The global pandemic has thoroughly transformed every sector of our economy, forcing many traditionally brick and mortar industries to experiment with digital solutions. With September right around the corner we will see higher education undergo its own digital transformation, as the country's top universities and institutions take on the challenges and opportunities presented with going digital, each with their own unique and innovative approach. Providing the high-quality education that top universities have become known for will require creative short-term solutions, as well as a long-term rethinking of the traditional university model. Whether colleges pursue a hybrid model or full remote learning the outcomes of this forced digital experiment will undoubtedly shape a more digital future for higher education.   

Short-term solutions

When the pandemic hit last spring, like many industries higher education had to pivot quickly and reshape their product into a digital medium. Colleges and universities were able to make this shift and help students end their spring semester, however many institutions will admit the switch to digital was more of a stop gap, not their ideal long-term solution. Come fall the expectations will be higher, as new students enroll in classes, expecting high quality teaching, in the new normal. Many institutions have taken the summer as an opportunity to revamp their digital offerings with over half of higher education institutions providing new online training for their teachers.  


Remote Learning

Providing quality higher education this fall requires that institutions think of their education as a new form of remote learning with all of the personalization and community that comes with the college experience - not just an online course offering. Professors will need to get creative in their teaching style and incorporate different mediums such as videos, audio files, and digital textbooks into their lectures. Today’s incoming Generation Z freshmen have grown up with multiple screens grabbing their attention- it’s key to use their multi-tasking ability and thirst for new content to provide a more engaging digital format. Many colleges are opting for a hybrid model, with large lectures being done remotely. This switch could provide opportunities for higher education to streamline their intro level classes, and focus more on complex discussions, projects, and building real world skills.

Colleges also need to rethink their recruitment programs in the short-term, this means vamping up their virtual tours and events, as well as relying on alumni and experienced students to become strong brand ambassadors who can translate the culture and values that once existed in-person. Many universities are taking advantage of the tech skills of their students by working with their student leaders to develop online platforms for their clubs and activities. In addition, colleges are taking advantage of any digital medium they can find to encourage student connection including streaming services, as well as video software like Zoom and Houseparty. Many are also developing their own apps to keep their student body up to date on the latest safety guidelines, news, and digital innovations. If you are interested in learning more tips for fostering remote student engagement, check out our blog “How to Keep Students Engaged Online After COVID-19 Forces Them Off Campus” for some tips. 

Long-term rethinking

While new technologies are being used to recapture the college experience in the short-term, they also have immense potential for rethinking the traditional college model. One of those technologies is virtual reality. Investment in virtual reality from the education sector is predicted to grow by 6.34 billion during 2020-2024.  Many companies are currently working to create a virtual reality experience that doesn’t require expensive headsets or hardware, which would allow students to access an immersive education environment, without a costly upfront investment for universities. It is not clear yet whether the pandemic has accelerated or stalled the roll out of virtual reality on campus, however as institutions begin to take more of a long-term look it is clear VR will play a key role.


Higher education institutions are also experimenting with using gamification software, as a way to keep students more engaged. At the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the college recently piloted a ten-week certification program rooted in gamification. In this course students had to complete a series of assignments and then get virtual feedback via social media or Zoom sessions. The assignments could be completed in any order the participants wanted. Participants were also given several options for how they could be completed for example a learner could choose to watch a video or read an article, and then choose what medium to submit a response in. By using gamification and social media, higher education can create more meaningful engagement, that resonates with Impulse Generation learners of all ages.  

As digital transformation takes hold, you will also likely see higher education adopt technologies being used by the private sector, such as artificial intelligence. By deploying AI in the recruitment process colleges could help combat the phenomenon known as summer melt, when students pay a deposit in May, but don’t show up in September, by providing automated texting and frequent communication. Artificial intelligence can also be used to help students overcome the outdated process of competitive class registration and better chart a unique curriculum suited to their needs. Colleges and universities are frequently hubs of innovation, and we expect them to roll out exciting digital solutions such as gamification, VR, artificial intelligence and more as digital transformation takes shape in the long-term.

The role of digital marketing


Digital marketing will also play a role in how remote or hybrid higher education takes shape. The Ad Council has partnered with MTV on a new #BacktoSchoolTogether digital campaign that educates students about preventing the spread of COVID-19. The campaign includes “a free media toolkit for colleges and universities that consists of a style guide and a suite of creative assets that schools can customize across their social channels and digital platforms”. Many companies are also experimenting with attending virtual career fairs, where they can meet with future graduates in a 3D virtual experience, complete with chat features and downloadable resources. These fairs mimic what many tech companies have resorted to with the absence of trade shows. Whether it’s to promote new safety standards or recruit top talent, digital marketing will continue to shape how students experience college and post-graduate life.  

Digital transformation & higher education

No one can say that the continued forced digital transformation of higher education has been without its struggles. The on-campus experience is often a pivotal moment in defining one's professional and personal life trajectory, and the drastic changes have left many wondering what this generation of students is missing out on. However, like any digital transformation this process presents higher education with the opportunity to evaluate their current methods and pursue innovative solutions that can improve the long-term quality and accessibility of higher education.



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