At Higher Education Marketing, we’ve long been trumpeting the rapid pace of technological change and helping schools manage the transition. By now, educational institutions are well aware that the industry is undergoing significant transformation – shifting student demographics and preferences, escalating competition, and strained funding sources are only some of the biggest contributing factors. While disruptions to traditional business models are creating challenging times for many colleges and universities, many schools are embracing the opportunities and emerging efficiencies enabled by technological innovations and realizing the rewards.
Today’s prospective students have a world of educational options to choose from but are more engaged and connected in the selection process than ever thanks to social media and an abundance of internet resources, accessed anytime and anywhere via mobile devices. The idea of a “traditional student” is fast becoming obsolete, as open online courses and unbundled certifications cater to part-time, older, lifelong learners in these perpetually uncertain times. Colleges and universities need to justify their costs to meet heightened and more discerning expectations. Students are seeking interactive, flexible and convenient learning solutions to meet their unique needs.
Derived from the verb educe, which means “to draw forth from within”, education’s ongoing challenge is to provide the most effective resources for enabling students to reach their full potential. Establishing connections to the value-added information that promotes this intention can be accomplished more efficiently than ever by expertly integrating appropriate technological solutions. Leveraging the wealth of newly available data and collaboration tools can help deliver the customized experiences students crave while enhancing all stages of the recruitment process.
Thriving in the New Normal
For any new technology, there are always early adopters eager to innovate, laggards who reluctantly follow, and the majority who fall somewhere in the middle. Mainstream adopters are motivated by pragmatic concerns, the technology’s potential to solve present problems. In the thick of urgent matters like improving student success and institutional productivity while managing costs, information technology (IT) has passed that maturation point of mainstream acceptance and is now relied upon to provide crucial solutions in adapting to the “new normal”.
IT has long been a vital component of successful institutions but as rapid improvements in analytics, bandwidth and cloud technologies ripple throughout organizational structures, we are seeing how it can substantially alter higher level strategic direction. Leaders that truly recognize the interdependence between business issues and technology are embracing the disruption caused by the consumerism of IT, reconsidering their core offerings and implementing modernizing initiatives.
“Instead of reacting to new technologies, top institutions seek out new technologies as a strategic imperative, leveraging these innovations to improve learning inside and outside the classroom with data decision making, enhanced pedagogy, and better student outcomes,” says Lisa Davis, Chief Information Officer of Georgetown University.
Establishing Strategic Priorities for IT
For too long, many institutions have operated as a collection of separate silos – in terms of relatively isolated academic departments, functions (finance, admissions, research, etc.), and in relation to other institutions and the outside world. Advances in IT now enable schools to create connections between various systems, processes and accumulated data to become far greater than the sum of their parts. To manage this transition smoothly, adequate resources must be allocated to IT architecture, process optimization and risk management.
Before leaping towards emerging innovations, colleges and universities must continue to support present needs by stabilizing core services, balancing expectations for fluid accessibility with data protection and privacy. The proliferation of personal wireless devices on campus has seen many colleges struggle with wi-fi bandwidth issues – according to a 2014 Re:fuel Agency report, the average student takes 7 internet-connected devices to campus. Bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies divert non-college devices to a second network, sometimes requiring each device to be registered, ensuring greater security and accountability. Maintaining wireless networks is the most visible function of IT departments and also the most important tech issue for prospective students.
Looking beyond the most pressing needs, schools should approach their relationship with technology by defining their top strategic priorities. These should include:
- Meeting student and faculty expectations for seamless communications and technology integration on campus
- Leveraging efficiencies to contain or reduce costs
- Demonstrating transparent improvements in student outcomes
- Exploring innovative ways to develop competitive advantages from e-learning, faculty tech support, mobile tools and social networks
Establishing frameworks to respond to the vastness of IT change can provide stability, cooperation and measurable outcomes for achieving replicable goals.
Moving to the Cloud
Countless new companies and services have sprouted up in the past few years to meet the needs of the estimated $25 billion education technology market. The ever growing number of tools include enrollment management and retention solutions, adaptive learning platforms, social engagement networks, big-data management and enterprise resource planning. What all of these solutions have in common is their innovative uses of cloud technology, enabling anytime, anywhere computing with speed, security and simplicity.
Centralizing IT services and systems creates significant efficiencies and automation possibilities, reducing costs while improving effectiveness. Managing the shift is no small challenge but the reduced duplication of effort brings lasting benefits, freeing resources for mission-specific support. Emerging cloud-based learning management systems (LMS) take student information systems (SIS) to the next level, managing the admissions process, tracking student performance, storing administration details and much more.
Newer consolidated systems leverage robust education analytics to enable adaptive and game-based learning, personalizing the learning experience and even predicting individual academic performance for more informed course selection and improved student retention. Rio Salado College’s data-driven early intervention program uses past performance to predict how a student will do in a class, leading to a 40 percent decline in drop rates.
Having instant access to extensive student information allows schools to proactively provide support services for improved student outcomes. Powerful learning analytics platforms include automated academic advising tools that send email notices when certain performance metrics are triggered (missed classes, poor test scores, etc.). Involving and supporting faculty with these types of big-data tools can provide big-picture insights while nurturing better classroom learning.
Cloud-based Admissions Applications
Automated, cloud-based tools help coordinate the admissions process by integrating with CRM databases, centralizing disparate application files to be accessed and developed by numerous team members on the go. This enables more effective interdepartmental communication while sending prospects the right information at the right time. Resource efficiencies can be immediate – the University of New Haven saved over a quarter of a million sheets of paper in their first year after switching to a mobile applicant review solution.
Lead nurturing with automated email drip campaigns can also integrate insights derived from prospects’ first interactions with your web presence for more highly targeted communications. Tracking students’ journeys before they have even applied, communicating strategically with social media marketing and providing value-added services promotes personalized connections over the entire student lifecycle. More personal devices and resulting data collection on campus creates an opportunity to better understand student preferences for better decision making. For example, Georgetown uses mobile app data from their student orientation to determine which events students attend and how they are communicating together.
Leveraging Innovative New Technologies
Forward-looking colleges and universities are constantly on the hunt for ideas that position themselves as leaders while connecting with their tech-savvy students. Other industries and competitors may provide inspiration. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were first seen as a threat but more schools are starting to analyze their successes for lessons that can be acted upon. Online learning facilitates tracking of student progress, allowing schools to better understand how students learn and which parts of current curriculums could be delivered at lower cost in other ways.
Example: Academy of Learning College uses an Integrated Learning System to accommodate different learning styles by providing job-focused, flexible training options. Lessons combine textbooks, software and online digital media, entering a virtual classroom where an instructor delivers a live lesson and answers questions in real time.
Showcasing your campus to faraway parents and prospects has gotten easier with virtual tours and new “virtual reality” (VR) tours. Expensive headsets are typically needed for the virtual reality experience but Google Cardboard is an exciting new way to scale these initiatives, integrating with the user’s smartphone. Schools can create branded, cost-effective VR headsets in bulk to be distributed to their audiences. Students only have to fold the flat cardboard to form a headset, load a virtual tour on a smartphone, pop it in and strap it to their faces.
Example: Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) manufactured 10,000 cardboard headsets at about $5 each for manufacturing and distribution, and sent half to prospective students with invitations to immerse themselves in one of their four campuses worldwide. Consumer oriented, open source VR like this is the next best thing to being there and a lot more fun than an acceptance letter.
“What we’re starting to see is VR for the masses,” says SCAD professor Josephine Leong. “I show these tools to my students because they are going to be designing for this generation. Google put it out there, but it’s up to the individual to figure out how to use it. That’s what’s going to make it innovative.”
To realize the full benefits of embracing these types of technological innovations, it is imperative that schools first understand how new services add value to their learners and plan for committing the necessary resources. Knowing your strategic priorities and institutional capabilities will help determine whether you can build new technologies from within or if partnering with another organization that has the desired expertise is a better route. Ensure that any vendors you work with understand your needs and provide reliable support. Going forward, organizations that are sufficiently agile and flexible to take advantage of emerging opportunities have the best chance of adapting to the changing paradigms of technology.
How has your school adopted emerging technologies?
Recommended reading: Susan Grajek of EDUCAUSE’s “Top 10 IT Issues” articles of the past three years eloquently and persuasively summarize the role of information technology in relation to higher education’s transformation.