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The Digital Reimagining of Higher Ed

April 25, 2019

Five things we learned about the changing role of technology in institutions of higher learning.

As technology becomes more and more intertwined in our everyday lives, and students entering college have never known life without the internet, mobile devices, and other tech, institutions of higher learning are now needing to look at technology in new ways. They’re seeing the need to incorporate it into their curriculum and into the way the students communicate with the institution and each other.

In a recent Kuali-moderated webinar, technology and how it is affecting the dynamics between students and institutions was discussed by a panel of experts: Sara Bohmholdt with Adobe’s Enterprise Higher Ed team; Bobby Babbrah, with Flipp.ED, a private equity firm focused on the education sector; and Jess Mitchell who is in research and design with the Inclusive Design Centre at OCAD University in Toronto. Here are five things we learned during the hour-long conversation:

1. Students want options—and they need them

Because technology has become such a big part of our everyday lives, a traditional “lecture, written paper, test, repeat” type of format isn’t going to resonate with students as it did in the past. It’s come to be expected that there is, for example, a video, or an online alternative for classes, and other aspects of learning. Jess Mitchell pointed out that kids now are asking “Why can’t I do it this way?”

“They expect different options to communicate,” said Sara Bohmholdt, adding that these options help keep students engaged in their learning experience, leading to higher retention and better graduation rates.

Bobby Babbrah said that it’s important to realize that educators might be surprised by who ends up utilizing different technology options. For example, by digging deeper than just age and gender at Penn Foster College, they found that ethnicity, socioeconomic class and being a first-generation learner were much better indicators in the eagerness to use provided technology such as online learning or forums to help other students.

2. Standardizations can strangle innovation

While standardizations help when scaling programs or institutions, these parameters are the quickest way to stifle creativity within the learning environment. Though standardized resources and methods of teaching and assessing provide a straightforward way to provide education, to see a black-and-white path to graduation, these standardizations don’t allow for how people communicate, learn, and eventually go on to contribute to society at large.

“Standardizations doesn’t give students the chance to explore what works for them,” Mitchell said. It’s important for institutions to create different modes of learning, and then let students try them out in order to be able to choose what works for them.

And once students are entering the workforce it’s not just about providing a resume.

“Students now need to build their own brand,” Bohmholdt said, whether it be a digital portfolio or other piece. Institutions can provide ways for students to be able to do this, such as in a maker space, so they can try and fail and try again until they understand what sets them apart from their peers.

Active or experiential learning, touched on by Babbrah, incorporates activities like debate, role play, and guided analysis. These activities utilize soft skills such as collaboration and creative thinking, with the hard skills of the class. By integrating both hard and soft skills, institutions can develop graduates who are much better prepared to enter the workforce and be successful.

3. Technology teaches high-demand soft skills

Speaking of soft skills, that was another big topic among the panelists.

“Students are tech consumers,” Bohmholdt said, which changes the way they think about learning. By utilizing technology in curriculum, there are opportunities to develop soft skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

For example, instead of a standard test, a professor could ask his students to present information in a podcast, or create an infographic that synthesizes concepts and research into a digestible visual. These types of assignments require students to think creatively, or perhaps collaborate with a group, along with learning the information. These soft skills are what companies are looking for in new hires—not necessarily a college grade point average.

And the technology used to achieve this becomes less important than meeting students where they are. Make learning and communicating multi-modal, not specific to any one platform in how it’s delivered and how it’s consumed, so institutions are able to reach all their students.

“We need to create critical thinkers and critical minds,” Mitchell said, and that can be undermined by making too many assumptions about large groups of students and generations of people.

4. Tech and Touch

Much of the soft skills are not developed in isolation with a piece of technology. A student can’t learn to collaborate with others, for example, if all his work can be done through an online portal.

“There is a shift toward blended modality,” Babbrah said. When there is a balance between technology and human interaction—online learning coupled with a student success center and attending graduation ceremonies for example—students can be much more successful.

“We need to be uniquely human,” Babbrah said, as AI enters into the workforce. That human factor is what makes the technology successful.

Mitchell pointed out that anyone about what made an impact in their college experience, it’s never a piece of technology, it’s always a person, whether it’s a peer, a mentor, a teacher. People aren’t driven by algorithms or data.

5. Don’t be held hostage by data

Today’s workforce isn’t demanding the type of people that education is traditionally set up to produce. They are looking for people who are willing to take risks, who are curious, critical and creative thinkers, and who then are doers. Traditional educational settings don’t often allow for these types of behaviors because it isn’t scalable.

“If the goal is to reach every single learner, you’re going to have to get creative,” Mitchell said. And you’re going to have to stop making decisions only on data.

As an example, a lecture is provided as a video file after the class, and data shows that 3 students viewed the video. That number can be looked at as “only three students utilized that option,” or “We reached three additional students through the video option that we otherwise wouldn’t have.”

We need to flip the narrative of separating people out as “special cases” to the goal of how do we reach every single student?

When it comes to technology and students, the overall takeaway was that it takes a reimagining of the traditional approach. There’s no silver bullet, but starting small, taking it one step at a time to provide options for students, a place to try new things even if they fail, putting the soft skills that are in such high demand into practice, and not losing the human touch, all in an effort to reach every single student.

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