Student experience changing face of HE

Justin Beck, Vice-President, Education at Online Video Platform Kaltura urges universities to get to know their student base better

Today’s university students are significantly more emancipated than previous generations but does this mean they now expect a fully ‘consumerist’ experience?

The 2012 hike in tuition fees had an impact on how universities are perceived. Until relatively recently, university education was a no brainer for the more academically inclined – a ‘free’ (albeit taxpayer-funded) rite of passage for students who were prepared to put up with a ‘rough round the edges’ experience, safe in the knowledge that they would come out with a degree and a good job.

Today it’s a little different.

Nearly one in 10 UK students were believed to have been unemployed six months after graduating from UK universities in 2012, making the decision on whether to study for a degree – and potentially incur significant debts along the way – a little harder for today’s sixth formers.  Furthermore, university alternatives such as apprenticeships, where young people can learn on the job, are coming back into fashion and looking increasingly appealing to many. 

So where does this leave universities?

There’s no doubt that increased tuition fees have led to more competition between establishments to attract prospective students. But should prospective and current students now be treated as “learners” or ‘consumers’? Should universities follow sound business practices such as focusing on the student experience, focus on customer service metrics, etc.? Or is the pursuit of education outside of traditional consumer demand, and should educational institutions solely focus on academic delivery, knowledge gains, and teaching students — with the experience being secondary?

Meeting student and parent experience expectations is a direct line to improvement, retention, or other variables deemed critical to the university. We are seeing more and more universities taking consumer demands to heart in offering flexibility and convenience. And in the US, Blackboard’s recent acquisition of the provider of the insightful Rate My Professors application gives a hint that the market leaders across the pond are paying attention to what student preferences can mean to an institution.

Recently, when Sony was launching the Playstation 4, the product leadership shared the key design elements they focused on in order to meet the expectations of their 18- to 35-year-old (50 percent male-female split) target market were the following: simplicity, social, integrated, immediacy, personalised.

Having traveled to nearly 300 colleges and universities worldwide, seeing firsthand the investment being made in student experiences is staggering. I’ve seen lazy rivers in the fitness centers, gourmet dining options, granite countertops in dorm rooms, expanded ‘study abroad’ programmes, and ‘wireless anywhere’ on campus.

Much of the attention on campus tours is often focused on amenities and experiential items, with questions like graduation rates and job placement rates becoming secondary. Recent research in the US by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that colleges investing in “consumption preferences” might be making a wise choice, since these perks impact students’ enrollment decisions. Perhaps the same thing will become increasingly important over here.

Academic affairs and academically aligned CIOs are also joining the fray. We have the privilege of working with hundreds of colleges and universities that see direct benefits from incorporating interactive multimedia experiences. They are taking the ‘student expectations’ that Sony so eloquently outlined above and using them as tools to better engage students, stand out from their competition, and harness more student information to overcome retention issues in a bid to ride the wave of embracing student expectations.

In addition, many are starting to take the notion of ‘flipped’ classrooms to an appropriate point, leveraging student contribution (i.e., social) coupled with well thought-out learning objectives to increase a student’s sense of belonging to their academic path – a critical, yet hard-to-define metric of a student’s success. Of those teachers leveraging social contributions with flipped classrooms, one study reported that 85 percent have seen improved grades. Obviously there are great benefits to understanding students the way Sony understands consumers.

So, just how important is student experience in higher education? With the MOOC model still trying to figure out its place (necessary or nice to have?), it’s important to remember that not all trendy investments – such as 24-hour food trucks to sit outside dorms – will pay direct dividends. Instead, you should strive to know your student base more fully, so you can balance the right perks with academic excellence.