Published on 2017/02/07

The Experience Crisis in Higher Ed: Are You Experienced?

The EvoLLLution | The Experience Crisis in Higher Ed: Are You Experienced?
Institutions can leverage technology to deliver on the expectations of their students, but only if that technology is leveraged in a way that makes sense for their unique customer population.

This is the final installment in a three-part series by David Thomas discussing the potential for understanding the realities of today’s higher education industry by viewing it through the Experience Economy lens. In the second installment, Thomas drew out the connections between the Experience Economy concept and the needs and expectations of today’s students. In this piece, he explores what it will take for an institution to meet the needs of their customers.

Gilmore and Pine don’t mince words when it comes to the critical role experience plays in the contemporary economy.

“Those businesses that relegate themselves to the diminishing world of goods and services will be rendered irrelevant. To avoid this fate, you must learn to stage a rich, compelling experience.” (The Experience Economy p.39)

The sting of these words amplifies if you stop to consider, for a moment, how we talk about higher education. We offer students an “education” a “degree” and an “opportunity” as if these are things that you could put on a shelf. These days we rarely talk about the life-changing encounters with fellow students, ideas and faculty. We forget to emphasize the pride in mastering new things, the joy of discovery or the delight in finding a community of people that will enrich their lives. We diminish how long four years feels to a young person and what it feels like to throw themselves into an environment designed to test, challenge and develop.

So, what if the crisis in higher ed is fundamentally one where financial and social pressure pushed us all in a direction where we started thinking like product and service providers when, all along, we are best at producing life-altering experiences? What if we have accidentally turned college into a high-stress, expensive tour of the academic mall, where the best a student can hope for is to fill their basket quickly with the right credits and check out as soon as possible?

Clay Shirky has pointedly argued that higher education has lost sight of its own market. He rightly points out that what we dismissively call the “non-traditional” student, whether older, online or in community college, makes up the clear majority of students in higher education. Less that 20 percent of students, in his view, fit the ideal model of young co-ed pursuing a four-year degree at a residential campus. Our idea of what college is or should be remains more “Animal House” in a world that is decidedly “WALL-E.”  But even as Shirky declares an end to the “golden age of higher education,” perhaps we should pause for a moment and ask: What is the experience that higher education offers and how can we expand that experience to a wider audience in contemporary setting?

People come to school for a lot of reasons. Some are deeply social—a student’s parents push them to take the next step or maybe the student is off to hang out with friends and find the love of their life on a traditional co-ed campus. Many go to school focused on professional goals, looking to earn a necessary accreditation to pursue a career goal. Some just seek a higher education for deeply person reasons. Most student come with a shifting combination of all three.

Finding different experiences for different students is critical. A student fresh from high school who dreams of being a doctor needs a different kind of engagement with peers and mentors than an adult learner returning to school to improve their career opportunities. And a young person not sure of what they want to be when they grow up might be looking for a more traditional, and much more social, college experience than a foreign student looking to maintain their grades and learn a bit about a foreign culture.

The good news is that there is certainly a lot of work on your campus focused on improving the college experience. High-impact practices, for example, provides one promising approach that encourages students, among other things, to seek out the college experience, to join clubs, to do internship and take advantage of the network of support and guidance systems every institution offers.

The bad news is that there is no one-size-fits-all. And as faculty struggle with workload, that critical connection between students and their teachers—the heart of the higher education experience—has weakened. The experience of college, for students and schools well off enough to afford it, seems to be carried by big-brand sports teams and the Greek system. For the vast majority of students, college isn’t an experience, it’s just a chore to perform on the way to something better.

This brings me full circle to my life as an academic technology administrator. When I look at the role technology plays in the transformation of culture, and higher education, I see an opportunity much more than a threat. While student success has come to mean getting the student to graduation, I see the chance to flip the script back to what the experience economy would say students desire. In the future, student success must equate to a successful student experience. Period. Detailing, elaborating, furnishing and feeding that experience will define the successful institution of student-serving education. That experience will lead to the grail and objective of improved graduation rates and time to graduation.

So while the experience economy remains mute on the topic of technology—Disney can enrich its fantasy with RFID as easily as Tesla can put apps on your console—digital tools provide a perfect lab to think about the future of educational experiences.

Because technology is good at helping people when they know what they need, computers can help students get extra help when they need it, let students knock out classes while working or give them more time in their schedule for extra-curricular work. If technology can streamline the connection between professors and students and create opportunities for richer forms of feedback, who’s to argue? And when the internet allows us to reach out across time and space and access people, knowledge and tools that we would otherwise never touch, then we should do that. Arguing over MOOCs, online science labs or machine-graded essays puts the criticism of the cart before looking at feeding a starving horse. That is to say, when we have institution that treats the experience of higher education as a precious opportunity—at least as engaging as an all-inclusive tropical resort or a spot in the mosh pit of your favorite band—then the tools and technologies we use will fall in line.

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