Phill Miller: Higher education must invest in digital infrastructure

Higher education has certainly been in the spotlight this back-to-school season. From the Biden administration’s announcement to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt to IUPUI’s campus split, the financial possibilities—or ramifications—could be transformative. However, almost every institution must invest in online learning. For those who believe that going to college means packing up your car and moving into a dorm with 500 of your closest friends, know the world has changed.

College is expensive. Even before student loan forgiveness was on the table, and even before the pandemic, Hoosier students were asking themselves if higher education was worth the investment.

Unfortunately, many decided it wasn’t.

As Ball State University President Geoffrey Mearns recently noted, the number of Indiana high school students choosing to go to college has dropped significantly. In addition, higher education faces a demographic challenge that many are calling “the enrollment cliff” stemming from a large decline in the birth rate following the recession in 2008. Major employers throughout the state already cannot find qualified candidates to fill their open positions.

How can higher education institutions show that college is still worth it and entice more students to enroll? It won’t be through improvements on campus because, for most students, the front door of your university is your online learning infrastructure.

Too many colleges and universities are limping along with outdated digital systems that aren’t catered to students at all, let alone online-only students. Higher education institutions need to focus on student-driven learning and engagement initiatives combined with the right technology to create an interactive online learning experience that both retains and attracts students—particularly those whoare never going to step foot on your campus.

Today’s students expect to learn with top-tier technology integration, and colleges and universities need to understand how vital a seamless transition between in-person, computer and mobile learning is to students. Institutions must implement a learning environment that is supported and adopted by faculty and students alike—and it has to work.

Think about how end users will interact with your technology and the types of features needed to fulfill institutional objectives. Determine if your current learning management system can incorporate different collaboration solutions. If it can’t, what do you need to make it happen? What is the number one sticking point with students, and how can your technology address that?

Ultimately, colleges and universities must keep their students at the center of the learning process, and student engagement is essential for a successful online experience. The in-person, on-campus college experience is one we hope to see thousands of Hoosier students continue to enjoy in the years to come, but the reality is that it’s not practical for many degree-seekers. Jobs, child care and the logistics of modern life are just a few of the obstacles students today must navigate to receive an education. The more barriers universities can remove for them, the more students will be able to earn their degrees and seek gainful employment with major Indiana corporations.

The beautification of campus is a nice perk, but the seamless functionality of your digital learning experience is the foundation on which you build your university’s future.•

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Miller is managing director of Open LMS and has nearly 20 years of experience in ed tech.

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