Published on 2020/05/15

Is It “The End of The World As We Know It” For Higher Education?

The EvoLLLution | Is It “The End of The World As We Know It” For Higher Education?
Instead of viewing this time of crisis and the complications it will continue to produce when everyone goes back to work and school, higher learning institutions would do well to use augmented analytics to both predict and sustain their operations.

It’s no surprise that the R.E.M. musical classic, “It’s The End of the World as We Know It” is back on the Billboard charts as a result of heightened fears due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the latest higher education headlines might make us wonder whether institutions as we know them will still be recognizable by the time we return to a “new normal.”

Higher Education is not the first economic sector to have this kind of tumultuous change thrust upon it. With the introduction of digital music, for example, people could suddenly acquire the music they desired without ever leaving their home–a change that, in many ways, was as disruptive to the music industry as the sudden switch to distance and virtual learning may disrupt higher education.  

The music industry resisted this change and handled the transition poorly. As a result, they experienced a dramatic 15-year drop in revenues between the late 1990s and 2015 when new models of digital distribution and subscription became widely established.

There are lessons here. As a result of the pandemic, the rules for what students, faculty and administrators expect from higher education are changing, and institutions are already beginning to rethink traditional operations in order to stay viable, healthy and relevant in the post-pandemic world.

Reacting to the unprecedented

Colleges and universities are just beginning to see how the ways in which they have adapted to going fully online are creating completely new challenges.

For example, many schools are now working to adapt grading standards in recognition of the uneven way that courses have been moved online. Recent articles from Inside Higher Ed, including “The Asterisk Semester,” question how binary pass/fail grading schemes may lessen a student’s anxiety but could lower their chances of admittance to a four-year college or graduate school (even as those institutions attempt to quickly re-write admission standards). The Chronicle for Higher Education is discussing academic pressure and the grading choices institutions are making in their article, “How Has Grading Changed Since Coronavirus Forced Classes Online? Often, It Depends on the Professor.

In fact, schools moved online so quickly, that a growing number of students are wondering if their tuition costs should not also be reduced. Inside Higher Ed’s article, “Feeling Shortchanged” talks about the students demanding refunds because they don’t feel that the online instruction they are receiving (and may continue to receive as many colleges and universities announce they will stay online through the end of the calendar year) is reflective of the education they were promised.

All of this takes place at a time when educational institutions need to be planning for massive reductions in state spending as mounting unemployment and delayed tax filing dates put revenues in question. In Missouri, Governor Parson announced that $76.3 million will be cut from the state contribution to public higher education this fiscal year–a move expected to be followed by other states. Across the country, colleges have begun furloughs and layoffs–moves that could impact any number of campus positions.

There are some glimmers of hope, however. A few colleges and universities, especially community colleges, are now beginning to report early enrollment numbers for the summer and fall terms that are actually higher than their original projections, if not always above prior year numbers. While this might be expected in an economic downturn, it is an indicator of engagement that recognizes the role higher education plays in skills development and workforce preparation.

Nearly all colleges and universities now plan to reengineer operations

According to a survey conducted with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) earlier this month, 96% of all institutional presidents anticipate reengineering operational processes in order to adapt to the post-pandemic reality. 

Institutions are suddenly discovering that the standard reports and metrics previously used to guide strategic decision-making in normal times are less helpful when addressing challenges that didn’t previously exist and seem to change on a daily basis. A completely new array of data will need to be accessed and utilized along with better capabilities to understand that data. 

In addition to data from traditional sources, such as the Student Information System (SIS) and Learning Management System (LMS), colleges and universities must begin to use non-traditional data sources: other campus systems, publicly available data (such as from the National Institute of Health or the Bureau of Labor Statistics as examples), social media and even web conferencing platforms.

This last one is especially important. A recently published survey by the American Association for Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers states that 58% of higher education students “are considering or have already decided to remain fully online for 2020.” Believe it or not, web conferencing data has now become as important as LMS data in the quest to support student success.

Welcome to the world of augmented analytics

Traditional data practices that have been in use over the last thirty years are expensive, complicated and time consuming–three things you never want to hear when you need answers in the middle of a global pandemic.

While it sounds complicated, the idea behind augmented analytics is simple. It quickly fuses the latest advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence with human experience, intuition and creativity to identify the most relevant insights within just hours and days. In this case, artificial intelligence is used to do something you don’t typically hear about; it supplements human intelligence rather than replacing it.

Imagine, for example, a “hypothesis eliminator,” where a combination of machine learning and artificial intelligence is utilized to obtain and evaluate millions of data points from a variety of different information systems. It is able to quickly identify the strongest data-supported correlations so that academics and researchers can then focus their efforts more efficiently.

This allows these knowledge experts to analyze causation, which subsequently empowers faculty, staff and administrators with never-before-possible insights. They then define, create and act on situation-specific interventions, which will allow higher education to quickly and successfully adapt to rapidly changing situations.

It’s an approach to data that has gained enormous attention for its ability to quickly deliver impactful results. This approach ranks in at #4 in Bernard Marr’s recent Forbes.com article: “These 25 Technology Trends Will Define The Next Decade” (machine learning and artificial intelligence is #1).

Ultimately, the institutions that will navigate these changes most successfully and recover the fastest will be those that placed a priority on using all available data to predict, intervene, support and sustain their operations effectively. Augmented analytics couldn’t have arrived at a better time for higher education. 

Creating the future we need

Higher education must remain a place where students interact, learn and grow. They need to challenge themselves and the world around them to improve and evolve.  

Colleges and universities need to ensure they evaluate their current capabilities to find ways to leverage all of their data in ways that will reflect the new world in which they find themselves. This approach will empower faculty, staff and administrators with relevant information to make the best and most impactful decisions possible through data.

Getting to “I feel fine” 

Circling back to R.E.M., the full title of the song is “It’s The End of The World As We Know It (and I feel fine).” That last part is very important. If the reengineering of operational processes is done correctly, we believe that the post-pandemic educational system will be different. But it will also be renewed, energized and prepared for what the future may bring. 

It may be, “The End of The World As We Know It,” and that’s okay.  Now, more than ever, is the time for us to make sure we “feel fine” about the world to come.

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