Director of Analytics, National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO)
The COVID-19 pandemic expedited institutional efforts to invest in online education and other digital technologies, and colleges and universities have the potential to continue to evolve and to make attaining a postsecondary credential a reality for more students.
Historically, advances in technology have improved our lives in many ways. Education has been aided by technological advancements, too, making college more accessible, collaborative, and personalized.
Digital technology, supplemented with increased access to broadband, has the potential to bring college to students who otherwise cannot travel to a campus. Students who are working, are parents, or who have other obligations that make it difficult to travel to a campus regularly can engage in online programs and courses. And with the pandemic having forced most institutions to invest in their online delivery capabilities, they may now have access to more diverse institution types.
Digital technology also can make course materials and academic and social activities more accessible for students who may otherwise be excluded from such experiences. For example, online learning platforms and various digital tools and programs can improve access for students who have disabilities that prevent them from engaging during in-person classes.
Advances in collaboration
Digital communication can provide students, faculty, and staff with more — and more diverse — ways of interacting with each other. Whether courses are delivered primarily online or in person, there are digital tools that can create spaces for students to work and learn collaboratively. Myriad tools have features to help students with various learning styles and needs engage with peers and instructors. Platforms allow for engagement to be text-based, audio-based, video-based, or some combination — and with supports and features built in to ensure access.
Online learning platforms offer features to help faculty differentiate instruction based on students’ learning styles or interests. Most digital learning tools are available to students 24/7, which offers students more opportunities to review concepts or practice skills. Digital technology also fosters more access to data and analytics, which faculty can use to monitor student progress and offer just-in-time supports.
Digital technology can improve student experiences in and out of the classroom, and it can support advanced data analysis to help faculty and staff monitor and enhance student learning and engagement. Software programs and online resources allow faculty to bring timely, real-world events and issues into the classroom, whether in a physical classroom or online.
The shift to emergency online education at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic made some students question the tuition prices they were paying, saying much of the value of a degree comes from out-of-the-classroom experiences. However, there are ways digital technologies can facilitate these experiences. Some institutions have created “virtual unions” or other digital gathering places where students can join clubs, serve as student leaders, participate in online leadership conferences, watch live events, chat with peers, and engage in extracurriculars.
For all its promise, digital technology only provides possibilities — college and university leaders, like business officers, must manage the transformation in digital transformation. After managing their institution’s financial resources, chief business officers cite strategic decision-making and leading change as the most important aspects of their job.
Technology provides the tools for digital transformation; however, finding the resources to invest in technology can be difficult. A common mantra in higher education is “do more with less.” Leaders will need to make calculated decisions about investments in new technologies.
People make transformations happen. Technology can empower faculty and staff to better serve students of today and tomorrow. It’s vital to invest in knowledge and skills because it’s the people — professors, advisors, bursars, housing directors, etc. — that can ensure a digital transformation leads to improved outcomes for students.
Digital transformation has the potential to increase student outcomes, particularly for students from historically underserved backgrounds. However, transformation isn’t easy. In order for colleges and universities to take advantage of the opportunities of digital transformation, they will need to invest in the necessary people, processes, and technology.