Technology Critical to Facilitate Higher Education Decision-Making

Higher education is between a rock and a hard place. Pandemic funding relief has disappeared, yet colleges and universities are operating in a market challenged by smaller high school graduating classes and inflation. Institutions must once again rely on their operations and business model to fund new strategies to they can operate successfully in this environment.

The keynote speaker Fierce Technology’s recent virtual event “Higher Education: Technology Profiles in Success – Spring,” Karen Vignare, Vice President, Digital Transformation for Student Success & Executive Director, Personalized Learning Consortium, addressed an audience of college and university educators and administrators. She offered some insight on how incorporating digital transformation in the Student Information System (SIS) that allows students to transact business 24/7 can change schools’ business model, budgeting process and technology investment priorities – and help provide equitable student success.  Her presentation can be viewed on demand here.

APLU is a research, policy and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening and advancing the work of public universities across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Vignare said that APLU has been working with adaptive learning and personalized learning. “In the past couple of years, we’ve been thinking about digital transformation that builds student-centered universities,” she explained. “Technology does take center stage in that process, but efforts have to be collaborative.”

While digital transformation is critical, what’s even more important culture shift and workforce change that’s supported by technology, said Vignare. Unfortunately, various studies show that as little as 3 percent to 12 percent of colleges are digitally transformed and doing business differently than in the past, she pointed out.   

In an audience poll, only about 37 percent of attendees revealed their technology budget increased over the past year. “There is a need for leadership, budget and policy being in place but we also have to think about always centering the students,” Vignare pointed out.  “We are all challenged by the fact that not only did we go through COVID, but we went through a social justice recognition that tells us that we have not been doing an equitable job for many minority students and those that have been historically disadvantaged. In the past, there was a university-first model in place, but that has to change.”

Part of that change involves technology infrastructure, and how we’re going to redesign courses to engage more students, she said, adding that in order to accomplish current objectives, we need to do more evaluation and analysis and develop an equity-focused digital learning infrastructure.  

This is one area where digital transformation is key, she said. “Universities are really good at post-mortem analysis, but we can’t do real-time analysis without digital tools. For me, it’s fundamental that we begin thinking about digital as a way to gather data so we can respond to students in real time. We know from research that we lose most of our students within a couple of weeks, so you’ll lose students within the first few days,” Vignare explained. Digital tools can help professors quickly gauge their students’ engagement in real time so they don’t withdraw or fail, for instance.

APLU is a partner in Every Learner, Everywhere, a network of 12 organizations that advocates for equitable outcomes in U.S. higher education through advanced digital learning. Its ultimate goal is to improve student outcomes for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, poverty-affected students and first-generation students. The initiative developed a framework during four years of intensive work that can improve student outcomes with digital learning and ongoing analysis of institutional practices and market trends.

Vignare detailed case studies from seven institutions that are making organizational commitments to digital learning to help achieve equitable student outcomes. At Cuyahoga Community College, for instance, the Centralized Online Learning and Academic Technology team provides centralized support for digital learning initiatives, and each campus has its own Center for Learning Excellence with instructional designers and technologies to help faculty adopt digital tools

Best practices gleaned from the initiative include:

  • Create an Institution-wide approach to defining and implementing
  • Build a sustainable business plan that expands beyond onetime/external pilots
  • Build course design capabilities, expertise to support equitable digital learning
  • Equip students for success
  • Create a learning culture and support faculty through professional development, effective incentives/resourcing, & technology
  • Engage in ongoing evaluation and analytics
  • Use external partners and vendors to strategically augment internal capacities