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Future of Higher Education Technology

The Pros and Cons of the Digitization of Higher Education

Alejandra Acosta, policy analyst with the higher education initiative at New America, speaks to the kind of technology schools should invest in to better support their students.

Alejandra Acosta

Policy Analyst, New America

How important is it to consider each student’s unique needs in optimizing their higher education experience?

It’s very important. I think it’s just challenging for schools to do that, considering they have so many students and needs are different and change over time. Often colleges operate on an old idea of what a student is like. Once they realize that their students are not like that, it takes time to change policy, procedure, and resources. And at that point, the student population might be different.

As a leader with a background in digital technology, what do you recommend as the top three types of technology that a faculty member should invest in right now?

I would say learning management systems. I think a lot of schools have them already, but they don’t use them necessarily. I think colleges don’t need to invest more money in the technology itself, but spend time and resources to teach faculty and staff how to use it effectively so they can get the most out of it.

The other thing is something that I’ve studied at New America for a long time is the use of predictive analytics in higher education. That is the use of several data sources to predict how likely a student is to graduate. And that can include data from a learning management system, but it’s really helpful because it can give faculty, counselors, and advisors a more granular look at students and potentially get like an early alert if something is going on with a student. It can help faculty reach out to a struggling student before it’s too late.

In your opinion, what should schools be thinking about when they’re trying to adopt and roll out this new technology?  What are your thoughts on hybrid learning?

I think one thing to consider is both the pros and the cons of rolling out new technology, and specifically what the implications could be for equity at a college. We’ve heard a lot about the digital divide, so it’s important to be thinking about whether students will even have access to this technology and what some challenges could be.

For example, if a student needs to download an app in order to get in contact with a counselor or chat with somebody that can help them, you have to tell students about the technology, then you have to tell them to download it, then they have to actually create an account, and then they actually have to use it. That’s several opportunities for the student to not to choose not to do it or to not know how to use the technology. There are a lot of steps and a lot of support that needs to happen in order for the technology to actually be used.

What areas should institutions prioritize in 2021 and 2022?

I think communication technology. As we’ve seen this year, communication is really important. Students were confused when things were changing in terms of opening and closing of campuses, so I think communication technology from the college to the student is really important so that there can be a level of connection and trust between the student and the college. And so that students can feel like they can get a reliable source of information.

What are thoughts on the future of higher education?

I think that that, like everything else, the pandemic really just pushed and accelerated the digitization of higher education. There are certainly a lot of good things that will come from this like I said, but at the same time, I think colleges need to be really intentional about being aware that data and technology is biased and there are a lot of potential pitfalls and dangers that could erase advances in equity that hopefully colleges are striving for. A lot of entities at the end of the day also need to meet a bottom line, and they are not very monitored by the federal government, so there’s a lot of care that needs to be addressed as higher education becomes more digital.

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