Even before the pandemic, higher education institutions were making investments in technology. According to our new survey with University Business, nearly 80% of the schools polled said that they were marching toward some sort of digital transformation. A little more than one in four schools said they were making significant upgrades in their IT systems by purchasing or upgrading transformational tools that promise to enhance the student experience. But what specific technologies are institutions looking at?
Although higher education institutions tend to be technology laggards, the sudden onset of the global pandemic made many colleges and universities realize that their long-term survival was threatened if they didn’t make significant IT modernization investments. As such, many of the alleged laggards got off the bench and got into the game.
Our survey revealed that only 3% of the institutions surveyed said they were making very little or no changes because of COVID-19. Ultimately, investments in IT infrastructure remained somewhat consistent, as roughly 50% of all respondents said they made or were planning on investing in IT infrastructure because of COVID-19. However, the pandemic changed how people thought about allocating resources.
Not surprisingly, as most institutions adopted hybrid or fully remote learning modes, their investments in video conferencing and remote learning tools significantly increased. Many institutions are continuing their investment in IT infrastructure and video conferencing tools with the realization that the pandemic has upended the educational model. While the traditional 18-to-24-year-old students who come directly from high school may want to revisit all-in-person learning, working people and non-traditional learners have learned to thrive in the hybrid model. Moving forward, students will want robust remote learning solutions that they can access from home or the office, which means institutions need to offer new levels of flexibility to attract modern learners.
Why It Matters Now
According to Inside Higher Ed’s 2021 Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, “83% of provosts thought the quality of courses was good or excellent, but only 45% said that student engagement was good or excellent, and only 31% saw faculty research as good or excellent.”
The same Inside Higher Ed study shows that institutions are going to offer more online courses. Clearly, schools need to get this right, and failing to upgrade technologies to support this shift brings a high level of dissatisfaction among students and staff. According to our University Business poll, 93% of respondents said the remote work and remote learning environments brought by COVID-19 made it somewhat or very challenging to maintain high levels of student engagement. With institutions expecting to face continued challenges with enrolling and retaining students, engagement is all the more vital. Institutions must deliver satisfying experiences throughout the student lifecycle to minimize turnover.
While all institutions are facing challenges, this is an even more critical time for small colleges. Institutions must make technology investments that are aligned with meeting student needs and improving student success. When the pandemic forced schools to offer hybrid and virtual models, students realized they had more choices and that they may not be limited to attend institutions in their neighborhood or within driving distance. As working parents and students become more accustomed to online learning and hybrid models, the competition for students will get fiercer.
When institutions moved the bulk of their functionality off-premises, many suddenly needed student information systems that followed suit and enabled more capabilities. In addition to the standard functionality SIS platforms provide (grades, attendance records, admissions information, and more), SIS solutions can also improve communication. Students and faculty can talk about assignments and general questions about coursework. Guidance counselors and professors have a platform to discuss the work and worries of individual students. These are critical capabilities in online learning environments. Interestingly, our survey found that 31% of institutions have made “significant” improvements to their SIS before COVID-19, while another 40% said “somewhat.”
Reaching a Turning Point
Enrollment challenges have been causing headaches within higher education institutions for years. These issues were reinforced by the pandemic. As resources dwindle, colleges and universities are under greater financial pressure to prioritize technology investments that promise to have the greatest impact on student experiences and costs.
A crisis always presents new opportunities. COVID-19 certainly accelerated the digital transformations that were happening across college campuses. Many schools have bought technology to respond to the crisis; smart schools are buying technology that responds to what’s next.
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