Colleges and universities spent most of 2020 and 2021 playing defense with the pandemic. Looking to 2022, institutions are considering how to take up offense and prepare themselves for an unpredictable future. But how can the higher ed community plan for a future impacted by unforeseen—and probably unprecedented—variables?
In the third episode of the Jenzabar Podcast, Casey Green, Director of the Campus Computing Project, and Les Zimmerman, Vice President of Product Development at Jenzabar, sit down to discuss the difference between digital upgrades and digital transformations as well as how full, digital transformations can help keep institutions viable no matter what future challenges arise.
According to Zimmerman, colleges and universities were beginning the digital upgrade process even before the pandemic began. Tools like Zoom, Teams, and advanced learning management systems were meant to help supplement in-class (and occasionally online) learning. But to Zimmerman, upgrades and transformations are two different things.
“When we’re talking about transformation,” says Zimmerman, “we’re talking about institutions looking at how they start to engage students in classroom activities and examining what tools are out there that help collect data about how a student is engaging in class, chatting, and raising their hands. [Institutions] want to think about how their students are participating in departmental activities, especially when those activities are online.”
Undergoing digital transformation also means rethinking communications strategies, IT infrastructure, and how best to serve the new demographic of students looking to enroll. There are myriad ways undergoing a digital transformation can benefit schools in the long run.
The business of higher education is a historically siloed one. Different departments run distinct operations, and each has its own communications strategy. With daily outreach from offices like finance, student life, and athletics alongside the usual club and professor emails, students face communication overload. “If 10 offices send out 5-10 communications a week, that’s 50-60 emails or texts for a student, and you lose that student,” says Zimmerman. Important messages, like those from academic advisors or professors, often go unread or are forgotten in the next communication wave.
Part of undertaking a digital transformation requires you to rethink your campus communications strategy and employ new communications technology. By unifying campus communications on a single platform, today’s communications solutions help break down silos across campus. They create transparency, so departments can cut down on redundancy and strengthen the impact of messaging.
With fewer messages going out and with messages now reaching students through their preferred channel (mobile), there is a greater chance students receive vital information. This strengthens student engagement with different departments and with the campus as a whole. It also ensures that, should another pandemic-like situation occur, institutions can disseminate information to students more quickly and be sure that information is absorbed.
One of the reasons we’ve been reading about cloud benefits for a while now is because there are so many of them. “The cloud has opened up a world of services that you would never be able to provide yourself,” Zimmerman notes. Particularly, cloud student information systems provide institutions with opportunities to better future-proof their campuses.
For instance, the cloud enables fast and easy server backups so institutions can get servers up and running quickly should an unforeseeable event occur. Additionally, by handing most—if not all—their campus’s system maintenance responsibilities to a cloud provider, institutions take a great deal of pressure off their IT staff and free up IT departments to work on other projects.
Another benefit to the cloud is that it offers scalability, which can be critical to colleges and universities that find enrollment situations changing year to year. Since it can be difficult to fully anticipate long-term enrollment numbers, advancement campaigns, and other budgetary concerns, having flexible, cloud-based infrastructure can give institutions real peace of mind.
The data bears out: The most rapidly growing student population is the new student, a demographic of nontraditional-aged students who are looking to learn new skills and engage in unbundled, affordable education. These students often have families, full-time jobs, or are first-generation college students. Engaging these students as a part of your digital transformation strategy means putting the infrastructure in place to offer hybrid learning and competency-based education (CBE) programs.
Zimmerman wants to see institutions putting strategies in place to empower these learners. “Let them choose their own path to competencies. Digital credentials are getting bigger all the time.” Strengthening hybrid learning infrastructure, offering CBE programs, and implementing micro-credentialing courses can help attract new learners to your campus. These added enrollments can make a big difference for colleges and universities that find their traditional enrollment numbers dwindling.
Can an institution get by on making digital upgrades? For the time being, certainly. But enrollments are slowing, college debt is rising, and as they struggle to find well-paying jobs, degree seekers are having a harder time realizing the return on their educational investment. It’s been evident for a while that change is sorely needed.
As the world becomes more digital, and as students enter colleges and universities as digital natives, it’s increasingly clear that a digital transformation is the change higher education institutions require. Investing in new communications solutions and cloud student information systems and putting in programs that can attract and serve the New Student are all things that colleges and universities can do today to help ensure their future viability.