Higher education’s digital future is now its present

Let’s face it: the higher education sector has not been the quickest to adopt new practices and technologies. You would be hard-pressed to find a person that considers our industry one leading the charge toward new and innovative digital marketing practices, teaching modalities, or student experiences.

There are universities that are doing these things, of course, but they represent the tiniest fraction of the over 5,000 institutions of higher learning that exist in the United States alone.

When the COVID-19 pandemic landed in the West, higher education was forced to rush out changes in teaching format, recruitment outreach. fundraising, and employee care. Taking a look outside of the higher ed bubble, many industries are bracing for a long-term displacement of their operations. However, many universities are still planning to be back to campus for the Fall semester.

But what if this pandemic lasts longer than August? Is your institution assessing how you will go about teaching through a full new academic year at a distance?

Conferences have already been canceled or postponed. Large cultural events that take place through September are off, too. Airlines have cut their capacities through the summer and are bracing to extend those cuts.

Taking the ‘What-Ifs’ Seriously

Are you prepared to offer your signature academic quality and great student experience from a distance?

Vaccine testing and approval can take 10-12 years to be tested and approved for widespread use. Even when offsetting that average time period with the hopeful political rhetoric of 12-18 months, we are most likely much more than a full year away from vaccinating the majority of people.

So, what if universities are still closed at the beginning of the next academic year? Is your institution ready?

Three Focus Areas

University Insight believes higher education is, believe it or not, in an excellent position to weather the pandemic — and perhaps thrive in it — provided each institution prepares now. There are three focus areas we’ve identified that will prove crucial to your success.

Digital Academic Pedagogy

We’ll be blunt here. If your institution did not offer online courses before COVID-19 you have already missed the boat. And if your university is not thinking of how to adapt and convert your in-person courses to a native online format, you need to start immediately).

Synchronous livestreams utilizing software platforms like Zoom provide a host of issues for your students. At “best” they’re just frustrating technology, but at worst you will see new Section 508 lawsuits cropping up while you disenfranchise students that may not have access to a fast enough computer at home or must do their schoolwork on a phone.

These are real problems that your Instructional Designers can help solve. Put them to work building the next generation courses that you should have been working on five years ago anyway.

When we come out of this, there is no reason online courses for your traditional programs should not be central to your institutional strategy.

Digital Strategy for Marketing

I personally have written on this topic noting,

The digital strategy (UX, Content, Social) decisions made in higher ed this year will be the deciding factor in which institutions stay open for another 50 years or more and which are forced to quietly fade away.

For the past decade, many universities have leaned on the power of in-person recruitment to fill their admission funnels at the expense of optimizing their digital channels. What I mean is, the on-page funnel from homepage to contact is non-existent on many higher education websites. Consider the user experience design of your website from all angles. Is it serving the purposes you need it to?

If you have been paying attention to this user journey on your website, we applaud you for understanding how important your flagship marketing property is to your institution’s growth. You should continue to optimize your top content pages for conversion rate increases.

Consider the products you pay for on your website. Is that virtual tour leading to applicants? Does it matter anymore if we’re not going back to campus for awhile? These are opportunities to reallocate marketing spending the other areas of your digital strategy that produce greater returns on investment.

This is also not the time to be reducing your marketing staff. While vendors and consultants can help augment your marketing practice, your university’s marketing team are the experts best-suited to help you expand your messaging. Ask them what you should do. Your Social Media staff will have a wealth of direct knowledge you rarely hear about.

Additionally, your Admissions Counselors should be given a voice into the best ways to connect with prospective students. Find out what questions they’re being asked and task your Content Designers with building out great digital resources.

Finally, find a way to break out of the campus mentality. If we are going into an academic year stuck in our homes, campus, no matter how beautiful it is, may not be the best way to sell your product. We believe a focus on support and outcomes will fare better and with much more longevity as your community culture changes.

Developing Digital Recruitment Opportunities

As I stated earlier, we no longer have the crutch of our campuses and in-person meetings to lean on. Video calls and Q&A sessions are great ways to get parents and prospective students connected and informed. Pay attention to the times of day you’re offering them as well as how many you are offering.

One parent of an incoming freshman said to me,

We’ve been getting thousands of school emails, texts, postcards, printed pieces, acceptance packets, financial aid packets, all with the same info, photos, etc. As we try to narrow down to a final choice, we want to ask specific questions.

Remember that these Q&A events are extremely useful in answering the questions not only your prospective students have, but the ones their parents haven’t been able to ask yet.

Along with that, save the traditional mailing lists for another time. Your competitors are being timid about advertising while usage of social media platforms is surging. Now is the time to craft a coherent recruitment campaign that connects your digital advertisements with real Admissions Counselor feedback.

And let’s get rid of all of the “virtual” talk. Yes, that term has been used in our internal circles since at least the 90s, but it has different connotations today. By having a “Virtual Open Day,” you are communicating that you recognize it is not quite up to the standard of your traditional Open Day events. While this may be true, it should not be the thing communicated.

If we truly are entering a full year of remote learning, these experiences need to be transformed into something just as effective and meaningful. It will take work to reinvent them, but that is what needs to be done. Simply taking courses and events as they always have been and putting them online is not good enough when every other experience our incoming classes have in the world are grounded in digital culture.

Digital Strategy Now Will Decide Your Future

As tough as reality can be, it’s imperative to understand that these recommendations aren’t good only if we enter a full academic year in pandemic mode. These are things every institution should have been doing for the past five years — and some have been.

We think the question must be asked. Why would higher education choose to focus on the temporal at the expense of the digital? Universities can do both. It was always possible to have a digital strategy that works alongside your in-person recruitment and marketing.

But today it is decidedly crucial that your institution embrace the digital present.

Let’s change
the paradigm.