The digital experience plays a huge role in what modern students get out of higher education. Prior to the Covid pandemic, many institutions aspired toward improving the digital experience to be more in line with the connected environment found outside of higher education.
The pandemic delayed some of those aspirations, as universities were faced with the immediate and enormous challenge of transitioning thousands of in-person classes to online. Painful as it sometimes was, there are lessons from that disruption that can be applied to improve students’ digital experience in a post-pandemic environment.
Plan for the Long Game
The digital student experience really should start and stop with a student. There is a long journey to be covered, from recruitment through to alumnus and even donor relationships. Mapping that out and then taking a measured but deliberate approach will help keep the student at the center of digital decision-making. Consider a few aspects of that experience:
While today’s students readily adapt to technology, e-Learning is still very different from being in the classroom. The online environment is typically less engaging than being on campus and participating in normal activities. Along with feelings of social isolation, remote learning during the pandemic caused some students to suffer academically because certain content didn’t lend itself well to a digital experience. For instance, an engineering class might involve a simulation in a physical lab environment, but if an adequate software simulation was not available, that course objective and consequent learning could not be achieved. There were hundreds of examples like this.
Even with resumption of in-person classes, there will still be many people who don’t want to or can’t physically come to a campus. Now is the time to learn from what was not engaging during Covid and use it to improve online learning going forward. Conduct a thoughtful analysis, including soliciting student input, on what will make remote learning experiences most engaging using digital tools.
- The Paperwork
There are also challenges in trying to make administrative processes better for the student. That covers a broad range of activities: admissions, course registration, payments and financial aid applications, graduation applications, and much more. Some schools focus on the administrative efficiency of their systems from the back-end, resulting in complicated and time-consuming front-end processes. Instead, think about any activities for which a student stands in line, and strive to move them online.
Take the course registration process, for example. The advent of telephone registration systems was a big leap forward over the old days of physical queuing but was still fraught with difficulties getting through on jammed phone lines. Being able to not only register online, but forecast classes online, yields a much better experience for students and provides valuable class forecasting capabilities for administrators. There are even some products that allow students to pre-populate their class schedule from a mobile phone, then push a button to automatically enroll once the registration window opens.
Automated data analysis can also make a big impact. One interesting example is around retention and graduation rates. Analyzing drop-out rates from financial reasons could lead to something as simple as providing nominal retention scholarships. If state performance-based funding includes achieving a certain retention rate, funding financial aid retention scholarships makes good sense for the students and the institution.
- Academic Advising
Many students start applying for colleges before they really know what they want to do with their lives. Think about ways to use digital technology that can let students see what a particular career actually looks like before they ever start their journey. That might include digital content, videos or even virtual reality that describes a day in the life of a nurse, an engineer, a pharmacist, or some other profession.
Once they are in school, leverage digital platforms to help them understand what classes are required across the whole timeline to pursue their chosen field. The sooner they can see the full picture, the better they understand the importance of the prerequisites. This can also elevate academic advising, freeing advisors to coach students about real career issues and things not easily digitized, rather than just helping students select courses.
Laying the Groundwork
As you approach digital transformation, start by identifying what inputs and technologies will be needed, and what projects should be undertaken to achieve better student outcomes. Map the entire student journey and identify the points of engagement where there are opportunities to enhance the experience using digital or process improvements. Prioritize pain points where students get stuck, and evaluate ways to innovate or adjust that will overcome them.
This needs to start with a good foundational infrastructure. Foundational things like effective on-campus Wi-Fi connectivity are critical to a good digital experience. If students can’t connect wherever they are, they’ll be challenged to even interface with an institution’s digital applications. Cellular coverage also matters. Students bring their own devices to campus and expect to be able to use those devices to call and text from anywhere.
This critical infrastructure must be secure. The more devices that connect on the network, the more data that gets put online, the more risk there is. Unplugging from the internet isn’t an option, so a thoughtful approach to both security and data privacy is required.
Finally, aim to simplify the student experience. Look to reduce the number of applications they must use. And design interfaces for mobile devices like phones, tablets and even wristwatches that students commonly rely on.
A Moment of Opportunity
Whether hosting hundreds or thousands of students, offering dozens or hundreds of degree programs, and providing everything that goes with higher education, universities are complex and busy environments. Consider all that affects the student experience. Successful digitization requires mapping the entire journey and the many touch points involved in achieving desired outcomes.
Too many times we create digital experiences to make the back-end administration easier, rather than making the student experience better. With huge volumes of transactions to process, well-meaning and hard-working staff have understandably steered the focus to efficiency. Yet efficient doesn’t always mean most effective. The Covid disruption has presented an unexpected opportunity to embrace a new way of elevating outcomes for our students and those of us who dedicate our careers to supporting the next generation. Let’s take it!
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