The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly challenged the higher education (HE) sector’s financial health, with a number of core areas affected. However, many in the sector of enlightenment have shown they are innovative enough to survive – and even thrive – in the face of this challenge.
Now is the right time to redefine engagement with technology
As it becomes clear that COVID-related disruption will continue and that it will take five years to recover, it’s essential that HE institutes identify the new normal of how they deliver their services. There are three clear areas in which technology can be harnessed to create an industry-defining experience in the wake of the pandemic: applications, learning, and graduate outcomes. Across all of these areas, HE institutes need to invest in value innovation, i.e., changes to the service they give that drives value for students while being cheaper to supply.
Digital was already woven into the fabric of every student’s life, but COVID-19 accelerated digital behaviours and amplified the importance of empathetic experiences. Current behaviours explicitly show the need for a clear, personal and responsive relationship. Getting this right for learning experiences will provide a brilliant opportunity for universities to deliver genuine value to students and boost its reputation simultaneously – positively impacting both applications and graduate outcomes.
“Digital was already woven into the fabric of every student’s life, but COVID-19 accelerated digital behaviours and amplified the importance of empathetic experiences”
Before the pandemic, for many HE institutes, engagement and attendance were often synonymous: a student’s participation in a course was measured by whether or not they turned up in person to lectures or classes. When no one can be physically present, we were forced to redefine what engagement truly means. As we move forward, the focus needs to be on finding the right mix of hybrid teaching which enables the best of digital convenience with rich face-to-face experiences. Done well, these innovations can also help in other areas, for example, social mobility where a hybrid style of teaching can be more accessible to students with limits to their travel.
Taking inspiration from new, digitally-enabled experiences
The last year has provided numerous points of inspiration from across the sector, as HE institutes were forced to rapidly innovate to remote working to ensure they could continue providing their services through lockdown. From new, student-authored digital artefacts, virtual learning environments, virtual peer reviews and even virtual field trips. Personal highlights include the University of Birmingham’s new virtual tour, which allows an unlimited number of people to explore BIFoR’s complex scientific site. As well as Quantic’s switch from location-based events to online events that enriched the curriculum and brought students from all cohorts together.
What the best sector examples demonstrate is that purpose, empathy, and tech infrastructure are the keys to creating differentiated and meaningful experiences.
Embracing a test and learn mindset and flexible technology
This next phase will be one of experimentation. HE institutes must enter it with a test and learn mindset, anticipating failure and the need to course correct, before then investing in technology once it has been tested with cost effective prototypes. This will help ensure new experiences and services will actually deliver the return on investment needed to justify their cost. A ‘test and learn mindset’ looks like:
- Creating empowered decision-making teams that have people at opposite ends of opinion on a particular subject and ask them to agree a solution;
- pre-mortems which get the team to imagine what might go wrong to try to avoid issues;
- intentionally failing things early through a plan that stress-tests a solution, with the hardest tests first.
To ensure your digitally-enabled learning experiences are truly empathetic to students, combine experimentation with a user-centric mindset, making your students a partner. (An impeccable example is The University of Colorado Boulder’s ASSETT ‘Students as Partners’ framework.) One way to do this is with co-creation workshops. Co-creation workshops are hugely valuable because they bring the perspective of end-users into the design process at the conceptual stage. This invariably uncovers new ideas for features and functionality, but just as importantly, it exposes misconceptions early in the process. It’s likely that at least some of your initial hypotheses about what students need, or how they’ll interact with an experience will need rethinking.
Once you’ve decided which experiments are worth investing in, you’ll want to ensure changes to your tech stack are future fit. Flexibility is key when designing a future-proofed technical architecture. At Rufus Leonard we frequently recommend the MACH approach (Microservices, APIs, Cloud Native and Headless CMS) because it allows you to choose the best of breed technologies, add elements independently to enable rapid innovation and carry out upgrades/maintenance more efficiently and affordably.
Your key takeout
HE institutes have the raw materials to be experience driven. As hybrid learning experiences are here to stay, the institutes who reimagine engagement with technology will reap the rewards in the length, breadth and depth of its relationship with students – helping tackle the financial challenges COVID left in its wake.
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