Contributed by Michael Sink, Chief Technology Advisor of Higher Education, World Wide Technology, to eCampus News

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:

  • eLearning

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.

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