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Reimagined Series: Preparing for the Future of Higher Education

  • 7 Min Read

In a rapidly changing world, what strategies should higher education institutions and faculty use to best prepare for the future?


Nowadays, higher education institutions are grappling with how best to support student needs while also trying to maintain and increase enrollment and retention in the face of shrinking budgets. And while change in any industry is inevitable, there are strategies higher education institutions and faculty can use to help manage the shifts.

Recently, Dr. Jeff Borden, Chief Academic and VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, discussed the trends and challenges affecting the higher education industry during The Future of Education Reimagined, the latest D2L webinar, which attracted over 700 attendees.

From using data to support faculty and students to understanding changing student demographics, the panel—which included Phil Hill, Ed Tech Consultant; Timothy Werth, Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Purdue University Global; and Amelia Manning, Chief Operating Officer at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)—discussed the challenges and opportunities with respect to the future of higher education.

The Future of Learning Models

We asked our audience what their vision for educational learning models looked like five to 10 years out from the pandemic. The majority of the 349 respondents predict that a combination of in-person, online and hybrid/high-flex learning models will take hold. Less than 1% thought that strictly in-person learning would be the norm.


These stats may not be surprising given the way the world shifted due to the pandemic, but Dr. Borden raised an important point: It’s not enough to know that this is the direction we’re headed in. How can institutions think about creating these online and hybrid experiences?

Additionally, an institution’s brand is often no longer the ultimate arbiter when it comes to decision-making for prospective students—so what should be top of mind for institutions in terms of designing a great student learning experience?

Hill wasn’t surprised by the survey results. “We’re seeing an increased demand for hybrid educational options. It’s not as black and white as ‘These students hate or love online education.’” The approach, Hill said, should be more nuanced and personal.

Hill urged institutional leaders to keep students at the core of their vision. “If you’re going to invest in online education, make sure that you’re asking questions like ‘What do we need to change internally?’ instead of ‘How can we increase our enrollments?”’

Another important consideration: If universities and colleges are only trying to leverage their brands, they’re missing the point. The more institutions move away from strictly in-person teaching, the less they can rely on sports teams, extracurriculars and physical campuses as a selling point. Instead, Hill said, “[Institutions] need to emphasize their abilities to service students, particularly in the different ways they teach and in how they meet the needs of different learners. It should always come back to ‘How do we serve students?’”

Don’t Make Assumptions About Student Demographics

In the same way institutions can’t simply throw a course online and hope people will want it, they need to think about the specific needs of a rapidly shifting student demographic.

“There are many more working adults who are also students, or students [who come] from a particular familial background,” Hill said. “At the same time, most schools are also trying to reach first-generation students. None of these populations have the same needs or necessarily learn in the same way, so it’s important to really get personal with your approach.”

A common element in all of this, Hill said, is time. “Time is at a premium, and [institutions] need to design their programs to say, ‘How can we give [students] flexibility?’”

Panelists also urged leaders to be aware of the assumptions they have, particularly with first-generation students. It’s not safe to assume they’ll figure something out because their roommate will help them.

“We have to challenge our beliefs and instead ask: ‘Do they have the people outside of a class to draw upon for help, to get advice or even counseling?’”

Amelia Manning shared that the advisors at SNHU are encouraged to look beyond a student’s academic performance as an indicator of how well they are.

“When looking at students, our advisors will ask: ‘Are they involved in clubs or organizations? Are they a part of SNHUconnect, our online community platform? Are they responding to people who are reaching out to them to offer support or just to check in?’”

Our survey respondents, it appears, are keeping this top of mind as well, especially when it comes to more vulnerable students:

When asked what their greatest point of concern was with respect to at-risk students, 43% of our 346 respondents answered “Socioeconomic or sociocultural barriers” while 30% cited “Signs of mental health distress.”

Survey results and panelist opinions show that understanding how student needs have changed from a face-to-face, traditional basis is probably the biggest factor institutions need to address when it comes to how they show up for their students.

How to Make Use of Data

Using data and analytics to improve student outcomes is nothing new, but there are new ways of analyzing the data and new strategies institutions can deploy to address the results. Dr. Borden brought up the ways in which SNHU used data to catch red flags and highlight potential gaps in student learning before they snowball, and Manning expanded on this.

“Advisors all have a group of students they interact with. When they log in to our system, certain students will be prioritized. That’s based on years of data, which helps inform risk levels based on student behaviors and attributes that tell them, “These are the students on any given day that you need to be prioritizing in terms of your outreach.”

The advisors, Manning said, have several tools and different ways in which they can connect with those students. And they’re able to be very targeted because of the behavioral information that they’ve been given in advance.

Dr. Borden reiterated the need to remember the whole learner. “For too long in the classroom we focused only on the cognitive student. We ignored the students’ connectedness—their feelings of friendship, relationships, nurturing networks. We also largely ignored their mindset and belief in themselves.” He mentioned that there is a need to replicate more than just the online classroom—it’s about replicating the online campus. Institutions need to think about how every online or hybrid student can access the same financial support, library support, tutoring support and more.

“We’ve seen that when we try to save students based only on academic data, we miss out. Rather, we should be trying to find students who are struggling in other ways.”

Our survey respondents agreed. When asked what they felt were the best ways institutions can adapt to changing student needs, the top two responses were “Introducing greater flexibility for learners through in-person and online course options” and “Providing early-warning interventions/analytics to keep students on track.”

Manning drove this point home further, highlighting how the habit of SNHU advisors keeping an eye on student behavior outside of strictly academic results acts as an early indicator: “We’ve started to unlock sentiment data so we can understand what might be happening prior to someone dropping off that cliff.”

Importance of Change Management

Dr. Borden noted that when organizations think of change management, they often think of switching out one piece of software for another. While technical change management is a part of the puzzle, it’s crucial not to lose sight of the human change management piece. “People ask, ‘How do we fix things; how do we transform them?’” But according to Dr. Borden, the better approach is to think of technology not as the solution but as the enabler of a potential solution.

Tim Werth agrees. He discussed how Purdue handles change on the technical and people side, stating that he never wants to push anyone into a system he’s trying to create. “I want them pulling the system into a problem they’re trying to solve. I think that’s the most important piece to change management. If you do it by pushing technology into the business, [it becomes] less about change management and more about damage control. We’ve all been in positions where we’ve created that [situation] and then had to work our way out of it.”

Instead, Werth suggests first understanding the problems people are trying to solve and then seeing how technology can support a solution and positively impact users.

The Future of Education: Reimagined

In a rapidly changing world, what strategies should higher education institutions and faculty use to best prepare for the future?

In this webinar, Dr. Jeff Borden, Chief Academic and VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, talks about the future of education with special guests Phil Hill, Ed Tech Consultant; Timothy Werth, Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Purdue University Global; and Amelia Manning, Chief Operating Officer at Southern New Hampshire University.

Watch the webinar now

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Table of Contents

  1. The Future of Learning Models
  2. Don’t Make Assumptions About Student Demographics
  3. How to Make Use of Data
  4. Importance of Change Management
  5. The Future of Education: Reimagined