Can technology transform colleges or do they have a responsibility to take the lead?
As higher education seeks to enter the post-coronavirus world, the sector has found itself forced to adapt. Leaders hope to boost graduation rates and attract more students through their doors, especially given threats such as the enrollment crisis.
Based on these considerations, the impact of technology on teaching and learning has not been lost on university leaders, the researchers say. And as a result, there has been an increase in investment, especially as institutions modernize by moving digital operations to the cloud and pump money into student success systems that connect all digital tools used to help learners progress from recruitment to onset.
The Tambellini Group, a consulting firm in higher education, noted this year that many institutions have restarted long-term investments that might have been put on hold due to the coronavirus and others have been prompted to update their legacy systems. It’s not just a pandemic recovery, the firm says, but a structural update.
So far, they estimate that only around 5% of institutions have been able to pull the trigger on these structural transformations, but they say many more are carefully planning these changes. These types of investments are expensive – a new cloud-based administration system, for example, can run a large research university tens of millions of dollars– and they take time to set up. They also rely on IT staff, who, like teachers and other professors, are stressed and exhausted by the pandemic, but expected to do much of the work.
Nonetheless, Tambellini says they see the rise in investment as a tantalizing sign that the higher education market will continue to grow.
“We are seeing increased spending and investment in student systems in higher education systems of all sizes and types,” says Vicki Tambellini, Founding CEO, who predicts investments will not decline or decline. .
It’s not the only report that predicts a stream of costly upgrades to higher education systems. Last year, Educause, an edtech association, noted that higher education institutions were making room in their budgets for student success technologies, especially in customer relationship management systems. They also noticed increased plans for IT higher education spending.
“I think it’s encouraging to see that institutions are aware of student needs and are working to meet them,” said Mark McCormack, senior director of analytics and research at Educause.
Institutional management realized the need to make more data-driven decisions and automate some processes, he says. They are exploring ways to connect data and applications between different units of the institution.
Yet even at colleges where leaders want to invest in new technology tools, barriers remain, including cost and effort, as well as concerns about student privacy, a lack of solutions for larger institutions and more complex, and perhaps even a lack of clear vision.
One of the things student systems do is make it easier to collect student information. For universities, this allows them to give real-time feedback to students. It shows students how the decisions they make affect their degree and eliminates inefficiencies that cost universities and could derail students.
But collecting student data has always been a fraught issue that can lead to privacy concerns and sometimes even lingering inequities. Attempts to introduce some data analytics programs — like one earlier this year at George Washington University, a private research university in Washington, DC —run the risk of provoking controversy.
But Tambellini says students are struggling right now, in part because they don’t have enough support.
“Students need better systems and more support than they can get in real time, especially after the pandemic. Not everyone is available in a way that makes it easy for students to get what they need from administrators and professors,” says Tambellini, “and so modernization has become critically important.
If you ask the sellers, they’re not sure if the level of investment has really taken off yet.
“I don’t know if I necessarily see many, many real investments coming through,” says Nicole Engelbert, vice president of higher education development at Oracle, one of the world’s largest software companies.
Tambellini’s study tracked the resurgence of student system purchases, says Engelbert, but it’s not the explosive growth that economists are calling “hockey stick growthyet, partly because “changing the student system is like [a] major body replacement for an institution.
And there is also the question of size and complexity. Much of the explosive growth has occurred at relatively small, private, nonprofit colleges where existing solutions are ready to deploy, Tambellini reports. For large institutions with many study programs and even multiple schools, the challenge is different than for smaller or mid-level institutions. Basically, the technology solutions just aren’t there yet.
“Boston University suffered from [the lack of scalable solutions like student information systems] in that we had needed a new student information system for many years but couldn’t quite identify a next-gen cloud-based system that we could move to that was ready for an institution of our scale and complexity,” Tracy Schroeder, Boston University’s vice president of information services and chief data officer, said. “And unfortunately for us, it still is.”
Tambellini predicts that solutions for large institutions will be mostly ready by 2026.
Universities cannot attribute all of their student success challenges to limited technology.
These institutions should spend less time on “shiny tech toys” and devote more resources to shaping the bold vision and revamping the business processes that will truly transform higher education, says Oracle’s Engelbert.
Migration of institutions using what Engelbert sees as massively outdated technology will happen, she says, but whether it brings “a new golden age in higher education or seals the fate of certain market sectors, largely not based on technology, but on the business process reengineering that precedes it.
The goal of higher education should be to move beyond vague talk of “digital transformation” and figure out how to actually measure student success and improve the student experience, argues Engelbert. Otherwise, she adds, colleges just let companies like Salesforce, Workday or Oracle define that for them.