Published on 2020/08/17

The EvoLLLution | The Digital Experience and the Analog Institution
Institutions must go against historical postsecondary structures and begin to see students for who they really are: consumers who are sending signals for how to serve them.

For decades, higher education had to follow a more rigid structure built for the traditional student—now the minority of the higher ed learner population. Institutions need to rethink their infrastructures to fit non-traditional students, who look for a more flexible and customized digital experience. In this interview, Adrian Haugabrook discusses key elements to redesigning the student experience, higher ed’s responsibility to their consumer and how to create this high-quality experience as we head into a recession.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How does the institutional responsibility to deliver high-quality learning experiences change or advance or grow during a recession?

Adrian Haugabrook (AH): My immediate thought is that it doesn’t change. There are people who are doing high-quality work and have been in this space for a number of years–organizations that have built the infrastructure, capacity and capabilities to actually do this. One might say, if we’re doing high-quality work, then there’s nothing that needs to be amped up to service that question in terms of delivering high-quality learning experiences. However, this is the moment in time that really creates opportunity for acceleration, since many of us have seen signals in the environment for a number of years.

What this does now is help accelerate the work that’s already being done. In some cases, there is innovation occurring, but more for those who are in that space of innovation, it is accelerating this work. There are a number of large aspirational goals that we have set our sights on at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) for 2023 and 2030. But because of the environment that we’re in, we’re accelerating those now to 2020 or 2021.

During these times of recession, it’s forcing us to be as agile and frictionless as possible. There are so many impediments out there–clunky things that don’t serve well in environments in which people are highly anxious. In this time of mass uncertainty, you need to think about what it is that you can make known to people. What can you make easier and more accessible?

The other component to this is capacity and capabilities. Ensure that you have an acceleration plan that puts you in tune with what your resources are and how to add to and flow with those resources. An agile environment or organization will have the capacity and capabilities to expand when and where it’s needed to really extend that quality of service.

SNHU is well known for growth and scale both internally and externally. However, if there’s a time when we feel there’s slippage in the quality of service, support and content we provide to our learners for the sake of scale, we will stop scaling in order to make sure we’re always putting the student first.

Evo: As you look at the online experience for adult learners–in terms of the virtual environment and their holistic engagement with the institution–what are some of the key elements to designing that experience properly?

AH: It transcends this notion of quality experience. If you have a relentless focus on the student, then you build around the student as the apparatus rather than around the institution and then trying to fit it for the student. One of the key elements in that design is flexibility. That flexibility could be the length of time required to complete tasks–flexibility in the amount of content you’re absorbing, creating and curating.

The second element would be options and choices. We typically think of the educational process as linear—from point A to point B to point C. But what if it was a cyclical process, one where students are coming in and out of your learning ecosystem in different ways. This is especially true for adult learners. Their demands are very different than those we heard from traditional students. So, how do you provide the right options that allow for positive decision-making and progression?

You need to relentlessly focus on supports particularly for adult learners. They’re not a monolithic group; there is disaggregation in this demographic, but institutions need to build a support system and structure that allow for easier access. This doesn’t just apply to academic content but also the resources needed. When you think about a learning environment, what are all the things students need for learning? We needed to be accessible, so we built the resources right into the student portal to create a frictionless environment.

When creating this well-designed online experience, the other component is how can you create low barriers to entry? How can you mitigate or eliminate the hoops that most students go through to get things done? It’s about finding solutions to create these low barriers, so they don’t become anxiety-ridden activities that put stress on the students’ success and progress.

Evo: As we think about the responsibility of a postsecondary institution to its digital customer, how comfortable do we need to get with that idea that we’re serving customers who are shopping in a marketplace–not for a credential, but for access to an educational experience?

AH: It’s interesting that we’ve placed higher education over here, but then everything else about the consumer is built around them. For example, why did Uber and Lyft become so popular? It’s because they were listening to consumer signals and saw the barriers that many consumers faced. When we think of the consumer, we think of a brick-and-mortar store or online shopping—that doesn’t necessarily translate well to the postsecondary experience.

For a number of years, people didn’t want to call students customers because it was too business-like. But we need to see them as consumers because they send us the same signals. A lot of the work that we see in these frictionless environments, the agility of ensuring a platform meets learner demand—those signals have been there for a number of years. As you build and scale up the experience, it’s no longer about filling seats, it’s about building an actual experience. We should be talking about product roadmaps, the learner journey, personas, profiles, SEOs etc. It’s a different language, but there are appropriate places and spaces in which to use it.

Not all institutions serve the same students, but we all face the savviness of the consumer or prospective student and in the same current environment. Many institutions and organizations are really fractured right now. For SNHU, we did scenario planning in advance of the pandemic that has allowed us the time to build out a learning structure while thinking about the learner to ensure both the experience and content fit learner demands.

Evo: What are some of the main challenges or obstacles that a leader might face when trying to create this seamless student centric, digital or virtual experience?

AH: The first obstacle is that the institution is built for the itself first and the learner second. You need to flip the script, which is hard. You’re going against a historical precedent, against structures and systems that were built in that way. It goes back to the capacity and capability aspect of things. SNHU had its first fully online program—not class or course but program—in 1995. So, there has been great opportunity for us to learn along the way. Even in our high growth period in 2012, the numbers looked great, but we were about to shatter systems on the inside because the systems weren’t built for that kind of scale. Some of those obstacles are resetting the infrastructure and systems.

The second obstacle is the thought of solving the revenue problem by building an online infrastructure. In the COVID-19 environment, there have to be different mechanisms, but they won’t solve the revenue problem. There’s a deep investment required and a long tail to actually doing it. The question is, can institutions and organizations make those investments, not just from a monetary perspective, but in a way that reinvents a portion of themselves to facilitate monetary gain?

The last obstacle would be the leadership paradigm. We’re trying to have a go at digital challenges with analog institutions or practices, and they don’t reconcile unless you actually build an approach that allows you to be able to do that. But you have to take a bite that is enough for you– something that is chewable for the institution and for the organization. There are some pretty creative online approaches for students’ return in the fall. It’s less about the decisions that people are making and more about their planning and approach to their decisions, and there are some pretty neat things coming out of that.

Evo: As we shift to a broader, flexible postsecondary ecosystem–how can colleges and universities start to ensure that the non-academic aspects of the digital experience are designed to support engagement and retention?

AH: There will always be a place for a residential experience, but the signals we’re seeing for the traditional coming-of-age student don’t prioritize face-to-face. I have a daughter who recently graduated from college and a son who’s an incoming junior in college. As early as their middle-school years, they used different platforms and technologies in their learning experiences. When they got to college, they essentially had to reset because they were given more didactic experiences.

Although there will always be a place for the residential experience, we have to look at what consumer signals are telling us. Students want a degree of flexibility so they can curate their own content. So how does that build into their learning experience, and how can they adapt and adopt that into a larger context?

Again, you can’t use the online environment to solve deficits around dollars, but also around mentality. Just because you’re now online doesn’t mean you’ll see those revenue numbers. This transition into the online environment advances and accelerates higher education. In order to work, it needs be designed for the learner first and not the institution—understanding the learner experience almost as if it’s a roadmap.

Once you understand the learner experience, even in a traditional place-based residential format, how do you now begin to understand that experience in a digital context? Remember to always be truthful about your capacity and your capabilities. You’re not going to be able to convert your whole institution into an online format in an instant or plan to have 500 or 10,000 online students by the end of next year. You first need to be realistic about your capacity and capabilities and plan around that. Talk about what you buy versus what you build. Can you build the right experience or infrastructure? All of these elements need to be carefully thought out and planned.

Evo: As we’ve shifted to remote learning, do you think there will be a wider acceptance and adoption of online programming post pandemic, or will this experience of poorly instructed remote online courses will pertain the reputation of true online learning in the future?

AH: I think it’ll add to the choice equation for many people. From the perspective of a student learner, or parent or family, it becomes a choice option. For example, in this COVID-19 environment, students and families are having to make fast decisions because campuses are re-opening. But if they don’t feel safe returning to campus, they may choose to transfer to a school that will have quality online education and academic experiences, while keeping their students safe.

From a consumer perspective, they’re going to let you know what they value and what they don’t. So, I think we’ll see, at minimum, a bifurcation of what is acceptable in high-quality online education versus what isn’t. Or you might see a stratification—we don’t know yet. Some of the regulations, compliance and accreditation issues are going to force some new and different perspectives, both at the federal and regional levels.

Another aspect of this new normal that we won’t see is a reconciliation of K-12 to higher ed, although that would be great. But what I do see is as a result of this digital environment are organizations in places that have hybrid colleges—they’ll provide all the wraparound supports and services for their students. There will be blurring between primarily high school and higher ed. Since the traditional thinking thinks of postsecondary as sitting between K-12 learning and career, part of reshaping the ecosystem will provide a connection between the two instead. It’s about seeing it as a learning journey or learning roadmap versus a butt-in-seat in college.

When we talk about the learning continuum, we’re not just talking about it from an academic content perspective. It IS the learning experience. The student experience is the uber category, and under that is content, support and other things. We need to envision the student experience in that way to clarify the postsecondary infrastructure.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • It’s all about the student first and the institution second. Students need a customized student experience that is both flexible and caters to their needs.
  • Be truthful about your capacity and capabilities. Figure out what infrastructure you can build and what should be left for those with more experienced and have the ability to create what’s needed.
  • Infrastructure needs to be built around a cyclical learner process—one that supports students who come in and out of the learning ecosystem in different ways.