Lowering costs while improving course capacity and retention with digital STEM courseware.
GUEST COLUMN | by Michael Bodekaer Jensen
College and university administrators are deploying digital technology solutions as a means of scaling education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. But they must carefully weigh the benefits and risks before deciding whether edtech can help improve STEM program outcomes. Their decision is complicated by growing operating costs, declining enrollment, low STEM student retention, and technical interoperability challenges. The 2016-2021 closure of 500-plus degree-granting postsecondary institutions indicates a sobering financial reality.
‘…carefully weigh the benefits and risks before deciding whether edtech can help improve STEM program outcomes.’
Fortunately, the NSHSS 2022 Career Interest Survey found STEM fields are not only Gen Z’s top career choice, but are growing among female and black students. This encouraging finding indicates retention potential if institutions plug the leaky STEM pipeline. To be competitive, they need to deliver opportunities that meet the demands of today’s students in terms of convenience and flexibility.
Here are a few considerations for institutions considering digital STEM courseware to serve students better, and at a lower cost.
Prioritizing what makes an institution distinctive can be a source of resilience during a challenging transition. In the U.S., academic strength, affordability, and employability are top factors for career-focused students selecting colleges. A 2021 study found 58% of high school students believe pursuing a skill-based education (e.g., trade skills, nursing, STEM, etc.) makes sense in today’s world. Given the transforming economy, defining high-quality STEM education delivery as a key distinction, and carefully stewarding financial resources to support STEM retention and learning outcomes, represents a growth opportunity.
Lowering lab operating costs
The higher costs of energy, meal service, and housing programs, along with upward pressure on wages and benefits, are resulting in tuition increases. Science education involving lab experiences and field work is particularly impacted by the rising costs of chemicals, metals, and laboratory reagents, fueled by inflation and supply chain inefficiencies. Virtual labs have emerged as a cost-effective way to level the field of experiential learning opportunities.
Using a lab simulation platform for experiential learning saves direct costs on practical labs. For example, my company estimates that using a virtual lab in place of a traditional spectrophotometry lab in a chemistry course can result in a 12% savings in lab operating costs, including estimated savings on lab downtime and greater productivity to accommodate multiple lab sessions. Not only can experiential learning increase STEM graduation rates by 23%, but students who trial science experiments through virtual labs also learn how to operate expensive lab equipment and dangerous reagents safely — before entering a sophisticated lab environment in the real world.
Easing demands on instructional staff
A digital STEM learning platform can reduce time demands on instructional staff. For example, science simulations can have clear learning objectives that align with course learning goals, so instructors are able to spend less time focused on delivering science content. With less pressure to prepare lectures and lab demonstrations, teaching staff can spend more instructional time guiding, answering questions, and coaching students. The administrative burden on instructors may be eased by software that automatically marks quizzes and posts grades directly to a Learning Management Systems (LMS) grade book. Instructors should be able to view performance data in platform dashboards to identify any student reinforcement opportunities.
Reducing ICT interoperability headaches
As institutions rely more on edtech tools, evaluating their level of Interoperability with LMS and Student Information Systems (SIS) is a necessary precondition of delivering learning content. An additional consideration are the dozens of edtech tools that the average instructor uses requiring support by Information and Communications Technology (ICT) staff. But as device management requirements increase, so do the demands on ICT time and resources — just as many institutions are seeing ICT staff shrink. In an EDUCAUSE survey, 42% of IT leaders reported their organizations getting smaller due to budget cuts, early retirement, and extended periods of vacancy.
Institutions investing in edtech should solicit an interoperability guarantee and direct technical support and training from technology providers for both faculty and students, to avoid the risk of investing in tools that may overwhelm instructors and students and overburden ICT staff. For example, it’s already possible to experience virtual reality (VR) content through a web browser on many popular desktop and mobile devices, without the additional budget and staffing resources required by dedicated VR headgear.
Adding low-cost capacity for STEM career offerings
Expanding STEM course offerings typically strains institutional budgets, facilities, and timeframes. Yet, without adding a foot of lab space or a single instructor, institutions can boost STEM offerings with virtual science simulations. Simulations provide skills training that helps institutions prepare students for careers in STEM fields like healthcare, biotechnology, and even wastewater management. From introductory physics to advanced analytical chemistry courses, digital courseware can fill the gaps in an institution’s STEM offering.
Expanding cost-effective course delivery in all modalities
While the high-touch, on-campus experience that enrollment marketers promote with imagery of green quadrangles and stately buildings is seductive, the 40% of college students who work full-time have professional and family obligations that make traditional class timeframes and campus locations impractical. These nontraditional learners are causing institutions to offer additional, flexible, course delivery formats, to avoid trade-offs in terms of quality and convenience. That’s why 99% of university and college chief online officers in a 2022 survey believed there will be an online learning element to the student experience at their institutions by 2025.
Laboratory activity simulations are particularly suitable for multiple course delivery modalities. For example, instructors can (1) teach in a live, in-person course, encouraging small group collaboration; (2) teach in an asynchronous HyFlex course, where students complete a simulation individually before arriving on-campus for a practical lab activity; or (3) assign each student in an online course to complete a simulation in place of a practical lab activity.
How digital will you go?
Campus leaders responding to the digital transformation of higher education are restructuring institutional priorities to provide a more flexible, student-centric college experience. However, every institution has unique priorities and challenges and must evaluate its own readiness to adopt even the most transformative edtech teaching tool.