Shaping the Institution to the Expectations of Students: Bending Without BreakingRobert Rosenbalm | Managing Director, National University Technology Network
It seems like nearly every day I see an article or hear a sound bite about the looming bust of the higher education bubble and the looming demise of institutions as we know them. I’m not sure I share this doomsday vision. I do concede we, the collective of higher education, are going to have to change the way we do some things in order to maintain relevance to our future students. To this end I’ve gathered five suggestions for areas and attitudes we need to reimagine.
We must stop asking ourselves what is best for the department, college or university. I can’t begin to tabulate how many planning meetings I have participated in where a group tried to decide what was best for our institution in a given scenario. We then worked to systematically tie the institutional needs to our constituents. This is a trend that characterizes planning across all kinds of organizations; I’ve been part of such discussions at my institution, church and various non-profits I work with. This idea of the needs of the organization driving the determining the needs of the end-user is inherently flawed. We, as leaders and broader organizations, must turn to students, communities, employers and advisory groups to help create our programs, processes and messaging.
One way we can do this is to provide students with skills and resources for immediate use. It has long been the goal of higher education to prepare students to be leaders and critical thinkers. There is no denying the importance of these skills to the workplace and the greater society. With consumer confidence down and unemployment up, students need to be taught skills that will help them find employment immediately after (or sometimes before) graduation. They still need to be critical thinkers but we need them to be economic contributors sooner. By teaching skills tied to employability, institutions will have to change as the economy and consumer trends change. The way of teaching creative writing may go unchanged for decades but that’s not the case with technical and workforce programs. By committing to stay with the needs of the market an institution is saying it will not continue to do things they way they have always been done. If we can’t provide an advantage to employability and earning power more students will be turning to earning competency-based badges to prove their worth to employers.
Perhaps the most important thing an institution can do is to be technology agnostic. Back when distance education and educational technology were considered the Wild West of academe, faculty and administrators found ways to meet objectives with the creative use of technology. The curriculum and obstacles to access were the driving force in what was adopted and how technology was implemented. With institutions investing thousands, if not millions, of dollars in enterprise solutions the technology becomes the driving force behind how faculty are asked to teach. An example of this might be a course requiring students to interact with each other. A creative faculty member may have turned to early online discussion boards to do this. Now, faculty may feel obligated to use a discussion board in their course because it’s part of the learning management system and not necessarily because it’s the best methodology for their course.
This dependence on the features of a legacy system can hinder responsiveness and slow adoptions. While the jury is still out on wearable technology, a swift adoption of the forthcoming Apple watch by college students could take a year or more to be reflected in course delivery. Faculty will be delayed not by their unwillingness to embrace this new technology but rather by having to wait for the next release of their enterprise learning management software.
One of the most obvious areas where institutions need to be agile is on what I call the field of play. This idea isn’t about athletic competition but rather meeting students in their own space. Ease of access to technology or information and instant gratification have become the social norm. Having people “like” ideas and thoughts within moments of posting bleeds over into expectations in all areas of life. Students are using technology such as Apple Pay in their personal lives but if they want to pay college tuition they may be asked to do so in person during the traditional office hours of the bursar’s office. Academic advising and registration are often not available through an app on a mobile device. For all of the data showing the demands of life on students, higher education continues to hold them to how we’ve always done business. We need to be willing to follow them instead of insisting they follow our ways of doing things.
These ideas are a great start but they are by no means the entire answer. Every aspect of our lives is changing faster than ever. It’s not expected that higher education will be on the bleeding edge of this change, but we can’t continue to stubbornly hold on where we are comfortable and we can’t deny the sense of democratization of all commodities brought on by technology. The world is now driven by the consumer and we need to acknowledge the power of choice our students have.