EDUCAUSE 2020, which wrapped up on October 29, brought together institutional decision-makers and technology innovators to discuss the most pressing and trending issues in higher education. Mirroring the challenges that exist on campus today from COVID-19, the event was fully virtual but still encouraged user engagement across multiple channels and platforms. This new experience and operational shift aligned with the higher education landscape’s rapid transformation and shed light on areas that require the industry’s attention.
There were many common themes throughout the event, including the growing opportunities associated with leveraging data analytics, the new student experience, cultural shifts that will have a lasting impact on the industry, how technology can be used in times of crisis, and more. Let’s dive into a few of the key takeaways from the event that resonated with the conference’s themes, including how challenges today actually act as catalysts to modernize systems and operations across campus.
Institutions have always been the keepers of huge volumes of data on students, operations, academics, and more. Thanks to the development of data analytics tools, many colleges and universities are seeing the value of converting increasingly large volumes of complex data into legible, usable information.
Predictive analytics, which empowers users to assess historical data to make projections and anticipate outcomes, represents an especially opportunistic area of investment for institutions, allowing them to improve student retention and reduce attrition by identifying at-risk students early. Despite this promise, however, many institutions around the world are slow to adopt the technology or are experiencing issues with using it.
This trend was mirrored in a survey earlier this year by The Chronicle of Higher Education, which found that the top three barriers to using predictive analytics in higher ed are staff training, costs, and the difficulties associated with collecting the right data to assess. With myriad discussions at EDUCAUSE revolving around analytics, it’s clear that the idea of using data for the betterment of students and institutions is still on many campus leaders’ minds.
Institutions can indeed use data to improve student engagement and experience, as well as operational efficiency and campus-wide collaboration. But these benefits can only be realized when data is properly maintained, aggregated, and ultimately used. With students taking classes online and faculty and staff working remotely in many cases, institutions are likely collecting even more data than before.
Colleges and universities should take a strategic, targeted approach to their data analytics programs rather than launching campus-wide projects off the bat. This will allow staff to become more familiar with available data, which will likely lead to better outcomes. Over time, these programs can be expanded to encompass more areas across campus. As these programs grow, staff must do their best to eliminate silos and enable transparency across teams and departments to minimize redundancy and consistency errors.
The student lifecycle generally follows the guidelines of the traditional buyer’s journey: awareness, consideration, decision. After graduation, students ideally become alumni who are advocates for the institution. Despite this common trajectory, however, colleges and universities cannot approach each student the same way and expect exceptional results; each student will have his or her own experience from when they first apply to college through completion.
At the highest level, student demographics are shifting dramatically. In the past, students attended college after graduating from high school. This is not necessarily the case anymore, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found that only about two-thirds of 2019 high school graduates between the ages of 16 and 24 were enrolled in college.
Today’s unpredictable economy, growing concerns about the validity of a college degree, and the need to develop new skills to remain competitive in the workplace are all contributing to changing student demographics. Many students are parents, are already employed, or have skills from other life experiences like being in the military. These differences underline a common theme that was center stage at EDUCAUSE 2020: each student is unique and therefore has different expectations for their specific college experience.
Institutions must adapt to these changes if they are to thrive in the coming years. Gen Z learners may have different expectations than adult learners; some students may need more personalized advising and career pathway support than others; certain learning styles may only appeal to a subset of students. In other words, personalization will be a key differentiator going forward in higher education. Institutions need to develop personalized strategies for attracting and retaining students by empowering students with more flexibility and freedom of choice.
Tailored career advising services, robust support for online learning, micro-credentials and competency-based education programs, and even financial aid tactics will play a role in how institutions can personalize student experiences. It’s time for campus leaders to debunk the idea of delivering a single, uniform experience to all students. If colleges or universities cannot build more personalized programs, then they will encounter even more obstacles as the competition among institutions increases.
Change is hard, especially in higher ed. But, as Albert Einstein allegedly said, “once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”
Institutions must adopt a new mindset and establish a culture that accepts and even embraces change. This year’s EDUCAUSE and 2020 overall underlined just how much the industry can shift overnight. While there are many takeaways and learning experiences from 2020, if nothing else, it reflects the importance of being able to adjust to the unexpected.
But institutions can get ahead of the curve—slightly—by adopting a culture that is agile and willing to transform when necessary. To start, campus leaders should find champions, pioneers, and influencers who can lead changes in operations, technology, or mentalities. People are the primary building block for establishing a flexible culture, so it is important to find the right stakeholders who can back up, support, and drive significant transformations.
Being able to reflect on change is also vital. Institutions must be able to acknowledge and deal with a setback and move forward. This will require transparency across teams and departments and the willingness to share and accept feedback. Having the ability to learn from mistakes, apply lessons learned, and incorporate valuable insight from knowledgeable and experienced individuals will make institutions more responsive and successful in applying changes. Past lessons can also be used to identify trends in the future.
Technology is a double-edged sword in the culture conversation. While people will be the drivers and adopters of change, technology can play a role—either as an inhibitor or as a promoter—in how that change is seen or carried out. To mitigate concerns, institutions should partner with trusted technology providers that can help build flexible and strategic roadmaps.
There is no doubt that 2020 introduced hurdles and forced evolution. Yet, in many cases, the challenges presented in higher education today can also act as catalysts for institutions to modernize technology and become more agile and responsive. As colleges and universities build their 2021 programs and strategies, it’s important to assess lessons learned from this year and work with a proven partner that can help institutions adopt new technologies, deliver modern experiences, and build long-term resilient plans.
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