During its 2021 conference, EDUCAUSE released its Top IT Issues of 2022. Discussing these on the Jenzabar Podcast, founding director of The Campus Computing Project Casey Green said, “The list this year is bigger, broader, expansive, and more complex. These issues have been hovering for a long time. These discussions have needed to happen for a long time.”
The pandemic undoubtedly accelerated problems in higher education that were already surfacing, and many of these surround the use of technology and student engagement. When the pandemic forced institutions online, students struggled to stay engaged with their campus communities. The abundance of hybrid and online courses also raised questions around technology and equity. While having different course modalities makes learning more available to different demographics of students, it creates issues surrounding equitable access.
In the second part of this three-part series, we’re continuing to break down EDUCAUSE’s Top IT issues of 2022 to understand what they might mean for you and your campus.
Institutions are asking themselves what a better future in higher education might look like. At EDUCAUSE, the answer was clear: A better future is one where education and educational technology is more student-centric and equity-minded. A better future requires digital transformation.
“There was a need [last year] to get online fast,” said Les Zimmerman, Jenzabar’s Vice President of Product Development, during an episode of the Jenzabar Podcast. “We were all reacting very quickly, and institutions did a great job of bringing in great tools… different platforms that help offer courses online.” Zimmerman considers these actions examples of digital upgrades—colleges and universities accelerating changes (like online and recorded classes) that they’d already begun to put in place before the pandemic. But what the pandemic helped illuminate was a need not only for digital upgrades, but for digital transformations.
For Zimmerman, transformation isn’t about upgrading systems. “When we talk about transformation,” he said, “we’re talking about looking at how we start [using technology] to engage students in classroom activities.”
As colleges and universities begin to invest in technology to further their digital transformation, they need to make sure that their decisions are geared toward student success—which often means investing in technology centered around student engagement. It also means ensuring that students have access to the type of equipment needed to run new software and systems. Not all students are digital natives, so digital transformation also requires that colleges invest in technology that is easy to learn.
There’s been a great deal of buzz about how the future of education may very well be hybrid. While there were many students who longed for in-person classes to resume during the early days of the pandemic, there were others who relished the opportunities that online learning afforded.
“The COVID experience has exposed much of what we need to do better,” said Casey Green, “along with signaling that the larger interdependent ecosystem of learning work and higher ed is changing in very significant ways. Many campuses will have to invest in real change and invest in their infrastructure in some new and critical ways.”
Colleges and universities now have systems in place to foster online learning but implementing systems that allow for various hybrid styles of learning will take more work. And this isn’t the biggest challenge to a successful hybrid program. For institutions to promote student success, they need to ensure students remain engaged no matter the classroom setting.
Student engagement is important, as it can be directly tied to student retention. A Deloitte report, published in the wake of the 2020-2021 school year, showed that 80% of students surveyed said that their online and hybrid courses lacked the engagement of in-person classes. The report likened a student’s institutional involvement to brand loyalty. When physically present on campus, students are more likely to buy into campus culture and identity. But students struggle to actively participate in classes, student life, and campus culture while virtual.
Part of solving this issue in hybrid education is to gather data on the way students best take part in online classes. According to Les Zimmerman, however, data is only valuable when the institution can come together and use that data to solve problems. To solve engagement issues on virtual campuses, “every office, every function and facet of the institution has to come together and discuss their processes,” said Zimmerman.
While many of EDUCAUSE’s Top IT Issues for 2022 mention equity, “From Digital Scarcity to Digital Abundance” focuses specifically on “achieving full, equitable, digital access for students by investing in connectivity, tools, and skills.” This is because the pandemic exposed obvious voids in digital access, negatively impacting—at far greater rates—the educations of minorities students, students with disabilities, and students living below the poverty line.
Many institutions worked hard to ensure their vulnerable student populations had the resources needed to continue their educations. But other institutions didn’t have the necessary resources and are only now trying to figure out how they might best address equitable digital access in the future.
New technologies can breach educational divides, but they are able to widen those divides as well. As new systems are implemented, higher ed institutions need to consider what types of tools might help remove educational barriers. They also want to put systems in place to train student users who might not have as much experience working with technology as others.
Hindsight is usually 20/20, but given the pandemic’s complicated array of factors, it’s difficult to look at lessons learned and be certain that solving COVID-related problems will help solve future ones. No matter what issues next arise, however, viewing them through a student-first lens is essential to an institution’s long-term viability.
Implementing student-first plans ensures that learners continue to stay engaged and to learn. But to execute these plans, institutions need a clear understanding of the barriers their students—particularly their most vulnerable students—face. They can then determine the solutions to best help their students overcome whatever obstacles next arise.
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