a lot of students head home, that live on campus, all that stuff. You get this twice a year type of trial and error moment and we haven't hit the fall yet. So, I think a lot of folks are still really trying to figure that out. And I think what I'm hearing in discussions are the ways I think folks are going to go about this. They're going to find strategies in both things old and new. I think schools are going to find a way to leverage social media in a way they haven't before. They're going to find ways to use Facebook, Instagram, those types of tools to make sure that they're finding environments for students. Jenzabar is campus portal for students, has student groups that I don't think folks leverage as much as they will now moving forward to try to create these connections.

I think as far as some of the staffing and the staff interactions with advisors, faculty, some of that, I think Philip, is going to have to come in a way that we haven't thought of before. And where we have some of those organic moments when things are naturally happening on campus, because I see you in the cafeteria or I've walked across you in the hallway. I think institutions are going to have to find ways to force those more, to inorganically, make those things happen. And leveraging some of that familiar. So I hear that a lot, we're going to leverage things that we know and understand because it's familiar and it's comfortable and try to use them in new ways to engage with students. I think in the classroom, and your nuclear example makes me think, there's so many new opportunities out there as well. And I think you'll see schools adopt maybe gaming as a way to build into their courses, right? Training through gaming, and creating those types of things, as opposed to, "See this button, this is what this button does." "See that button, that's what that button does." And in those traditional classroom environments, you get to have more of that discussion. And what they're going to have to do is find new ways to force those discussions.

And I think you'll see folks adopting new technologies. As far as engaging students, you'll see chatbots, I think playing a much more important role. You'll see much more of that Zoom and Teams and online connectivity and those types of things, kind of really showing their ways. What I would love to see schools do too... And as a product manager, this is very important to me, is talk more to their users, talk to their students. And I think again, traditionally in higher ed, we love to try and catch students six weeks after they've graduated and go, "Tell me about your experience. I want to learn from that." That's not the time. The time is before they're students. The time is while they're students. And even using tools like personas, user personas that we used in product development, because what schools have to understand is you don't just have students. You have students who are eager to learn specifically in the classroom. You have students that are eager to learn outside the classroom, and you need to provide different strategies for those different groups. And I think technology is going to be at the forefront of that because obviously in an online environment, we're going to have to rely heavily on that.

Philip Rogers: And things are happening so quickly that it's almost impossible to do things and seek feedback the way that we have it. You almost have to have this real time gaming, chatbot-type user experience for students, for faculty, for staff, for community members, to be able to find a way into the mix when decisions are being made, and when feedback is needed. Sherri, I see Sherri's wheels turning. She's going back into provost mode right now.

Sherri Hughes: Yeah. It is such a challenge. And we've certainly heard that Philip so many times that there is so much learning that's happening just every day and adapting and trying new things. And I think we've heard from a lot of folks, the importance of knowing who your students are and understanding them in a really comprehensive way so that you can serve them best in these really difficult times. So, Jeff, you mentioned earlier that I think when we talked in preparation for this podcast, you mentioned that you saw some of these challenges on the horizon before COVID. So does that mean you see a little bit of a silver lining that might be affecting change in the way that campuses engage with students, and what are some of those things that you think will remain in a post-COVID environment?

Jeff Elliott: Yeah Sherri, absolutely. And I hope schools maintain that hope, that desire for that silver lining, because as a psychology student is all of that, I very much subscribed to moments of struggle, failure, all of that brings forth learning and we adapt and we move forward. And I absolutely hope schools stay positive in these times. Students are going to need that, staff are going to need that, that type of positivity, that type of leadership. But yeah, to say that COVID caught us off guard, absolutely fair, absolutely true. If anyone says they knew this was coming, then they either had something to do with it, or they spend way too much time worrying about these things. But we all absolutely saw evidence of the types of things that COVID is highlighting for us. We saw changing student demographics. That's been coming for years, as the baby boomers got out of school and aren't baby booming and creating a populace, the same size we had going to college. We saw dwindling enrollments. We saw a very changing educational landscape coming in terms of how are we going to deliver learning? We had too many students who were like, "Look, I can't do 8:00 to 8:50, 3 days a week and work full time." We've got single moms, we've got all different kinds of students.

And today's student is emerging, they're evolving and schools, we're going to have to meet that need, we're going to have to find ways to do that. And the way you do that is to talk to them. You understand their market problems, you understand what they're going through, and you better create strategies and you try to engage with them more and really help them become their best selves, their best students. And understand student success differently. For many years, too many schools, I believe equated institutional success through retention with student success. And those are two different things. Your ability to retain students is a good start, but it does not in and of itself define student success. So a lot of things that now COVID is forcing folks to kind of do and to look at. And hopefully... This is the old career counselor in me, in a very self-assessing way. That's hard, right? When you're applying for jobs and you're in a job market and you work with someone, the first thing they'll tell you is, they're going to ask you all your strengths and you'll have a list of a thousand. You understand your weaknesses because that's what they want to know too.

And I think this is a time where COVID is making schools do that, but with all of the trends we saw coming, schools were going to have to do that. They were going to have to take real hard, honest looks at themselves, whether it's, can we use analytics to determine if our programs are viable these days? All the way up and through fiscal solvency and really kind of shifting to running more like a business. Where our students are treated more like consumers, because they see themselves that way. We've seen that very clearly. They are no longer willing to plop $30,000, $40,000 a year down, just because I can go to college. They're very discriminatory. They want to know what their ROI is for that.

So, we've seen all of this coming and of course, where I come from being so focused on technology, we've been hoping our technology and we've been working very hard to make sure we're helping folks be out in front of that. So I do think there's a silver lining. I think all of the things that COVID is making us go through will only make us stronger, so to speak. And if we're willing to self-assess and take a good hard look at what we do and adopt some of these things. And I think all of these engagement strategies we've talked about, really talking to our students in different ways. It is no longer a sellers’ market, it's a buyers’ market. COVID is going to make that happen. And it's going to make it happen a lot sooner than I think folks wanted it to, but it was coming anyway. So, I think that's going to stay. And I hope that the type of engagement our leaders at our institutions are talking about stays as well, more enlightened staff, more commitment to training. We found a lot of folks were just not equipped to use a lot of different aspects of our software because they weren't trained and those types of things. So I do think all those learning moments, all those lessons will hopefully make us stronger as institutions and again, be able to react to things that were coming anyway, so.

Philip Rogers: Well, speaking of getting out in front of things, I always love talking to folks in product development, because I like to see the future a little bit and have these types of fun, creative conversations. And as you think about the future of this, of higher education and of the situation that we're in with the COVID-19 pandemic, help us see into your brain trust a little bit, and talk with us about, as someone who's thinking about the solutions for the future in this particular space, what keeps you awake at night? What's on your worry list?

Jeff Elliott: Yeah. Very good question. And I think for me, Philip, it's selfishly as Director of Product Management, I want to know that we are able to put the right technology out in front of folks. The right solutions, chatbots are a start. I think schools are going to have to become much more data-driven. And that's another aspect that I think traditionally higher ed has struggled with. We have a lot of positional power in higher ed, personal power. We have registrars whom the provost answers to, so to speak. We have a lot of that stuff where I think we've relied on what's comfortable, our history, our culture, and that's all very important, but nowadays the margins are just so small, where we just can't afford that. We just can't afford to look at the admissions office and go, "Wow, we're down a hundred heads. Well, let's get a hundred more." It's just not going to work that way anymore, regardless of whether or not we want it to. So, I think being data-driven and using a lot of data analysis and for us, that means putting that information out in front of users, in our software solutions, that's going to be key. Tools that really drive student success, student engagement. And I'm not just talking about online courses or the ability to register online, it's can I create a payment plan online? Can I pay my bill online? Can I do everything through your portal remotely that I could do on campus? And even though some of those organic moments made it easier and more natural, schools are going to have to figure that out.

And what keeps me up at night is two things. Making sure we provide that, but also making sure that our users are able to quantify and qualify for us what their needs are. And that's hard right now. And we've seen that, and I've heard that in a couple of the podcasts I listened to here, where leaders are still trying to figure that out. So those are the things that keep me up at night and hopefully we're doing the right things and doing a good job of putting that forward for folks.

Sherri Hughes: Well, Jeff, you mentioned leaders, and we have one question we've asked all of our guests, and that is what are some of the key observations or lessons learned that you would want to share with campus leaders who are trying to navigate these challenging times?

Jeff Elliott: Oh, very good question. And I think the number one thing in times like this, for me, it has been for us in talking to our users, it should be for schools is communicate. Communicate with your folks, communicate internally, make sure your staff have their needs met. One of the challenges we didn't even talk about Sherri, is you've got a group of folks that were forced to go work from home, have no idea how to do that. And it sounds as simple as plopping a computer down, they don't have laptops. How do I do that? And for IT folks to figure all that out. And I think what a lot of schools was really communicating well.

And Philip, like we talked about much more often, instead of waiting for our twice annual semester meetings, you've got to meet on a very regular basis. And again, I'm running like a business and having more of that acumen and communicating that way, setting policy, that way, being agile, right? Talking about what we do with software in terms of testing and finding out, are we on the right path? That all comes through from good communication. So absolutely would love to see folks start there. You can't spell online without technology. There's just no way. So whether it's online courses, online engagement, leverage the technology you have. And if you're not sure how to. This is going to be a tough time economically, but I would love to see folks provide more training opportunities internally, help students understand the technology better. As we talked about, that's part of, a lot of school's mission is to prepare them for the next step and no matter what their next step is, it's going to involve technology. So helping students more with that and resisting the urge as part of your charm to register them or that sort of thing, let them start kind of getting in there and figuring that stuff out. That that self-engagement on students' parts is going to be huge.

And the last one is one I firmly believe in, is schools really need to do that self-assessment. And it starts with leadership. Leadership has to kind of be willing to say, "Look as a good leader, I have to be willing to learn." And in this moment, what a wonderful learning opportunity, let's learn from what COVID and this isolation is teaching us, and let's go back and make changes to whom we are. And let's look at our mission and make sure we're meeting it in this new way, and all that stuff. So those are things that I believe folks that not only survive COVID, but thrive in it will do and do well.

Sherri Hughes: Well, Jeff, you have given us so much to think about, and as we wrap up, I just want to pull out a few of the key highlights from our conversation. And I think Philip, you and I have heard some of these things throughout the series, which is really, really wonderful, but I heard-

Philip Rogers: Always good to confirm over and over again. It's an important lesson, Sherri.

Sherri Hughes: It's really nice to have that sort of level of consistency. So you said, understand your students and all the layers that they bring with them to campus. And then you added a little bit later, talk with them while they are students. Don't wait until after they leave to evaluate their experience. I think we've heard many people talk about the importance of mission and values and making your decisions and in your particular twist on that is making sure that that drives the way you interact with them beyond the classroom. I loved your line that we will find strategies and things old and new. So don't assume we have to find everything brand new. We can rely on things that have helped us in the past. That communicating often and comprehensively with not only students, but faculty and staff.

And then I loved your last one, learn from this moment and know what it means for us to learn and use this moment to improve, not only to get through it, but to be better on the other side. So Jeff, it's really been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you for your time today. It's been a pleasure to visit with you and learn about some of the exciting things that you and your colleagues are doing at Jenzabar. So this has been really wonderful to have you with us.

Jeff Elliott: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me, Philip, Sherri. This has been great.

Philip Rogers: It has. Thanks, Jeff.

Sherri Hughes: So this concludes this special rapid response episode of ACE Engaged Conversations. You can listen to the other podcasts in this series at\conversations. And register on our Engage platform to listen to previous episodes of Engage Conversations and more, including plenty of content on COVID-19 at Thanks again for your time. And we look forward to bringing you more interesting conversations on the Engage platform, to help you learn and lead in the flow of work.

About the Podcast

A short podcast series from ACE focused on reopening college campuses this fall as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many regions of the country. Hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes talk with college presidents and chancellors and other members of the higher education community about how to ensure campuses are safe and workable for students—and when to make the decision to remain all-online. They unpack monitoring, testing, tracing, cleaning, teaching and learning, responding to the needs of faculty and staff, intercollegiate athletics—and the all-important question of how you get students to social distance in dorms, at parties, and everywhere they go. 

Part of ACE Engage Conversations. Sign up at to listen to past episodes.


This podcast series is generously supported by Jenzabar.

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