As we take stock of the twists and turns that lie ahead, two powerful transformations are keeping higher education in motion. Cx is converging with Dx, each unfolding individually as they simultaneously move together.
In 2015 when Janet Napolitano, then president of the University of California, responded to what she saw as a steadily growing "chorus of doom" predicting the demise of higher education, she did so with a turn of phrase that captured my imagination and still does. She said that higher education is not in crisis. "Instead, it is in motion, and it always has been."Footnote1 That image of colleges and universities in motion perfectly describes the last few years of navigating our way through the global COVID-19 pandemic. The motion is more murmuration than marching in formation, and, honestly, I see a real beauty in the erratic elegance of a flock of starlings. The moves that got us through those toughest times were remarkable and unprecedented, and the work of technology professionals across campuses was nothing short of heroic. As we take stock of the twists and turns that almost certainly lie ahead, I see two powerful transformations in motion, each unfolding as they dance together.
Moving Mountains, Debunking Myths
I know the adventures we have been through in higher education are commonly described as nothing short of a "great pivot," but it's hard to overstate the epic scale of the work that was accomplished. When I see the EDUCAUSE 2020 QuickPoll graph showing the shift from no online courses in 2019 to nearly 30% all-online courses in the early months of the pandemic (figure 1), the mountains that have been moved clearly take shape. This accomplishment and the speed with which it took place should finally allow us to debunk one of the most dominant myths about higher education: the idea that we move only at glacial speed. We can't unsee what just happened. We can no longer blithely nod along in agreement with the laundry list of reasons why higher education can't move with agility and speed.
Meanwhile, a number of new challenges have emerged, and they are anything but trivial. The 2022 enrollment declines that Doug Lederman, from Inside Higher Ed, calls a "gut punch" are not only painful but, to some extent, hard to comprehend. As the researcher and policy analyst Nate Johnson explains, the long-standing mythology around countercyclical enrollment gains during economic downturns appears to have failed us. For example, instead of the 40% enrollment gains that normally could be expected for community colleges during a 13% increase in unemployment, enrollments declined steeply.Footnote2 In August 2022, the Chronicle of Higher Education declared that the 10% decline in college attendance in the United States since the start of the pandemic may not be a temporary perturbation of an otherwise more hopeful trend. In fact, declines have "sparked fears that many students are not simply missing but gone for good."Footnote3 If the future of higher education is fewer students, this means that already stressed institutions will be competing for those fewer students.
These aren't the only long-standing higher education assumptions that are wobbling these days. When I'm at my most hopeful, I feel we have been experiencing one long financial upheaval since the turn of the twenty-first century—but we seem to be prevailing. However, there is something uniquely distressing about the current financial upheaval. For one thing, whereas one-time pandemic funding made the difference between surviving and not surviving for some institutions, the flood of financial issues (including those linked to enrollment) continues even as that funding is drying up. Well before the pandemic, funding cuts had been a persistent problem, often resulting in institutions passing the costs on to students.Footnote4 And of course, the affordability of higher education and other inflation-driven financial issues for students are off the charts in 2022.Footnote5 In short, the unspoken belief that we will always, somehow, prevail financially is being called into question.
The current situation has understandably created a sense of urgency. The good news is that debunking some commonly held myths and assumptions about higher education can create space and energy for new approaches.
The EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT issues for 2021 effectively mapped out three potential scenarios for higher education technology after the pandemic: restore, evolve, or transform.Footnote6 These three scenarios remain relevant two years later, as we look ahead to 2023. The reality is that some aspects of a given college or university will return to the pre-pandemic steady-state, others will evolve, and some will transform. One thing is certain: the last category—transformation—can't happen without intentionality.
EDUCAUSE has been promoting the concept of digital transformation (Dx)—its theory, tactics, and best practices—since 2018. Our pre-pandemic definition eerily anticipated the future as it explained digital transformation specifically in the context of "sweeping social, economic, technological, and demographic changes." We insisted then, and we continue to insist now, that digital transformation amounts to deep and coordinated change that substantially reshapes the operations, strategic directions, and value propositions of colleges and universities and that this change is enabled by culture, workforce, and technology shifts. As Dx becomes ubiquitous, our focus at EDUCAUSE has moved from the more evangelical work of drawing attention to the Dx opportunity to the more substantive work of providing resources that support comprehensive change. The popular DX Journey website, for example, appropriately describes the process as a journey rather than a straight line.
EDUCAUSE Dx Resources
- The Dx Journey (roadmap website)
- 7 Things You Should Know About Digital Transformation, November 26, 2018
- Susan Grajek and Betsy Reinitz, "Getting Ready for Digital Transformation: Change Your Culture, Workforce, and Technology," EDUCAUSE Review, July 8, 2019
- Malcolm Brown, Betsy Reinitz, and Karen Wetzel, "Digital Transformation Signals: Is Your Institution on the Journey?" EDUCAUSE Review, May 12, 2020
- D. Christopher Brooks and Mark McCormack, Driving Digital Transformation in Higher Education, ECAR research report, June 2020.
- Digital Transformation (Dx) Institutional Self-Assessment
- "Digital Transformation," an EDUCAUSE Review Special Report, October 18, 2021.
Our Dx message was amplified in 2020, and the trend accelerated significantly. In 2019, an EDUCAUSE Dx survey found that only 13% of institutions were engaging in Dx, whereas a QuickPoll conducted two years later reported that 44% were engaged (see figure 2). With another 27% of respondents in 2021 reporting that they are in the process of developing a Dx strategy, well over two-thirds (71%) of colleges and universities are now either engaged in Dx or developing a strategy to engage.
Nearly all colleges and universities experienced the "great pivot" in full force during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a pivot is not a transformation. A basketball player pivots in one direction, but the whole point of a pivot is for the player to be able to pivot back quickly in the other direction. In contrast, a transformation in basketball would be something that changes the court, the ball, the scoring system, and the rules of the game itself. Technology presented an indispensable lifeline that enabled higher education to pivot in 2020; now that lifeline is transforming as it turns into something far more comprehensive and important. Instead of functioning as a one-time fix during the pandemic, technology has become ubiquitous and relied upon to an ever-increasing degree across campus and across the student experience.
The tidal movement to digital transformation is linked to a demonstrably broader recognition of the strategic role and value of technology professionals and leaders on campus, another area of long-standing EDUCAUSE advocacy. For longer than we have talked about digital transformation, we have insisted that technology must be understood as a strategic asset, not a utility, and that senior IT leaders must be part of the campus strategic decision-making. But the idea of a strategic role for technology had disappointing traction among senior campus leaders before 2020. In 2018, Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), spoke at the EDUCAUSE annual conference and observed that, in a 2017 ACE survey, only 12% of college and university presidents saw information technology as an important area of strategic development for the future.Footnote7 At EDUCAUSE, we have tracked the placement of the senior IT leader on campus as a proxy for the degree to which these perceptions may have shifted; in particular, we have tracked whether the senior technology leader or CIO serves on the campus cabinet and where these leaders report. For a long time, neither number changed dramatically from year to year. In both 2016 and 2019, 42% of CIO respondents reported that they held a cabinet post. But with the pandemic, this number jumped to almost 60% by 2021. Likewise, the percentage of CIOs reporting to the president/CEO rose from 29% in 2019 to 39% in 2021.Footnote8 Meanwhile, an October 2020 EDUCAUSE QuickPoll shows that IT operational influence has increased or increased greatly (66%) while strategic influence experienced a similar increase (56%). Importantly, respondents thought this elevated influence will continue for operations (84%) and for strategy (82%) after the pandemic.Footnote9
One of the reasons Dx is considered to be a continuing, not temporary, trend is that the pandemic brought forth an "all-hands" approach out of necessity. We have certainly seen the importance of this kind of approach when it comes to Dx. Technology professionals were required to work outside traditional silos and territories. Most telling is the perspective of more than 600 senior campus administrators surveyed in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Strategic Technology Innovation Research Brief. One of the key findings of this research underlined the importance of collaboration, in particular with campus technology units. Asked whether "the pandemic required closer collaboration between senior administrators to make strategic decisions about technology," the vast majority (86%) of respondents said yes. Even more critically, 75% agreed that this level of collaboration will continue post-pandemic.Footnote10
In a very short time, digital transformation has gone from being a turn of phrase embraced by "early adopters" to becoming a broadly understood imperative amplified and accelerated by a sense of urgency. This is not, however, the only crucial transformation being experienced in higher education at this time.
Any role, responsibility, or initiative involving technology in higher education has certainly experienced renewed energy and interest in the last few years. At the same time, a parallel global movement is focused on advancing a culture of care on campuses around the world. Like digital transformation, cultural transformation (Cx) is hardly new but is also newly and powerfully energized.
Cx for Students
When I was a newly minted PhD first teaching English in the 1990s, I often heard of students having a "right to fail," a belief that it is the student's job to be the best student possible—and not the role of others to step in and step up when it comes to students' success. In contrast, a decade and a half later, when I was serving as a provost, we rewrote our student handbook because it read more like a book of commandments ("thou shalt nots") and menacing threats than any kind of network of support. Even though students were the handbook's primary audience, they were spoken of in the third person (e.g., "if a student fails to maintain satisfactory academic progress, he or she will…"). This is not to say that individual staff and faculty were not deeply dedicated to the students they served. They were, but this caring was not consistently reflected or expressed in broader ways.
In 2009, I led a statewide initiative in Minnesota to use technology advancements to better serve students, and we called the initiative "Students First" because the initiative emerged from student leaders who participated in the process mapping to identify needed areas of improvement. At the time, the name was intentionally a bit provocative, but today evidence of students being put first is everywhere. In the EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues for 2022, students are literally in the center of the top issues identified (see figure 3), and our findings are blunt: "No institution can be successful and sustainable without placing students' success at the center."Footnote11
One way campuses that care are putting students first is to reimagine what a connected campus should be. Before the pandemic, being connected meant that campuses were wired comprehensively and wired for speed, but the pandemic made it painfully clear that students are our new "last mile." In the EDUCAUSE 2022 Students and Technology Report, students made it clear that stressors persist. More than three-fourths of students experienced one or more technology issues over the past year, and more than half said that at least one of these issues caused them stress. "In keeping with previous research results, unstable internet connections top the list, with 64% of respondents saying that they have experienced this and 35% reporting that it caused them stress." Almost 30% said that in the past year, their main device lost connectivity during class, an exam, or another synchronous activity.Footnote12
The first six months of the pandemic were marked by technology professionals' intense and creative efforts to address gaps that were harder to see before the crisis turned them into gaping chasms. As an EDUCAUSE QuickPoll in May 2020 shows, campuses scrambled to provide loaner laptops or tablets, create or expand virtual help desks, expand Wi-Fi hotspots, create Wi-Fi access in parking lots in public locations, and negotiate discounts with suppliers to the benefit of students—and much more.Footnote13 Some of these activities have continued and matured since 2020.
The degree to which our most vulnerable students in general, and students of color in particular, were disproportionately impacted is well established. Gaps in basic needs like food, finance, and housing became better understood. For example, a Temple University study reported significant challenges with housing and food insecurity in 2020, reporting that "Indigenous, Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native students at two- and four-year institutions were 16 to 21 percent more likely to experience basic needs insecurities than white students."Footnote14
Many have observed that two pandemics rocked the world in the spring of 2020. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minnesota set in motion a second maelstrom, especially on campuses, where racial reckoning took hold with a passion. In this case, students did not wait to be recognized to speak but took to the streets and campus quads to make the case for justice. Both of these two powerful pandemics have taken a toll on students, but the one that has been rooted in hundreds of years of systemic discrimination arguably hit the hardest in many ways.
There is surely no clearer indication of how much has changed than the topic of students' mental health and wellness. Although mental health concerns had been simmering for many years before the pandemic, the last few years have seen a groundswell of higher education press related to mental health and well-being, as well as articles in the general media, with The Washington Post declaring a "mental health tsunami" at colleges and universities.Footnote15
ACE regularly surveys college and university presidents to determine what issues are keeping them up at night. In 2021, the association reported that for the fourth time, the mental health of students was "the pressing issue most commonly selected by presidents." Mental health of faculty and staff was second. This is remarkable, especially when one realizes that in the list of pressing presidential concerns, these two were followed by the "long-term financial viability of the institution."Footnote16 Meanwhile the World Health Organization documented a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide in the first year of the pandemic. The World Economic Forum reported on a 2020 survey that found similar results in ten countries including the United Kingdom, United States, Netherlands, France, Spain, Australia, and Nordic countries. Of students who responded, 76% acknowledged that they struggle to maintain their wellbeing, as did 73% of staff. While policymakers and researchers acknowledge the issue, students' perspectives of their own situation are fairly bleak, with one January 2022 student survey concluding that nearly 90% of students say that there's a "mental health crisis" at U.S. colleges and universities.Footnote17
At the heart of the ACE study is the axiomatic and well-researched fact that "students are most academically successful when their learning environments support their general welfare." Attention to students' mental health and wellness is clearly the right thing to do; it's also the smart thing to do for campuses. At a time when enrollment concerns are top of mind, the long-established link between mental health and retention has also been elevated and better understood. According to an April 2022 Gallup-Lumina report, over three-fourths of bachelor's degree students who had considered dropping out in the previous six months cited emotional stress as the reason, an increase of 34 percentage points from its previous report, in 2020. Mental health support is an issue for students who leave, but it is also increasingly a concern for those deciding which college or university to attend. A 2020 survey, for example, found that 60% of prospective students consider mental health services a "very important" factor in their search, and a September 2019 study found that 77% of parents believe campus mental health is a very/somewhat serious problem and that half report mental health resources as "very" or "somewhat" important in their college selection consideration.Footnote18
Just as EDUCAUSE has consistently stressed that Dx is not just about technology but, rather, is about a comprehensive culture change related to technology, workforce, and culture, Alan Lesher, chief executive emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, makes a very similar argument about Cx in a report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. "The required investments will be substantial, but simply throwing money at the problem won't be enough, Leshner says. The report calls for an 'all-hands' approach to mental health that starts at the top, with university presidents, and involves faculty and staff members at all levels. . . . 'It will take a cultural shift to produce the healthy, well-educated people that the country needs,' Leshner says."Footnote19
Ad hoc initiatives to expand the way we care for students are being spun up everywhere. In the United States, campuses have been urged by the federal administration, the Department of Education, and the Surgeon General's Office to use federal COVID-19 relief funding to address students' mental health, but this funding is limited and one-time only.Footnote20 In April 2022, EDUCAUSE joined nearly 100 other organizations in a letter to congressional leaders, calling for legislation to support and invest in students' mental health. As of October 2022, two laws are working their way through the legislative process, with one bill encouraging "comprehensive campus plans." This is a positive start, but bills urging comprehensive action (H.R. 5407) without funding will be of limited value, and transformations are not easily mandated legislatively. State legislative action has led to the expansion of mental health platforms, though in the case of Illinois, new requirements to narrow gaps in mental health services for public colleges and universities did not come with funding.Footnote21
One intriguing approach is the "Caring Campus" program advanced by the Institute for Evidence-Based Change (IEBC), which promotes comprehensive approaches to caring for students. In some cases the more comprehensive an approach is, the more it falls back on platitudes; however, the focus of Caring Campus resources is on specific caring behaviors for various roles, including faculty and staff. For example, the "top five staff behavioral commitments" (see table 1) would be excellent touchstones when working with students on a regular basis.
|Ten Foot Rule: Whenever a student is within 10' and seems to need assistance take the initiative to approach them. Say hello, smile, and use a positive tone.||Reaching Out: If your college allows. reach out to students via phone, email, and text to let them know you're available to answer questions, respond to concerns. etc.|
|Name tags: Wear name badges or lanyards wilh the college name on them so that students will know who to approach with questions.||Give Your Information Up Front: Start each contact with your name & department. Ask for student's name and contact info in case you get disconnected.|
|Cross-Department Awareness: Learn about other departments so you know where to send students. Maintain accurate and up-to-date detailed directories.||Cross-Department Awareness: Learn about other departments so you know where to refer students. Maintain accurate and up-to-date detailed directories.|
|Warm Referrals: Call ahead or walk student to the office they need to get to. Follow up to ensure the student got there.||Warm Referrals: Use the student's callback info to call the receiving office, make the connection on the student's behalf, and ask them to contact the student. Follow-up.|
|First Week Greetings: During the first week of classes set up information tables and meet students in the parking lot, welcome students to the college.||Reach out to students: At key times such as the first week of classes, as course drop dates and filing for degrees approach; especially first time in college students, to ensure they have the information they need.|
Institutions adopting this kind of behavioral approach report qualitative and quantitative evidence of impact, with one college president's testimonial linking the caring campus approach to "significantly higher persistent rates," especially for students of color.
Another president stressed that the caring campus framework puts students front and center, giving faculty and staff a venue to think more deeply about how they interact with and demonstrate their care for students.
In a similar vein, the Inside Higher Education / College Pulse "Student Voice" survey report includes a helpful list of eight concrete practices to improve staff-student interactions:
- Be Intentional About Student Connections.
- Set Service Goals.
- Ease Campus Shuffle Frustrations.
- Avoid Communication Black Holes.
- Temper Expectations about Outcomes and Immediacy.
- Provide Service Training.
- Encourage Service Reporting.
- Act on Feedback and Data.Footnote22
This survey, powered by more than 2,000 respondents, provides overall guidance and discussion points for technology professionals in their interactions with students. One of the survey prompts specifically explores which service-related technologies students are aware of and which services students would like to see implemented more widely or better (see figure 4). The service technologies in highest demand by students were virtual appointment scheduling, chat bots that answer questions, and digital documents/e-signing. In other words, one way that students want to see us care for them is to provide more and better online services.
For technology professionals, any approach that results in a focused staff discussion and an intentional strategy for demonstrating care in day-to-day interactions will contribute to cultural transformation.
Cx for Employees
Campuses offering new ways to care for students may not be enough. Faculty and staff who are providing care will have trouble doing so effectively if they are burned out and struggling with their own wellness.
Whereas student mental health and wellness has, appropriately, been a leading headline for a while, acknowledgement of staff wellness issues is harder to find. After hosting an EDUCAUSE webinar and writing two EDUCAUSE Review articles on "affective labor" and higher education staff in the spring of 2020, Skallerup Bessette wrote a follow-up Chronicle of Higher Education article titled "The Staff Are Not OK." Underscoring the degree to which staff were exhausted, Bessette didn't pull any punches: "Many staff members were required to put their health and safety on the line to be on the campus, while others had to fight for the right to work remotely. Hiring freezes have meant more work with fewer people. Wage freezes and furloughs have stretched us to our limits." This tense piece is a call to action with specific recommendations for addressing staff exhaustion. The article also emphasizes that whereas student mental health is a priority, it must not be accomplished at the expense of staff wellness, especially given staffing realities. "Most of our service units were understaffed before Covid-19. But now, rather than serve a small percentage of the campus, we are suddenly trying to serve the entire campus with the same level of staffing."Footnote23
In January 2021, EDUCAUSE conducted a QuickPoll on the topic of stress in the workplace. The sense of exhaustion was equally pronounced: "Strong majorities of respondents reported increases in stress since the beginning of the pandemic (76%) and expect their stress to persist (54%) or even worsen (36%) over the next year." These results were affirmed in international studies as well.Footnote24 In a February 2021 ACE survey, 58% of presidents considered "mental health of faculty and staff" to be a top concern. However, in an April 2021 survey, the number fell to under half (48%). In a December 2021 survey, the number fell further, to 34%, even though "staff and faculty morale" was a pressing issue for 45% of presidents.Footnote25
While stress and wellness of staff and faculty has not been a prevailing story in the higher education and mainstream media, broader workforce upheaval has been a four-alarm fire for higher education. Workforce disruptions in every sector continue to be a major concern, and it is highly unlikely that employee retention will succeed if wellness is not addressed. A July 2022 CUPA-HR study targeting all non-faculty higher education employees highlights the current stakes. Approximately 35% of higher ed employees are likely or very likely to look for a new job in the next year, and 22% are somewhat likely to do so, a significant increase even since 2021 (see figure 5). Summarizing the survey results, the CUPA-HR report concludes that higher education institutions are "at risk of losing half of their current employees in the next year" and that employee retention "appears to be getting worse rather than better."Footnote26
Given the need for a culture of care for students, faculty, and staff alike, it's worth noting that the #2 top trend in the EDUCAUSE 2022 Trend Watch report was not, as in years past, a technology trend but was "awareness of campus health." Our colleagues at Jisc in the United Kingdom have also raised the alarm on mental health and wellness. In their 2021 report Student and Staff Wellbeing, they shared concerns about staff burnout and the rise of staff referrals to counseling services, and they expressed concern about the trend worsening. The Universities UK's Stepchange: Mentally Healthy Universities shares a similar compelling vision: "Our shared vision is for UK universities to be places that promote mental health and wellbeing, enabling all students and all staff to thrive and succeed to their best potential," a feat accomplished by all universities "adopting mental health as a strategic priority and implementing a whole university approach." What makes the UK approach so powerful is combining student and staff well-being into a shared and determined approach focused on mental health and well-being across campuses. Like Lesher, the report calls for an all-hands approach to mental health, one that intentionally adopts a "whole system perspective" recognizing both that campuses are places where people learn, live, work, and play and that they must be systemically supportive of the health and wellbeing of all involved.Footnote27
When it comes to attempting to address employee stress and burnout, campuses are working hard within well-known constraints to retain employees and to continue to be a compelling place to work in spite of the workforce upheaval. CUPA-HR has taken a lead role in studying retention trends and strategies, and its July 2022 survey noted earlier identified the risk of employee loss and delved into specific motivations for staff who are considering leaving. Salary, the opportunity to work remotely, and flexible schedules top the list, and institutions are responding to the extent they can. However, when nearly three-fourths of respondents believe that most of their responsibilities can be done remotely, satisfying employees may be challenging, especially since 63% are working mostly or completely on-site and 37% were unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with their current remote work policies. The study also suggests possible connections between employee loss and burnout, given that 67% of full-time employees work more than full-time hours. The report concludes, "Higher ed employees today have fewer hands to share a heavier load."Footnote28
CUPA-HR's report makes six specific recommendations for retaining employees:
- Provide salary increases wherever possible. . . . Implementing targeted equity increases wherever possible may be one of the most effective ways of addressing problems with retention.
- Offer more in the way of remote work options and flexible schedules. . . . Providing even small accommodations—such as one day a week when an employee can work from home—can go a long way in improving employee satisfaction.
- Be mindful of employee workload and expectations around working hours. . . . Supervisors should consider strategies to reduce employee workload.
- Look for new ways to recognize employees for their achievements, invest in their career development, and offer opportunities for advancement. . . . One quarter of the respondents on the Employee Retention Survey do not feel their institution recognizes them for their contributions; nearly 40% do not feel their institution invests in their career development; and close to half do not believe they're offered opportunities for advancement.
- Enhance your institution's parental leave policies and childcare discounts or subsidies. . . . The provision and enhancement of benefits that would mitigate [the burden on women] and address . . . gaps might help improve retention rates for women in the higher ed workforce.
- Find ways to communicate and promote the things you're doing right. You may already be promoting the things your institution is doing right when you develop job descriptions or postings designed to attract applicants. How often, though, are you communicating these assets to your current staff?Footnote29
A Perfect Storm
Each of these transformations—a digital transformation and a cultural transformation focused on a campus culture of care—is an important, positive, and unique part of the future of higher education. Yet these two transformations are very much interconnected. Together, they form a perfect storm, one that could produce comprehensive change. As digital ways of connecting become ubiquitous across higher education, new opportunities for addressing how we care for students emerge, and these, in turn, add fuel to Dx efforts, demonstrating another way that technology addresses institutional grand challenges.
But we need to acknowledge two realities. First, deploying technology to make a difference in the lives of students and to improve their experiences at our institutions will certainly depend on data and analytics. More data about students will inevitably be gathered and used to trigger wellness-related actions and interventions. As these data dependencies expand, so too will the risks of an inadvertent misuse of student information or of insufficient protection of student data. The need for being proactive and vigilant about digital ethics and information security is non-negotiable—whether we buy or build the tools we use. Attending to our moral and ethical responsibilities in this regard amounts to the ultimate expression of caring about our students.Footnote30
When it comes to our students and their privacy, there is no place for hype or for hasty approaches to technology solutions. Yet the number of mental health apps soared 32% from 2019 to 2020.Footnote31 Stephen Schueller, from the University of California Irvine, offers a PsyberGuide to begin to evaluate the thousands of mental health apps and to help separate the "good from the bad." The guide focuses on three criteria: credibility, user experience, and transparency of privacy practices. Until established standards fully take hold for these apps, a third-party assessment is important. Meanwhile, Jisc has worked to develop a code of practice for handling data related to well-being, limiting risks to students and staff, and ensuring accountability. The EDUCAUSE spring 2022 student survey clearly revealed that there is work to be done in this area. A significant proportion of students responded neutrally or negatively to the statements "I have confidence in my institution's ability to safeguard my personal data" and "I trust my institution to use my personal data ethically and responsibly" (see figure 6).Footnote32
A second reality we need to accept is that technology has long been pointed to as a cause for student mental health issues like addiction, loneliness, isolation, bullying, and anxiety for some students. Social media is often blamed for these issues, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the time that students spent on social media doubled.Footnote33 But use of these technologies is outside our control: that genie is out of the bottle. Some colleges and universities work to encourage students to develop healthier social media habits, and—brace yourself for a surprise—there are apps for that as well. BeReal, developed in France in 2020 and popular on campuses, limits the social media posts of students using the app, and SelfControl allows students to blacklist distracting sites. Yet regardless of the social media usage debate, advocating for certain technology solutions while acknowledging the harms from other technologies is not a contradiction—it's just another complicated feature of our current digital landscape. We can—and must—use technology for good and simultaneously work to avoid its misuse and potential negative consequences.
Digital transformation has made it possible to focus on improving the online student experience, while pandemic pivots to emergency remote teaching are—we fervently hope—behind us. I agree with Michael Feldstein that the online experience may be "the new climbing wall" for students as they contemplate what they are looking for from their institutions of higher learning.Footnote34 At an August 2022 mental health roundtable sponsored by ACE and the Lumina Foundation, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy underscored the urgency for taking action to address college mental health issues, and he specifically acknowledged the role of technology and the need to continue Dx trends. In other words, to use the EDUCAUSE framework, we need to "evolve" rather than simply return to the way things were ("restore"). According to Murthy, "One of the silver linings . . . of COVID-19 is it did force us to use technology to deliver both physical and mental health care much more readily than we were doing before." Murthy told the higher education leaders that "we can't allow ourselves to regress to where things were back in 2019. We have to continue to use technology to make mental health care and counseling available to people."
In 2021, NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education reported on a project to elevate digital services, giving ten Virtual Innovation Awards (VIAs) to higher education institutions that developed exemplary virtual student support programs. Momentum in this area is increasing: behind the ten awards are the more than 100 submissions, and beyond those is a growing adoption curve in all the student support areas represented by the award winners, "ranging from virtual orientation to online career fairs, telemental health counseling, mobile apps for online engagement, live artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots, and more." This NASPA report is valuable not only in lifting up impressive work but also in identifying features common to the ten projects, including student participation in design, a focus on equity, and a desire to use existing technologies fully rather than acquiring new technologies. Many of the projects include use of apps, chatbots, and texts to support students' mental health, wellness, and/or belonging. Georgia State University, for example, offers access to Togetherall, "an online mental health community available to all students."Footnote35
I am not the only one convinced that this transformation of caring could be groundbreaking. Sometime around January 2020, I contacted Elizabeth Bradley, the president of Vassar College, after reading a Forbes article she had written about campus mental health. In this 2019 piece she noted that over a dozen studies showed that web-based resources can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. I urged her to consider writing an EDUCAUSE Review article timed to come out in May, Mental Health Awareness Month. Of course, spring 2020 marked instead the first chaotic months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her article, co-authored with Vassar Professor Michele M. Tugade, insisted that digital strategies and technology-based interventions "could revolutionize mental health care in higher education."Footnote36
Two advantages of digital strategies have little to do with apps or complicated technologies. First, simply putting mental health resources within easy reach for students to learn and gather information in private creates a safe way for them to avoid the stigma that, regrettably, can still present a barrier to seeking help. Second, and more practically, online resources and chatbots are available to students at the time when they are most likely to need help: after standard office hours. As the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Nick Allen wrote in Nature: "Currently, mental-health services are mainly provided through a century-old model in which they are made available at times chosen by the mental-health practitioner, rather than at the person's time of greatest need. But Internet-connected devices are facilitating the development of a wave of 'just-in-time' interventions for mental-health care and support." For example, the telehealth app TimelyCare, used by over 130 colleges and universities, reported that 40% of its mental-health check-ins happen outside business hours.Footnote37
An institutional example of a digital mental health strategy is the University of Toronto's Navi. The virtual agent allows students to ask questions about things they may not feel comfortable sharing with another person, and these questions help the university develop new resources for students. A nurse with the university explained: "We have seen students talk to Navi about topics they aren't always comfortable asking about in person, such as pornography and video game addiction. This has led to resource development and content in Navi about these topics, providing students [a] way to explore without feeling stigmatized or scared."Footnote38
The potential for these mental health digital strategies is high. A pre-COVID meta study of chatbots and "conversational agents" concluded that satisfaction ratings were "high across all studies, suggesting that they would be an effective and enjoyable tool in psychiatric treatment." Three years later, a 2022 study of digital interventions to address mental health needs in colleges considered the perspectives of student stakeholders. The study found that 91% of students experienced barriers to getting access to mental health services and that they acknowledged flexible services as important. Students reported the following digital mental health interventions as high priorities: "a crisis text line (76%), telehealth (66%), websites for connecting to services (62%), and text/messaging with counselors (62%)." Internet cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) is also increasingly part of campus approaches to student-based interventions. The authors of another article on this topic observed that since students increasingly live a lot of their lives online, "it may be wise to meet them where they are." The authors added: "Website- and computer-delivered programs can be effective for improving depression, anxiety, and well-being outcomes."Footnote39
Another digital strategy is virtual reality. I've been enthusiastic about the potential for VR applications related to mental health since the 1990s, when I learned about a VR experience designed to help those without schizophrenia virtually experience and understand the visual and auditory hallucinations that can be so devastating to those with this mental disorder.Footnote40 VR applications deployed for mental health and well-being have come a long way since then. Today these treatments are becoming somewhat common across the Veterans Affairs healthcare system as a way to help veterans with PTSD. And a review of seven studies concluded not only that VR technologies are feasible for improving mental health but also that they may be "a preferred medium for accessing support among many, due to the anonymity that it provides and extra features that are sometimes hard to replicate in real life." The authors added: "It is predicted that VR technology will be more popular and widely used in the future due to the significant drop in the cost and the increase in the quality of VR headsets.Footnote41
The more all of these divergent technology-based supports can come together, the more powerful they will be. One mental health and wellness platform that is being used by many campuses is YOU at College, developed by Grit Digital Health in a partnership with Colorado State University, with more than 2,500 "evidence-based resources comprehensive of the entire student experience." This approach is intended to create a network of caring beyond the counseling center. In one CSU survey, 92% of students reported increased self-awareness; 87% reported increased awareness of campus resources; and 76% reported being better able to manage their stress as a result of the CSU portal, YOU @ CSU.Footnote42 This broad-based approach also intends to reach the disconcerting number of students never reached by current support for reasons that include a perceived stigma.
These technology-based approaches work for students directly, but they are also being used indirectly to teach staff and faculty how to attend to their duty of care more effectively. For example, only half (51%) of faculty believe they have a clear idea of how to recognize a student in distress, and 73% welcome professional development in this area.Footnote43 Kognito is one example of a product that focuses on educating the staff who interact with students at risk. Kognito's suite of mental health products includes AI-driven, interactive role-play simulations for students to support themselves and each other and a simulation designed to teach staff and faculty about mental health distress and what they can do if they are worried about a student. The state university system in Florida required all employees to complete Kognito training to help them recognize and respond to signs of students' distress.
Of course, these signs of distress are not dramatically different from those that faculty and employees may be showing. A final benefit of the digital platform approach to well-being is that it prioritizes both student and staff mental health and wellness. According to Jody Donovan, associate vice president of student affairs at Colorado State University, higher education will finally achieve success in this area when staff, faculty, and students all receive "the same level of care," which in turn "cultivates more cohesion campuswide." Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, agrees: "You can't hire enough counselors. That's why there's interest in taking a sort of public health approach—looking at what you can do to proactively address wellness issues in a broader way."Footnote44