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Delivering on Student Expectations: What Will Become of the New Normal?

The shift that the pandemic created has opened opportunities for faculty and administrators to accommodate students’ needs for a more flexible and digital environment. 

Not only has the pandemic caused a shift to the remote environment but an internal shift in institutional structure. The stakes are higher when it comes to student expectations and learning models have changed. What faculty need to figure out is what will stay and what will go. In this interview, Lesley Nichols discusses the institutional management changes as a result of the pandemic, the new norms we have and will continue to adopt going forward and what it takes for an institution to remain engaged with its learners in the post-pandemic world. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the norms of institutional management that have evolved as a result of the pandemic?

Lesley Nichols (LN): What I think about most is this shift in our mindset from a physical campus to more of a virtual campus and what that entails. It has such far-reaching implications for students, faculty, staff, and really our institutional operations. When I look across higher ed, the structures are very similar. It’s all based on this residential model, and you have these very strict lines dividing online and on-campus. Then in March, everyone just dropped what they were doing and suddenly went remote, so how do we reimagine how we operate on a daily basis?

This monumental shift is short term, but a lot of these aspects will linger long term. In some ways, there may be positive changes that come our way from rethinking our models. I hope that everyone is taking a step back to think through how we strategically operate for the future.

Evo: Do you think that shift is something that was spurred exclusively by the pandemic, or is it more an acceleration of a trend that was already kind of underway?

LN: In the past six months we’ve gone through what probably would have taken a decade. I’m actually very curious to see how much of this will stick long term and which institutions will immediately want to return to how they were doing things pre pandemic. Who will be the ones who say we’ve learned something from this? 

Evo: What aspects of the student experience have fundamentally changed as a result of this shift of remote engagement with the institution?

LN: Certainly, the learning experience. What concerns me is not knowing or seeing students’ respective environments? And this is also a concern in K-12, too. They’re not on campus. Much like staff and faculty, students are coming up with home offices setups. They may be in a home where they don’t have a private room to study. They may be sitting at the dining table, or on their sofa with other family members around them. How hard is it for them to concentrate when they’re trying to take a class or even participate in discussions with peers? 

That’s the one aspect I’m not hearing much conversation about in higher ed, but more so in K-12 because people are so concerned about the development and socialization of their children.  But it’s also concerning for college students, whether they’re traditional-aged undergrads, adult learners, or graduate students. 

Evo: What aspects of the remote engagement environment do you expect to persist even once a vaccine is in place? Do you expect any aspects of the environment we’ve designed in over the past six months to carry on?

LN: A lot of norms in student services are now being handled through the virtual environment. That could be a chat session, zoom call or email. But I fully expect that students will want to continue at least some aspects of this kind of virtual experience because it’s not place-bound anymore. They don’t have to be on campus to go meet with their advisor. They’re simply a click away. 

That kind of immediacy is something that will stick even after the pandemic. I’m also curious to see what we can really do in terms of self-service access for students. Whether that’s being able to access their transcripts or register for classes–the things that they can personally do online 24/7 without having to wait on someone to assist them during business hours.

Evo: What are the characteristics of the institution of the future and how it engages with its learners?

LN: I see a lot of stratification and market segmentation. Looking around, most colleges and universities still have a relatively traditional model. Even Southern New Hampshire, the Phoenixes–they’re primarily online, but they still have physical campuses. It’s very rare to look across our industry and see schools doing things entirely online. By that, I don’t mean just classes but also services and operations for which there are no physical locations to visit.

We could see more schools choosing a niche they really excel in. We may have schools going fully online in all aspects of their operations, some that focus more on place-bound education and the value of living and learning on campus. Most schools will probably be somewhere in between and adopt more of a hybrid model.

The biggest thing that I see really is flexibility for students rather than sending them down a track that we’ve designated for them, giving them more opportunity to pick what’s right for their individual learning needs–whether that’s a full degree program, certificate, workshop, or micro-credential. This pandemic has highlighted the levels and variety of education we need, particularly with people losing their jobs and having to reskill so suddenly. They may have to change careers entirely. Going back to school for four years isn’t feasible for them, and we can offer them an option that’s going to help them get their career back off the ground as quickly as possible.

Evo: How far can you really go in terms of unbundling the institutional model to make sure that you’re able to capitalize on your strengths without being held back by your weaknesses?

LN: Particularly for smaller schools that don’t have the huge infrastructures of a large public or a private university, there’s clearly going to be a need to outsource certain services. It’ll probably lean more towards partnerships rather than simply offloading a service. You say, “Well, who can we work with who already has expertise in this area?” And maybe it’s a private partner. Maybe it’s another educational institution. 

One thing that I could foresee happening is institutions starting to consider planned mergers. Where can we leverage strengths? Who can we partner with to fill out this full set of services and programs to best serve students? There are a lot of opportunities available for colleges willing to take the time to look inward, look at their brand, look at who they’re serving, who they want to be serving, and how they can move forward. 

It’ll be interesting to see what other types of software providers are going to come onto the market. Things have changed so rapidly in the last six months. There’s probably a lot of start-ups out there that are still percolating ideas. But what comes to the forefront in the next year will be beneficial for our entire industry.

Evo: How should or could digital engagement be built into this more personalized model?

LN: It has to be student-focused. At the end of the day, those are our customers. They’re why we exist. We have to refrain from making assumptions about our students and instead really figuring out how our students work, how they learn, and what their expectations are. 

This is an opportunity for everyone who works with students–whether it’s the admissions office, alumni relations, faculty members, staff. This is the time to figure out who your audience is, what you’re missing and how can you use digital tools to further that mission. 

One thing that I know has been happening industry-wide over the past six months is virtual events, recruiting events in particular.  You used to send admissions counselors all over the country to recruit students; now that’s all virtual. But there are a lot of high engagement rates at these virtual events, which is unexpected because in the past it was always skewed the other way.

If you had something in person, people felt invested because they took the time to travel there. Now we’re seeing the opposite out of necessity. So, it’s about seeing what tools you can use like a virtual campus to show people what you’re about, even if that individual doesn’t come to the school for another year. Or they could be an online student who never comes to campus but still wants to connect with the community. How can we use tools to show them what we’re all about?

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how digital engagement and the digital experience are going to help shape the institutional model of the future?

LN: Right now, everyone is rethinking not only how they spend money but also how they spend they time, especially when it comes to resources. COVID-19 has been really good at forcing people to home in on what’s important and figure out how to brush things aside when they’re not mission critical. I almost see it as more of a project management mindset wherein we really look at what we’re doing institutionally on a daily basis: how we serve our students, recruit them, and retain them, as well as how we mobilize the resources we have to be as effective as possible. 

Being a steward of institutional funds, we all do our best not to spend money unnecessarily. The pandemic really highlights our needs: do we really need to travel for this, or is this something we could do virtually? A lot of innovation has come out of this, even conferences and associations that work with higher ed have been willing to meet virtually, which has been very interactive and affordable–in most cases, free of charge. Seeing how we can shift as an industry in only a six-month period gives me a lot of hope for making some of these strategic changes stick longer term.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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