Automation for education: Less time record-keeping, more time with your students

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Running an accredited educational organization, I know the sheer volume of record-keeping, compliance, and reporting obligations institutes face. It’s no surprise that teachers and admin teams lose valuable time in data entry, tab-switching, and copy-paste.

At Accellier, a registered training organization in Australia, we’ve automated away much of this using tools like Zapier, freeing our people to make valuable, meaningful connections with students.

Anyone who’s worked in an accredited education setting knows about the mountains of information, records, and resources that institutes have to maintain. We love teaching, yet we dread the record-keeping that comes with it. The student should be the centerpiece of education, but all the data that needs to be shifted around results in what I call a “wall of administrivia,” blocking students and educators from connecting and learning.

There are countless opportunities for automating and integrating the apps that teachers and administrative teams use.

Automation helps us get the right data into the right systems, error-free and in near real-time to ensure regulatory compliance. Teachers can collaborate as a team around students, especially when marking assessments and providing support.

Some of our most valuable and time-saving automated workflows were created and tested in under 20 minutes without needing to code.

This has been one of the greatest returns on investment for us. As skilled and qualified specialists, it makes little sense to waste precious time clicking, typing, copy-pasting, and tab-switching. Every minute wasted on easily automated manual data work is valuable time lost for tuition, support, and learning.

To say we’re obsessed with reclaiming that time is an understatement.

Breaking down the wall, one brick at a time.

Rather than planning and rolling out a massive automation effort, I have found that it’s best to target one task, even a sub-task, and automate that before moving on to the next. This has four key benefits:

  1. It’s SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and you can get it done in a Timely manner).

  2. Your automation skills expand greatly as you successfully implement each one.

  3. It’s easier to monitor and manage a simple automation, and fix any issues.

  4. Because the benefits are easily measured, it provides an excellent proof-of-concept to demonstrate to others the value of automation.

What should I automate in an educational organization?

If you’re seeking inspiration for your first automation project, here are some tips I’ve found particularly useful when automating at Accellier Education:

  1. Listen. Talk to your teammates, teachers, admin, and faculty staff. Find out what frustrates them in their data entry or processing work.

  2. Observe. Sit with staff and watch them perform common tasks (you can do this remotely using screen share, too).

  3. Reflect. There are probably already things in your role that you wish you didn’t have to do. What are some repetitive little jobs you found yourself avoiding? What parts of those could you automate?

One of the first things I automated was creating a new Trello card when a student submitted an enrollment form on our website. Enrollment is an extremely important and high-value activity, so it must be well-managed.

Enrollment is a special and exciting time for us and our students. We want it to be high-touch with lots of communication so the student is supported and valued at every step. One of the worst things that could happen is a student slipping through the cracks due to human error. With automation, this risk is practically eliminated.

Trello enables us to effectively manage and collaborate around the student enrolment and onboarding process, as they progress through important stages like funding, approvals, interviews and admissions, welcome, and getting settled into their course.

We used a Zapier trigger shared by Gravity Forms to put selected data like the student’s name, chosen course, funding information and key contact information, into a new Trello card.

A screenshot of a created Trello card.

Trello’s Zapier integration even allows us to set up a checklist ready to go for each enrolment card that comes through:

Tasks within a Trello card, created by Zapier.

You can set up similar workflows using other apps, like:

If you work with apps or software not included in this article, don’t worry—Zapier works with thousands of apps. Head to our App Directory and search for the one you use, or browse to found the right solution for your needs.

How to identify automation opportunities

I like dorky acronyms. (Hey, I’m a teacher!) When identifying automation opportunities, I look for tasks or workflows that have VURVE:

  1. Volume: The task happens a lot.

  2. Uniform: The task is accomplished in a similar way every time it happens.

  3. Repetitive: It’s a task often repeated in succession (think tab switching, copy-pasting, or data entry)

  4. Valuable: The task is important to your organization and is an important part of delivering value to your students or team.

  5. Error: There’s risk introduced from human error or inaccurate data entry (especially important for compliance record-keeping tasks!)

I’ve found the following 10 areas have the most ‘VURVE-Y‘ tasks, and they’re usually all critical, high-value aspects of an education provider’s operations:

  • Promotion, digital marketing, social media and sales

  • Enrollment processing and student onboarding

  • Fees and payments

  • Assignment marking (particularly evidence retention and record-keeping)

  • Teaching-related administrative work (attendance and participation records)

  • Student support and engagement activities

  • Scheduling, allocating, and managing resources

  • Completion, graduation, certification, and credentialing

  • Reporting

  • Compliance house-keeping

What’s the value in automation for universities and colleges?

While researching vocational educational providers in Australia for a conference presentation, one of the common themes that emerged was a sense that automation was perhaps too complicated or expensive. People often seem to think that embarking on an automation project is a massive and expensive undertaking requiring IT experts and expertise. People also struggled to see the value in it.

To get around this perception, I recommend evaluating with questions like this: “How much time would we save each year if we halved the time spent on a three-minute record-keeping task performed 10 times each day by five teachers?”

This is not an uncommon scenario. Perhaps it’s entering grades or attendance into a spreadsheet and then sending that off to the faculty head. Or maybe it’s retrieving student data from multiple systems to determine their progress.

In this scenario, if we shaved just 1.5 minutes off that repetitive job for five teachers, over the course of a year, the institute reclaims the equivalent of one person working full time for over seven weeks. That’s highly valuable, skilled time. Time that could be spent creating and updating course resources, or simply more time connecting with students.

This is not unique to education—76 percent of respondents in research conducted by Zapier said they spend up to three hours a day manually moving data.

Three ways to use automation in education

Fostering real human-to-human connections between our team and our students has been a huge factor in our success. My favorite automations are ones that help accomplish this. While our carefully refined onboarding process is probably the single most valuable automation process, here are three more:

1. Using Trello to manage certification processes

I’ve referred extensively to our student onboarding process—equally important is what happens at the other end of the student’s journey. Graduates have worked hard to earn their certification, sometimes for up to 12 months, as is the case for our Certificate IV in Training and Assessment program.

For this automation, our Student Management System, Weworkbook, fires off what’s called a ‘webhook’ once a student has satisfied all course requirements. Zapier catches the information in this webhook and starts the workflow to add a new card in Trello, with a special graduation checklist. Once the checklist is completed and the card moved to the ‘Graduated’ list, it triggers another Zap, to update our CRM, and sends a message to the student telling them their certification is on its way.

(While we issue badges and digital credentials automatically, of course, we think getting a beautiful, elegantly designed qualification on nice thick parchment is like a music lover getting their favorite album on vinyl.)

2. A ‘drip-feed’ welcome message sequence for Canvas LMS

Canvas learning management system (LMS) doesn’t provide a Zapier integration, so we built one ourselves using Zapier’s developer platform. While this isn’t for the beginner, it’s still relatively easy with a basic understanding of JavaScript and REST APIs.

This automation triggers when a new student joins a course in Canvas. It sends a daily message over three days with tips on getting started and other important information. This uses Delay by Zapier to wait 24 hours before sending each message in the sequence.

The benefits of this automation are:

  1. It uses Canvas’ internal messaging tool, not email, so it gets students onto the learning platform early on

  2. It doesn’t overwhelm the student with one big message

  3. It builds engagement especially in that critical first week

3. Graduate announcements in our team Google Chat channel

This is a simple automation you can create with Zapier. It’s a lot of fun for us as it symbolizes much of our mission. Our team loves celebrating the success of our graduates.

When the graduation card is moved to the ‘Graduated’ list in Trello, Zapier automatically articles a message in Google Chat (you could also do this in Slack or Microsoft Teams).

A Zapier-created bot announcing a new graduate in Google Hangouts Chat.

This gets our team chatting about the joy of achieving our mission. It’s a huge morale boost for us, and often as a result of this simple little message, someone will surprise the graduate with a phone call or a personalized congratulatory video or note.

Improve systems for a streamlined business

Often, automation can help you achieve the same objective in a more streamlined way. Our automation journey has been an opportunity to review and modernize our systems and give us time back to spend on the things we love about our work, while ensuring administration and compliance requirements are still managed effectively.

Zapier gives us the power that was once only available to big organizations with big budgets. The benefits are more than just dollars and time. We’ve connected and automated systems for administration and enrollment allowing us to give students a better experience through fast, attentive, accurate, and valuable service.

New to Zapier? It’s a tool that helps anyone connect apps and automate workflows—without any complicated code. Sign up for free.

This was a guest article by Paul Pellier, founder of Accellier Education, a tertiary education provider based in Australia. Accellier has been successfully educating adult learners for more than a decade. Want to see your work on the Zapier main site? Check out our guidelines and get in touch.

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