Higher ed on the hot seat

A conversation with edutech expert Susan Grajek

Susan Grajek QA on technology in higher education

What’s a diploma worth? For employers, less than it was even five years ago. Skill- and competency-based credentials—especially in the technology sector—are gaining currency in corporate hiring, according to a recent survey of global HR leaders.

With tuition skyrocketing, the traditional four-year college experience is becoming economically unfeasible for many students. At the same time, to close widening skills gaps, businesses are turning to “new collar” recruits armed with digital badges and skill certifications, not just those with degrees.

Schools realize that they’re no longer just serving a population of 18- to 21-year-olds who want to have a residential campus experience.

While online education platforms like EdX, Coursera, and Udemy won’t replace colleges anytime soon, they are forcing many to consider big investments in their own digital learning platforms to attract a new generation of students.

Workflow recently sat down with Susan Grajek, communities and research VP at Educause, a nonprofit higher education IT association, to understand how digital disruption is reshaping higher education.

How urgent is digital transformation for universities and colleges?

There’s a big imperative for change today. Institutional leaders have identified four big challenges that higher education is grappling with: financial sustainability, student success, reputation and relevance, and external competition. Financial sustainability and student success have been challenges for a long time. But the reputation and relevance of higher education is pretty new to this decade, and so is external competition.

Part of the reason that we have more external competition now is online learning platforms are using data and analytics to deliver new credentials and reach new learners. Colleges and universities are beginning to do the same things.

Is it simply a matter of staying relevant in a changing world? Adapt or die?

The college presidents and provosts I talk to are all very aware that they need to develop a new strategy and reach new types of learners. This is no longer a conceptual thing that they hear about at a conference. They’re experiencing the crisis on their own campuses. More institutions are finding enrollments declining, and their operating costs are exceeding revenue.

They’re also very aware that the nature of work, and the workforce itself, are changing, and that if higher education is to stay relevant, it needs to not only provide new majors in areas like data science or cybersecurity, they also have to provide new ways of getting credentials.

By “new types of learners,” do you mean those seeking skill-based credentials for a targeted career path?

Yes. Schools realize that they’re no longer just serving a population of 18- to 21-year-olds who want to have a residential campus experience. If they’re going to survive, they need to serve people in the “six-decade career,” meaning students of all ages who will come back to that particular institution time and again to learn what they need when they need it.

Higher education leaders know they need to do something different, and most of them are looking to technology. These powerful new technologies—analytics, machine learning, robotics, mobile, and social—are letting us rethink the way we deliver teaching and the entire value proposition of higher education.

How far along are traditional colleges in digital transformation?

It’s still early days. We’ve found that 30% to 60% of institutions are still moving from analog to digital processes. Around 45% of institutions are further along and are now streamlining and automating their operations and getting better at moving data around.

When it comes to reaching learners in new ways, such as providing new types of credentials, we found that only 13% of institutions today say they’re really doing that with digital technology.

What schools have successfully made the leap?

One of my favorite examples is the California community college system, which has about 115 different campuses and serves 2.1 million students. They’ve taken a two-step approach to digital transformation, and the second step wouldn’t have been possible without the first.

Each of the system’s 115 campuses had their own course management system. The first step was, “Do you think that we could move to a single management system, from 115 to 1?” That actually required a lot of cultural change, a lot of rethinking policies and processes. It was an enormous undertaking that simplified things and made everything more efficient.

But that isn’t real digital transformation. It was the second step that has been transformative. They created an online course system so that any of these 2.1 million students can register for any online course offered at any of the 115 campuses. That expands access beyond the campus to all of the students in the system.

Consolidating their systems and working through these cultural flashpoints made it possible to pull it off.

Aside from enabling virtual access to traditional college courses, how else is technology reshaping higher education?

Some schools are trying to take the really rich material and history and experience they already have and reshape it to meet new needs.

A lot of institutions are looking at Southern New Hampshire University, which serves many adult learners and focuses on competency-based education. That means giving students credit for what they’ve already learned in life, whether they have credentials to demonstrate it or can demonstrate it in other ways.

Another example is Arizona State University, which has a partnership with Starbucks. That’s another trend—colleges and universities developing partnerships and collaborations with enterprises or local governments to try to understand what their workforce needs are and adapt education to fit those needs.