The rise of online learning in higher-ed was already well under way when the global pandemic hit. But the overnight move to Zoom classes put a spotlight on what’s wrong with higher education. Faced with mostly remote learning, students were all too likely to check out due to the lack of student engagement via personalized, compelling experiences. In fact, a record number of students opted for a gap year in 2020-2021 due to the pandemic. That should be a wakeup call.

Today’s imperative is to develop a more personalized approach to education – whether in-person, online or both – that adapts to individual learning styles and needs, anticipating and recommending the best path for what students need next. Because of the key role faculty and administrators play in the student experience, it’s vital to equip them with the resources they need to deliver learning value that improves student retention.

A 2020 2U/Gallup study shows that a majority of students who participate in an online program that was expressly designed to be online have a comparable or better experience than that of their on-campus peers. Learning experiences need to offer Amazon-like ease of access and be highly compelling, even binge-worthy, drawing students from one module to the next like the latest Netflix series. For example, Pearson Education infuses its learning material with supplemental readings, extra quizzes and even a virtual tutor. The system uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify learner shortcomings and steer them to content that can quickly provide remedial help and mastery over time.

In short, higher-ed institutions need to take a page out of the leading content and e-commerce playbooks to deliver on students’ expectations and needs.

Elevating the Individual Student Experience

Higher-ed institutions are indeed facing an existential threat posed by flexible new modes of learning accelerated by the pandemic. To survive, many are rapidly partnering with digital-native education platform providers to rebuild the digital student experience and streamline university operations. Many universities have leveraged digital platforms – Indiana University elected Salesforce, for example – to create student dashboards with all the information needed for their educational experience, including – during COVID – a portal for tracking and managing student departures from their dorms last March.

That’s key, because student experience is just as important as education quality in cultivating strong learner outcomes. A great student experience begins with a transparent admissions process and continues when the student arrives on campus, making it easy to do everything from accessing information to adding and dropping courses to finding the dining hall that’s serving her favorite meal that night. Students who are at risk of not passing a course or not graduating are given personalized, interactive support in the moment to help turn things around. And when graduation approaches, a robust student experience gives graduating seniors the tools and contacts they need to get their first job in the real world.

Becoming Learner-Centric

We recently worked with a leading private university to help it reimagine the student experience. This institution wanted to create a unified, 360-degree view of applicants and enrollees in its undergrad, grad and lifelong learning programs via a customer data platform. Using the platform, the university can store and manage rich constituent attributes, including student identity, demographics, sentiment, profile, feedback, lifetime value, course preference and performance in enrolled courses. Through advanced analytics, the system delivers better-tailored student experiences and can recommend next-best actions at any point in the educational journey.

To make such a platform work, higher-ed institutions need to train, support and immerse faculty in delivering an online educational experience. Doing so will require a major change management effort to help professors accept and become adept at delivering learner-centric experiences that resemble what they would have delivered in-person. This is key: The quality of education will always emanate from the faculty, whether the instruction is online or traditional.

A Wink and a Nudge

Judicious application of technology can help the situation immensely. Communicating with students, for example, has been a puzzling process for faculty in an online environment because faculty members are not digital marketers who would understand the frequency and nature of outreach essential for keeping online students engaged. Once the online class begins, it’s left to the individual charisma of the instructor to ensure engagement. Instead, technology should be used to “nudge” or check in with students (i.e., chatbots, texting, algorithmic analytics, machine learning and conversational AI) to make student communications easier, constructive and persistent.

For instance, if a student’s grade is slipping, an alert could be sent to recommend tutoring services. Offering students one-click access to resources and reaching them via their preferred method of communication, such as text message or email, can deliver a powerful and timely reminder.

Digital-first, insight-driven, personalized learning is the future of higher education. Critical insights ranging from the student’s preferred pace of learning to their optimum learning style (kinesthetic, motor or auditory) to their favorite learning format (individualized, social, virtual or experiential) should all be used to inform individualized learning experiences.

Whether the entire higher-ed system will have the agility and mindset to move in this direction remains to be seen, but these institutions should act boldly now, creating budgets and tech initiatives to address the need.

Learn more about how our customer journey analytics solution can deliver richer customer experiences.

Kshitij Nerurkar

Kshitij Nerurkar

  Kshitij (Tij) Nerurkar is the North America leader for Education Business at Cognizant. For over 25 years, Tij has advised and... Read more