Each year, we share our 10 most-read stories. Not surprisingly, many of this year’s Top 10 focused on microcredentials, the student experience, non-traditional students, and the post-pandemic campus. This year’s 3rd most-read story focuses on digital transformation on campuses.
It seems digital transformation is among the top priorities on any higher-ed leader’s list–particularly as students and faculty voice more preference for online learning options after COVID.
Many institutions realized that as they offer more degree programs and classes online, they are better able to reach a varied and more diverse group of learners.
In a conversation between Andrew Hermalyn, president of Partnerships at 2U, and Caroline Levander, vice president for Global and Digital Strategy at Rice University, during ASU+GSV, Levander details how Rice University’s expansion of its online learning program and its partnerships with online learning platforms have helped the institution serve a more diverse student body.
Hermalyn: How has Rice University’s history of online learning adoption influenced the way university leaders think about building digital offerings today?
Levander: Like many universities, Rice didn’t have a substantial online presence before the emergence of edX and Coursera. We’re a campus committed to unsurpassed education; it’s in our DNA. As it became really clear that digital platforms and capabilities were this powerful engine of change, it was a different way of thinking for the university, but I was really impressed at the appetite of faculty, deans, and trustees to get our hands dirty. What is this new thing, how can we benefit as a university by using these new tools? It has been very much a community project. There are lots of different people wanting to play with these great new tools.
Rice has a number of partnerships, including partnerships with 2U and edX. Why partner? And how do you measure the success of these types of partnerships?
[This has been a] community project–not just within Rice but outside of Rice as well, and that’s been some of the must fun work we’ve done. [We’re] really understanding what edX offers to us and the world, what 2U offers that we couldn’t reproduce internally nearly as well, as quickly, and as comprehensively. That’s been a good learning experience. Why partner? It’s true–the parts can be more than their sum. There can be wonderful synergy. I think it’s great to partner with companies that don’t think like universities all the time. It highlights some of our implicit assumptions. I’ve always learned from suddenly seeing my institution from the vantage point of someone [who is] not in it. What are we assuming? Is it the right thing to assume, moving forward in this new circumstance?
It’s fair to say the strategic priorities, not just of Rice but most institutions, have definitely changed in a decade. What priorities are on the map today that didn’t exist 10 years ago?
It’s exciting being in the right place, at the right time, with the right opportunity. One of the things that’s been a constant is that it’s incredibly fast-paced. How do you make a long-term strategic plan when the ecosystem is so dynamic? One thing Rice committed to early is that we’re going to experiment. I think we’ve really wanted to learn by doing, and that’s stood us in good stead.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the types of online learners at Rice? How have their needs been different and/or changed?
Five years ago our [undergrad] students were very focused on the residential experience. They love that still, but particularly in the summer semester, which we launched entirely online in last 3 years–what we’ve learned is that our residential undergrads love having the online summer semester delivered by Rice. It increases their sense of mental well-being during the year because they’re not piling on quite as many credits, and it allows them to keep learning while doing other things in summer. At the professional masters level, we’re seeing a much more diverse student body as result of our online student masters program. Rice has had a long-term abiding commitment to access and diversity in all forms. That said, we’re a selective institution with a history of the full-time residential student as our phenotype, and that is not as friendly to a truly diverse student body. The online degrees we’ve [launched] have really diversified our student body. That’s been one of the most exciting outcomes of this.
The last two years have been pretty wild, but particularly for the digital landscape and space. What are you most excited about, considering where we are today? What have we learned from the last two years with respect to digital transformation?
Our faculty and our students all got a crash course in online education. Tt moved with light speed from being peripheral to the student experience to being absolutely central. It’s now part of our resilience strategy–all kinds of events that can interrupt education and suddenly, we have a whole different response system to that. That’s very much a reactive way of thinking about it. But I think it’s instructive, because what it shows us is that our faculty are comfortable with online delivery, and that was not the case before COVID. As a comprehensive posture, we’ve really evolved pretty dramatically. I was talking to a colleague the other day and he said he misses some of the online capabilities now that he’s back in face-to-face instruction. He misses some of those capabilities. The big question is: Instead of missing them, how do we ensure that we’ve got the full power, how do we bring them together?
More and more, it’s not surprising to hear that sentiment from faculty who have experienced online in any variety of ways.
It’s going to be really exciting to see what the next chapter is.