The pandemic has upended the entire higher ed experience—here’s how to navigate continued digital transformation

2 key factors in higher ed’s digital transformation

Top 10 of 2021: The pandemic has upended the entire higher ed experience—here’s how to navigate continued digital transformation

Each year, we share our 10 most-read stories. Not surprisingly, many of this year’s Top 10 focused on student support, retention, the post-pandemic campus, and online or hybrid teaching strategies. This year’s 6th most-read story focuses on two critical parts of digital transformation.

While most industries are becoming increasingly digitized, higher education remains noticeably resistant to digital transformation. Although higher education offers some options for virtual learning, the majority of programs still rely on in-person education. Online learning platforms are also falling behind and need upgrades to expand accessibility. Higher education has been rooted in the ability to attend in person, both for classes and for campus experiences.

That is, until the pandemic created upheaval and transformed the entire experience. In a matter of days, higher education institutions had to adapt to online learning for students, virtual appointments for student services, and remote working for staff.

Now, 75 percent of adults believe that education will fundamentally change as a result of the pandemic. That includes an increase in virtual and DIY learning opportunities, as well as remote work for professors and staff. These changes will fundamentally impact how education is delivered, and also will impact who can access it. What will this new environment look like? What is the impact on universities and colleges for students and staff? Although much remains to be determined, there are key trends emerging in regard to the future of higher education.

Future of virtual learning

There’s no denying that virtual learning will play a larger role in education and its digital transformation going forward at all levels. This is something that’s been part of the education system for years, but without any great need for improvements, virtual learning systems have remained relatively unchanged.

When the pandemic hit, and most students and teachers were forced to rely on online schooling, the glaring issues with these systems were revealed. They lacked the ability for students to engage with teachers, they were outdated, and the systems were not user friendly. If online education is here to stay, learners and educators want better and more accessible experiences.

Better investments are needed for all aspects of the online education experience, from classrooms and curriculum to student support. Many institutions have already implemented video conferencing to recreate the classroom environment, but new technologies are emerging to help facilitate team-based projects and discussions, and to create a personalized experience for students. Forward-thinking higher education institutions will need to implement these new technologies to create better learning environments and stay ahead of competition. AI will also play a part in the future of online learning. These technologies can create personalized learning experiences, such as study plans and content suggestions. For professors, AI is helpful for grading work or creating lesson plans.

Hybrid learning environments are also pivotal for the future of higher education and its digital transformation. These environments allow students to engage in their education in ways that suit their style of learning. They also can allow increased access to programs and classes, as students who live on campus can participate in person, while international students or commuters can use online platforms to receive the same education. With everyone concerned about the possibility of future pandemics, hybrid learning environments also allow for minimal disruptions if higher education needs to adopt an online-only learning experience.

Impact on access

While learners are showing great resilience as we navigate new territory, there is also an awareness that the pandemic has created a digital divide. For students, online education means that they need to have the software and technology to support new platforms. However, 87 percent believe that not everyone will have access to the technology they need to learn effectively. As virtual learning becomes increasingly sophisticated, these technologies will need to be upgraded to adapt. In theory, virtual learning should increase accessibility, as students can join classes from wherever they are. Yet it increases the already high costs of education, as they now need sophisticated technology to participate in the experience.

Teachers also need increased digital literacy to effectively use these new technologies and learning platforms. That means that universities and colleges need to focus on upskilling and training their educators. Schools are creating education platforms for teachers that train them on best practices and tools to improve the experience for students. They’re also investing in technologies to help teachers create more interactive experiences, as video lectures alone will no longer be sufficient in an increasingly digital world.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when virtual learning was beginning to be explored, many people saw this as an excellent way for universities to increase income by making courses more accessible to international students. Unfortunately, 81 percent now believe that fewer people will go overseas for their studies as a result of the pandemic. This includes attending overseas universities virtually. This change in attitude could be the result of the financial hardships faced throughout the pandemic–students no longer have the means to pay for international schooling. The loss of income could be significant for higher education, which means that programs will need to be improved to attract international students. This could involve reducing fees for virtual classes, increasing which programs are available online, or improving the campus experience to create environments that international students want to attend.

Trusting education

Although the future of education still remains relatively unknown, higher education institutions need not worry. After a turbulent year, trust and confidence in education systems are on the rise. Now, more than ever, people see the value of education to help them prepare for digital transformation of the workforce. If colleges and universities continue to invest in their students and educators–and create rich environments for virtual or hybrid learning opportunities–the future is still optimistic.

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