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EdTech of the 21st Century Must be Designed to Meet Student, Employer Expectations

Damien Cooper, Chief Technology Officer, Western Governors University
Damien Cooper, Chief Technology Officer, Western Governors University

Damien Cooper, Chief Technology Officer, Western Governors University

As technology continues to transform the job market and the economy, higher education—and the technology supporting it—are also on the cusp of unprecedented disruption. Leading game changers in the education technology space, such as digitization, personalization and analytics, are providing new opportunities to enhance learning, maximize student outcomes and close skill gaps for employers.

Students engaging with institutions of higher education already have high expectations for their digital experiences based on consumer products they interact with every day. They are accustomed to accessing information anytime, anywhere and on any device through digital experiences that are easy, intuitive and personalized. Yet many traditional colleges and universities are still bounded by barriers to learning. This includes limited access to learning materials delivered though physical textbooks and large lecture halls designed around a one-size-fits-all learning experience.

Whether designed for students at bricks-and-mortar colleges or online universities, education technology today should focus on a digitized and personalized data exchange that supports the student experience while also empowering learnersto validate the skills they acquire.

Digitizing the Student Experience

The emerging era of digitization of the learner experience not only aligns with the expectations of today’s consumers but also offers enhanced learning opportunities to enable unprecedented student success outcomes at scale. In the not-too-distant past this meant universities and colleges needed a mobile app. Now that the landscape has shifted, mobile is only one delivery platform. Students are using wearable technology and interacting with AI platforms, such as Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa, creating the need for digital platforms that can take advantage of all these mediums and support students wherever they may be.

  As technology continues to disrupt students’ everyday lives, higher education must adapt to support 21st-century students, and we are committed to being a leader at developing scalable solutions that can support the broader higher education sector​  

Technology done right minimizes the cognitive load required by students to access, engage with, create and support the learning that comes from the information at their fingertips. At Western Governors University (WGU), we are working hard to meet students in the digital mediums they prefer. We have dedicated significant focus and resources on native mobile apps to create better and more customized experiences across multiple operating systems, as 85 percent of our daily online volume comes from mobile devices. Just three years ago, only 60 percent of our daily volume was from mobile devices. We also launched a performance assessment application, which was developed in house, after determining that our scale and experience needs were above and beyond what was available in the market. We delivered our 1 millionth assessment on that platform in October 2019.

WGU is developing long-term projects aimed at offering digital options for tasks that are often done offline, such as using artificial intelligence to support student advising and the creation of custom time-management tools for students. Nonetheless, we are just scratching the surface of possibilities that new technologies and digital mediums provide to engage with our students.

Digitizing the Institution-to-Employer Data Exchange

Just as digitization of the student experience within colleges and universities is an emerging innovation transforming higher education, so is digitization of the data exchange between universities and the job market as it relates to credentials achieved and skills obtained.

Contemporary students are increasingly opting to enter the job market before or while pursuing degrees, and many are adult learners returning to complete degrees or pursue advanced degrees. In the new job market economy, colleges and universities need to assist students in their ability to represent the skills they have achieved and credentials they have earned—often skills that are not recognized by traditional academics or that are developed outside of their institutions—and help them understand how they relate to industry demands.

Tremendous opportunities remain to aggregate and share academic and competency-based achievements across higher education institutions, and with students’ current and potential employers and hiring recruiters. The digitalization of student records and validated skills is critical to assisting students in understanding exactly what they need to learn for the careers they are seeking and can help them advance professionally while they are still enrolled in degree programs.

Designing and Managing Digitization

Student-focused digital experiences and digital data exchanges aligned to skill-based achievements to meet employer demands will pave the way for explosive growth at scale, and ed-tech teams will play an important role in designing learning systems to support millions of active users.

To manage this growth, institutions need to move to cloud-based architecture designed for massive scale that can provide nearly unlimited on-demand infrastructure scalability. Operational excellence should remain at the forefront with a metric-driven focus to ensure uptime, quality and the best possible customer experiences. Additionally, ed-tech teams will need to double down on efforts to be platform agnostic to better serve all students.

A combination of in-house and third-party solutions will help power the future of higher education to drive the best student experience possible, so strategies to ensure seamless integration to enable plug-and-play connectivity of those solutions is critical, and holding vendor partners to the same level of accountability and expectation is also important. Furthermore, institutions should not rely solely on traditional education-focused providers as their only options.

These themes support WGU’s mission and drive our vision, priorities and technology roadmap. Our focus on student obsession and ensuring a seamless experience across the entire student journey guides allour decisions, including the technical architecture and design and vendor selection and integration. As technology continues to disrupt students’ everyday lives, higher education must adapt to support 21st-century students, and we are committed to being a leader at developing scalable solutions that can support the broader higher education sector.

Western Governors University is a nonprofit, online university established in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors to expand access to quality higher education — and has more than 20 years of experience in education technology.

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