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Improving Digital Content Strategy in the Age of COVID-19

Institutions must consider creating easy-to-use and fully integrated digital ecosystems, like the ones students are already used to, to elevate it up to what it can be. 

Beginning with the advent of the World Wide Web, a slow, uneven but inexorable trend has dragged higher education toward the rest of society. As knowledge has become generally accessible, higher education has slowly and often painfully lumbered to adapt its systems to accommodate students who expect higher education to be as user-friendly as online banking or shopping on Amazon. 

In the last three months, the pandemic has forced higher education to dramatically–and unexpectedly–reassess and expedite this evolution. As colleges and universities around the country navigate new financial pressures and public health challenges, institutional leaders are beginning to ask which of the changes forced by COVID-19 (from remote work to financial modeling) will be here to stay. 

Even at this relatively early stage, it’s easy to anticipate one shift that’s likely to last: the accelerated switch to online learning. Back in the spring, it quickly became clear that many institutions were not ready to meet the challenge of shifting rapid-fire to an online model. In many cases, they had no existing digital ecosystem–no comprehensive model for delivering online courses, nor an infrastructure to support students, faculty and staff.

Throughout the summer, institutions struggled to imagine what the fall would look like. Now, after some fitful starts, and some outright disasters like the University of North Carolina, it is clear that the future will inevitably include some amount of remote instruction.   Given that reality, it is imperative that institutions retool to  to get online learning right.

This is an equity imperative as much as it is a financial one. Effective online instruction must prioritize not just affordability but also ease of access for students who may not have reliable internet at home, or who use a smartphone as their primary access to the internet. Remote learners expect their course content to be digital, accessible, and linked to their institution’s existing learning management system. Moreover, administrators–already under pressure as they battle the fallout from the crisis–need an easy, efficient and operable digital solution.

I’ve been part of the online higher education community since 1995, when remote learning via the internet was little more than a glorified correspondence course. Since then, technology has improved by leaps and bounds, but many institutions’ content strategy has not followed suit, and in some cases has not modified at all. In the wake of the pandemic, that’s going to have to change quickly and effectively. What does a true digital content ecosystem look like in the age of COVID-19? Here are four tips for institutional leaders looking to prepare for the ever-changing future.

Make educational content look like recreational content.

Today’s students are conditioned by many years Kindle, Apple and Google Books use. They arrive perfectly equipped and prepared to digest material online according to the easy and intuitive modes that Amazon, Apple and Google have instilled.  

Higher education typically attempts to replicate this experience through e-readers, which often include elaborate and complicated “improvements” that don’t take advantage of students’ existing comfort with highlighting, zooming in, or annotating in a digital format. Many e-readers even need accompanying online tutorials to even be understood at all. 

More to the point, these e-readers are often stand-alone products that do not integrate or “talk to” other systems that students need to experience a comprehensive learning environment. Digital content platforms like BibliU that are emerging today are rooted in an ecosystem approach: designed not only to be accessible to students, but also to integrate with the rest of the institution’s data infrastructure.

Establish trust

Key to the construction of that ecosystem is the establishment of an accessible, affordable and transparent content platform.

The history of higher ed publishing is littered with stories of conflict when a publisher pursues a price increase strategy, or a university perceives a publisher to be underhandedly capitalizing on a switch in learning platforms. As a result, institutions must push for a pricing model with transparency at its center. It’s also incumbent on publishers and content providers to provide a clear breakdown in costs, disclosing what percentage gets apportioned to the publisher and what percentage they receive. 

The advent of big data now allows a deeper form of transparency that should inform a content platform: in-depth analytics that provide institutions with information about how their digital textbooks and materials are being read. New forms of data can break down what precise books, chapters and pages on a course reading list students use. That type of information, in turn, empowers administrators and instructional designers to make better decisions about which books are necessary and which are excessive.  It can also provide insight into how digital materials can be adapted for maximum effectiveness. 

When the University of Phoenix undertook inserting video content into almost every course, we were dumbstruck by the failure of students to successfully absorb the content of 13- to 20- minute videos.  Upon reviewing the data, we learned that on average students watched a video for seven minutes and then turned it off–and when we edited our videos to a maximum length of seven minutes, the results were predictably positive.

Make your content easy to find. 

The online learning experience of today’s students is often typified by a sense of disconnection. More often than not, they receive their textbooks from one platform using one reader, then receive their lecture slides in an entirely different place, in an entirely different format. 

This issue is rooted in an increasingly outdated notion of content providers as just “e-book resellers” or “e-book aggregators” rather than the broader responsibility of an ecosystem.The role of a reseller is quickly becoming archaic: it is a holdover from an analog age where digital learning was just an offshoot of traditional education. A learning ecosystem, by contrast, is designed for the 21st century; it recognizes the importance of a centralized site for all educational material, hosting faculty-created materials such as lecture slides, alongside e-books and other materials. 

Find partners, not products 

The advent of technology means that the age of static, one-size-fits-all products is over. But this does not mean that institutions must create a learning ecosystem alone. Instead, they can seek out content providers who can serve as true partners, and build a relationship that has flexibility and two-way conversation at its core.

An ongoing partnership with a digital learning platform is beneficial on two fronts. From inception, it enables the creation of highly personalized solutions to a university’s content provision, based on two-way discussion with the administrative team. Second, a sustained and close relationship with a digital content provider allows an institution to sharpen, hone and adapt the way they provide content as digital innovations occur.

In the months to come, many institutions are going to try reinventing the wheel when it comes to their digital content strategy. We weren’t prepared for the shift online in the spring, and early signs indicate that we may not be ready for it this fall either. But the truth is that COVID-19 is accelerating shifts that were already underway and acting as a forcing function for long-overdue changes in the higher education business model. The choice of whether those changes become an ecosystem that increases access and affordability, or simply perpetuate the status quo, is up to institutions themselves.

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