Higher Ed Offers New Opportunities For Digital Learners

Malcolm Woodfield

Higher education today faces considerable pressures. The cost of attending college is increasing at a rate that outpaces inflation, and many students are saddled with burdensome student loans.

All in all, higher education is becoming more like a business as students, parents, and alumni have a much more transactional relationship with institutions. Career centers are expected to serve as job placement firms as donors want to see returns on their investment in their alma mater.

A new educational landscape

Add to these expectations new platforms where learning is delivered directly to consumers. To academe, much of this content seems suspect—YouTube videos and Wikipedia are not the same as classroom experiences. Critics decry these mass-market, available-to-all educational options, saying they lack the rigor of traditional educational structures.

Here’s a provocative thought: Rather than thinking of these information providers as threats, traditional institutions should consider adopting the models themselves.

Higher educational institutions have the opportunity to exceed student expectations. They can use technology to deliver education offerings in new ways, ways that speak to how students have been learning their whole lives. In doing so, institutions can serve populations that have traditionally been overlooked.

Five drivers of technological change

For forward-thinking institutions, digital technology can be a way to address the issues of expectations and competition. New learning methods are creating unique educational experiences today. Already connected devices and online courses are changing the way students learn.

There are five core drivers to digital change today. Hyperconnectivity and the Internet of Things (IoT) is one. The IoT is defined as devices equipped with sensors, software, and wireless capabilities. These devices can “talk” with each other and collect, store, and send data. Mobile devices are  everywhere on campuses, fueled by powerful and free wireless connections. Access is easy—the real question becomes whether your content is easy to access.

Supercomputing is the second driver. Big Data enables analytics that fuel research not just in the natural sciences, but also in the social sciences and humanities.

Cloud computing is another catalyst. Data storage is more affordable than ever. Cloud-based platforms allow students and faculty to collect and use data in new ways.

The fourth factor is the growth of smarter technologies. Improvements in artificial intelligence, 3D printing, sensors, and robotics have vast applications in teaching and research. These technologies can reshape curriculum development, research, and the business side of education.

The final core driver is cybersecurity. Universities are the world’s libraries. They are repositories for information. Most commit to sharing that information with the global community. Protecting that information from increasing virtual and physical threats is paramount.

Online courses are the first wave

In 2008, a new acronym emerged: MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Driven by improvements in content delivery platforms, MOOCs have become the new normal for many institutions, some of which offer them for credit, for free, and to students anywhere in the world. These higher educational institutions see it as part of their broader educational mission. Platforms such as Coursera and edX have became familiar standards to learners of all ages. Some of these classes are enrolling tens of thousands of students. Similarly, video gaming platforms are now often used to create educational content.

For early adopters, the opportunity is staggering. These institutions see high demand for these products and methods. Student recruitment and retention increases, along with better outcomes for teaching and research. Institutions see their rankings rise.

Let’s look at a fictional example of how this new educational might play out:

A student with a mobile device enters a classroom, and a signal is sent to the campus computer network. That signal accesses the student’s profile, which contains information that helps predict her learning style preferences and needs. The system pushes information to the student’s device and can measure her progress and understanding.

If the student is stuck, she can post a question to the learning management system’s online forum. The system can then push more information to the student’s device, or it can schedule a tutor to contact the student. These integrated systems have resulted in a far higher likelihood of success.

In implementing such a system, the university has not only helped the student learn, it has taken a proactive approach. Help is personalized to each student’s style and likely needs. Steps are taken to ensure that students can master the material with the appropriate help they need. These types of processes will improve student retention as well as outcomes.

In this scenario, the convergence of connected devices, Big Data, and cloud computing led to the positive outcome. A data-driven approach to the student experience can lead to faster learning and increased productivity for academic staff as well.

To learn more about digital transformation in higher education, click here.


Malcolm Woodfield

About Malcolm Woodfield

Malcolm Woodfield is the Global Vice President, Head of Industry Business Unit Education & Research, at SAP. He manages a global team accountable for the overall business, market, customer, and revenue success of the Higher Education / Public Services portfolio (including all Applications, Analytics, Mobile, HANA, and Cloud) globally.