Designing a Future of Digital Engagement

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Homepage: From the President

Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

"The future of higher education is more than a digital replica of yesterday's campus or even today's classroom. The building blocks of our future higher education institutions are physical and virtual; they are human and technological. By combining these capabilities—the best of both the traditional (the campus) and the digital (computing), we can build colleges and universities that are designed to engage." With the first article in this issue of EDUCAUSE Review, I introduce the theme of digital engagement.

As Perry Hewitt explains in "Setting the Stage for Digital Engagement: A Five-Step Approach": "Today, people don't simply replicate offline activities online; rather, they create and engage in new mobile and social behaviors." She illustrates her point with the class of 2014 graduating students, who "Instagrammed their selfies and Snapchatted their campus farewells before Ubering to the airport." The current digital environment includes social, mobile, cloud, and big data. Hewitt thus advises institutions to "adjust outreach efforts for the fact that the connected, mobile audiences are reshaping the nature of engagement."

Engagement, a dynamic relationship between the individual and the institution, is critical for higher education and its many stakeholders. Engagement fosters a deep sense of being an integral part of the institution—its mission, history, culture, values, and goals. Increased
student engagement leads to higher levels of achievement. More-effective alumni engagement leads to more giving and support. Technology provides many engagement tools that go beyond what is possible face-to-face. As I write in the introductory article, technology enables digital engagement: "Digital engagement could be used to describe the extent to which a college or university uses digital technologies and systems to connect and interact with students, faculty, and other stakeholders in ways that effectively advance individual and institutional objectives. In a world that is both online and face-to-face, engagement is not an either-or proposition—it is about how to blend the best of both worlds to engage stakeholders."

Yet we do need to be aware of two tempering factors. First, colleges and universities cannot be all things to all people. When an institution addresses students' specific needs, for example, students will be more engaged and more successful. Phil Regier, in "Using Technology to Engage the Nontraditional Student," focuses on one group: the "talented, mature, and heretofore unsuccessful students who will form, in many ways, the heart of the U.S. economy for the next three decades: students between 25 and 45 years old who are fully desirous and capable of earning a diploma but who have no degree in hand." He says we need to stop overlooking these students and start engaging them. Technology can help, by making "learning faster, more responsive, more portable, and more effective" through adaptive learning tools and accelerated courses. Just as learning science has informed learning online, research on online learning can inform learning in all environments. "All students benefit from personalized and adaptive learning technologies which make learning more efficient and effective."

Second, as promising as digital engagement is, we must pause to unearth embedded assumptions. In "The Other End of the Scale: Rethinking the Digital Experience in Higher Education," William G. Thomas III and Elizabeth Lorang assert: "All of us in higher education talk with lofty idealism about the necessity of digital engagement in our classrooms and research environments, but we rarely ask what kind of engagement we want and on what terms." Whereas the digital divide has traditionally referred to access to technology, they raise the issue of a digital divide less often addressed: "The present digital divide is less a function of access to the Internet and more a function of whose histories are accessible, which materials are privileged, and on what terms." Their History Harvest project addresses this issue by engaging students to collect stories, ensuring a more inclusive history of the community.

The opportunity to be more inclusive can go beyond a class or even a campus. Clouds represent the ubiquitous large-scale technological infrastructure of contemporary society. MOOCs, for example, use the cloud to reach a global audience. Clouds also provide access to "crowds," meaning that the work of thousands of people can be combined in new ways. Crowds increase our capacity to test new ideas or to collect information, producing a more complete digital record.

Clouds and crowds point to our future. Other glimpses of the future are offered in "Higher Education in 2024" by Bryan Alexander, who outlines three (out of many) possible scenarios for higher education: Two Cultures, Renaissance, and Health Care Nation. Alexander proposes that by sharing our thoughts on these and other scenarios, we can create "collective intelligence, pooling our intellectual resources and imaginations in a challenging time for higher education. Such a conversation about possible futures and multiple present trends could help those of us involved in education and technology to think more clearly about how what comes next emerges from what is now."

In our "now," all colleges and universities have a digital presence. So, what is next? We can design a future of deeper digital engagement that benefits higher education and society.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 49, no. 5 (September/October 2014)