Five benefits to increasing digitalization of the higher ed experience.
GUEST COLUMN | by Michael Bodekaer Jensen
A historic U.S. college enrollment decline is worsening, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In many industries, the pandemic accelerated business technology transformations already underway — for example, digital payments upending financial services and the revival of QR codes in retail. But these shifts have been slower in the education industry.
Businesses couldn’t survive if they operated as they did in the last century. The business of higher education will also benefit from leveraging technological advances to evolve with changing student needs. There are advantages in terms of productivity, cost efficiencies, learning outcomes and teacher workload that can affect tuition fees and enhance competitive advantage.
‘Businesses couldn’t survive if they operated as they did in the last century. The business of higher education will also benefit from leveraging technological advances to evolve with changing student needs.’
Students are increasingly interested in institutions that deliver the best bang-for-buck in career advancement and social network development. They question if fancy reputation and earnings potential offers adequate return on investment (ROI) for the 169% increase in the cost of a four-year degree since 1980. Georgetown University found that at 30% of U.S. postsecondary institutions, half of students still earned less than high school graduates 10 years after enrollment!
Meeting student needs to increase retention
Today’s average student is often older, with more life experience, and from more diverse backgrounds, meaning a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Students have expectations that classes will adapt to suit their needs and not vice-versa, providing opportunities for personal growth and the development of technical and interpersonal skills. There are military veterans and mid-career professionals looking to recertify skills to further their path to high-paying, interesting careers.
Just as businesses are leveraging technological advancements to personalize the customer experience, universities can also increase retention by customizing learning experiences and incorporating workforce skills into curricula to prepare students for post-graduation goals.
Five benefits to increasing digitalization
How can institutions facing soaring costs and skepticism around degree ROI better tap technology advancements? How can they create a culture of high-ROI learning outcomes aligned with rapidly evolving workforce needs?
(1) Hybrid courses to reduce cost and increase student flexibility. Blending the physical and digital worlds offers financial and logistical advantages, as well as the greater flexibility that students crave. Thinking that learning only happens face-to-face is like thinking that pilots cannot learn anything from virtual flight simulators. For example, faculty can use virtual labs as a preparation tool to maximize classroom time around student needs and problem-solving. In-person peer-to-peer learning and engagement will always have unique differential value compared to fully online degrees and courses — but that doesn’t prevent institutions from leveraging the many benefits of hybrid learning.
(2) Increased access and reduced capacity constraints. Immersive 3D virtual laboratories are reinventing STEM coursework, allowing administrators to rethink space and spending allocations. Institutions with existing physical lab infrastructure can leverage virtualization to relieve both budget and capacity constraints. Students can better prepare and explore state-of-the-art simulations from desktop internet browsers or mobile devices without administrators having to scrounge millions of dollars to construct physical facilities. This also results in fewer lab accidents and reduced lab equipment expenses and maintenance costs.
(3) Reimagined courses to increase student enrollments and engagement. Teachers can move beyond the limitations of the classroom (and budget) to take students anywhere in virtual science labs, from the quantum realm to a foreign country to the surface of Mars. For example, unencumbered by the normal requirements of physical lab training, Arizona State University established the world’s first fully online four-year biology degree.
(4) Personalizing and adapting to individual student needs with always-on tutoring support. Technology such as interactive 3D scenarios can enable personalized, on-demand tutoring for students who need that extra support and guidance to grasp complex concepts, whether because they speak a different language, have physical impairments, or just need to absorb information at their own pace.
(5) Improved representation. Digital twinning can help less affluent campuses compete for a wider range of students, including those who are neurodiverse or with physical challenges. The ongoing gender and diversity underrepresentation in fields like STEM can be partly attributed to a lack of access to role models. Potential scientists-in-the-making don’t believe they’ll succeed or aren’t aware of their career options. New digital tools can better represent the broad population of learners via diverse on-screen characters.
The next step in online learning
This is where the vision of a metaverse-based upgrade of traditional education becomes relevant. This fall, there are students at a dozen U.S. higher education institutions who will be able to participate in trial “metaversities” which can provide a richer and more personalized learning experience than the traditional tools and textbook exercises of the past.
The most exciting reason to transition education into the metaverse is to make learning more accessible, engaging, interactive, and relevant to a broader participant cohort. In the future, the metaverse will provide a way for students and instructors to collaborate, enjoy unlimited resources, and obtain trusted digital accreditations across global boundaries in a highly realistic 3D virtual world. This borderless world will open new opportunities to students in developing economies and allow universities to tap new populations.
‘In the future, the metaverse will provide a way for students and instructors to collaborate, enjoy unlimited resources, and obtain trusted digital accreditations across global boundaries in a highly realistic 3D virtual world.’
The metaverse may seem out of reach to institutions struggling with budgets and adequate broadband infrastructure. However, through research-backed digital tools already available today, it’s possible to experience many of the advantages of virtual and hybrid learning on existing school laptops and tablets. Futurist Neal Stephenson, who coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, tweeted that “a lot of metaverse content will be built for [2D] screens (where the market is) while keeping options open for the future growth of affordable headsets.”
Higher education institutions won’t escape the shakeup brought about by the coming metaverse. What is holding them back — fear of the unknown, budget concerns, bandwidth challenges, lack of IT know-how, or just too many other priorities?
Rolling out new technology is not an end in itself. Administrators and faculty alike have an amazing opportunity within their grasp to transform campuses, expand curricula, increase budget efficiencies, and engage new audiences beyond their physical limitations. In delaying adoption of technologies available today, they also delay reaping the rewards that would both expand their capacity and open new opportunities for them as well as their students.