Meeting Students Where They Are is issue #6 in the 2024 EDUCAUSE Top 10.
"I think that we'll also see more students wanting to tap into online services, whether it is mental health services, whether it's academic coaching services, or other services. Higher education, as we move forward, will continue to be challenged to think about how we provide more and more wraparound support services that are cost efficient, that are at students' fingertips and create flexibility."
—Anthony L. Jenkins, President, Coppin State University
The COVID-19 pandemic helped us experience higher education in new ways. The abrupt, forced pivot to online everything in the spring of 2020 laid the groundwork for multimodal forms of learning and working. Students, instructors, and staff have developed preferences for their own optimal ways of engaging with one another and the institution. Simultaneously, but in alignment with these preferences, institutional leaders and staff are designing and building the "digi-physical"Footnote1 campus of the future.
The pandemic also helped faculty and administrators see students more fully, because it drew back the curtain separating learners from the greater context of their lives. No one can unsee what they saw, and the empathy that students' circumstances and struggles evoked is helping to shape a more expansive approach toward institutional services and a greater commitment to help students overcome their individual barriers to academic success. Leaders are introducing or expanding services to address food and housing insecurity, childcare, transportation, mental health, career counseling, and basic technology needs. Many instructors and instructional technologists see this time as an opportunity to invest in universal design for learning, or UDL.
Ultimately, universal access entails providing multimodal channels to accessing individualized services. This work is part of a larger disruption of the status quo underway throughout higher education. Everyone is questioning why, when, and where to teach, learn, work, and interact. And no one has settled on the answers yet.
Meeting students where they are by providing secure universal access to the services they need helps institutions ensure that students succeed. Multimodal and flexible services need to be shaped by students' needs and outcomes and aligned with institutional resources. Providing online options can be cost-effective and help reach and support many more students. This can make it easier for open-access institutions to expand services affordably. Technology leaders can help institutional leaders understand how to think about digital affordances and benefits more expansively but still realistically.
The chance to provide universal access to institutional services may be time limited. Faculty, students, and staff are still thinking differently because their pandemic memories are fresh. This is the time to develop a sustainable framework and digital environment.
Get it done. Decisive leaders who emphasize action and accountability will help stakeholders cut through analysis and debate to focus on results and ongoing improvement.
Effective governance matters. Institutions with a strong shared governance system will thrive because such systems have trusted processes to gain buy-in from faculty, the administration, the board, and students.
It's never going to be yesterday again. Institutions that are steeped in history and tradition and that viewed the pandemic as a blip, rather than a crisis that changed the landscape of higher education going forward, will miss the opportunity to pivot to innovation. This missed opportunity may even spell the end for some colleges and universities.
Focus on the students. Outcomes that benefit students must guide efforts to provide universal access to institutional services. And what better way is there to put students at the center of these initiatives than to involve them throughout the process?
The Key to Progress
Institutions that are responsive and nimble will make more progress more rapidly.
From Strategy to Practice
What You're Saying
"Both the college and the IT department's strategic plans highlight inclusivity and a better connection with the student body. For the IT department, this includes a stronger presence in student-focused campus events and a greater intentionality in terms of student-specific support offerings."
"Accessibility is slowly becoming more of a mainstreamed concern in the teaching and learning space, with some small increases in staffing dedicated to advancing this part of our mission. The people in charge of DEIB are slowly understanding that accessibility and technology are important to advancing institutional goals around equity."
"Especially when focusing on rural areas, access becomes life-changing for those who have income disparities with inflation (e.g., gas, housing, or nontraditional students)."
"If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it's that we have to be flexible and adapt to ensure business continuity. Those who cannot adapt will find themselves in a lot of hurt down the road."
"Northern Arizona University is pursuing a series of partnerships with community colleges to develop a highly flexible, multimodal approach to academic delivery and degrees pathways. In addition, we are working with community and tribal colleges on six initiatives to increase postsecondary attainment: (1) transforming our universal admissions program and stop-out reengagement effort; (2) enhancing learning, teaching, and advising with data analytics; (3) automatically delivering new milestone credentials to students; (4) translating the transcript into employer-relevant skills and competencies; (5) expanding high-demand, high-skill, high-wage, high-quality academic pathways; and (6) modernizing tools and data to help students maximize the value of their education and to equip faculty and staff with insights to facilitate student success."
"Wake Technical Community College has implemented college-wide, cross-functional Care Teams that target students in the college's Career Field pathways groupings, as well as specific groups of students, such as veterans. The college currently has fourteen Care Teams serving all degree-seeking students. Care Team members offer holistic advising along with a roadmap to graduation, transfer, or the workforce; a success coach in students' first semester to aid in early persistence; a direct connection to campus resources; and career services supports. Early results are promising as Wake Tech has seen improvement in student retention."
"Bridgewater State University believes mental health is a community effort and is onboarding various applications across the institution geared toward students' mental health. These applications range from tools for faculty and staff to learn how to recognize and speak with students in need of mental health support to tools for mental health support applications and improved intervention and learning management."
"Oregon State University Information & Technology is igniting digital and organizational transformation across our campuses, redefining how we operate to meet the evolving needs and expectations of our community and deliver real-time, seamless online communication and engagement across various platforms in ways that feel relevant, contemporary, and personalized. We are enhancing the student experience through a robust CRM practice, utilizing data as a strategic asset to drive data-informed decision-making, elevating researchers, expanding the research enterprise with a university-scale digital research ecosystem, and improving digital inclusion by closing the digital divide and promoting lifelong learning across the state of Oregon."
What You're Working On
Comments provided by Top 10 survey respondents who rated this issue as important
Better service quality
- Adding an onboarding portal to better manage the student experience.
- Many services are being driven toward a 24x7 model, with the help of third-party organizations. That is, the institution is soliciting the help of other organizations to provide extended services (enhanced in many places).
- Working to simplify and unify the delivery of student services with a Virtual First Stop initiative, bringing six major service units together to coordinate hours, tools, and service expectations and training. Long-term goals are to create a seamless experience for students and shift our delivery to the channels our students rely on and want the most.
- We recently went through a reorganization and created a new unit called "Academic Technologies & Customer Experience" that will focus on improving access and the experience for students.
- All students are provided with access to institutional services (e.g., tutoring, online support, virtual desktop support, and one-stop tech support for everything including digital media).
- Centralizing student activities like testing, tutoring, advising, and the library and developing a full-fledged student helpdesk; also providing enhanced food banks, clothing connections, and other support services.
- We are implementing virtual advising and counseling services to ensure that students can receive support regardless of their location.
- Through videoconferencing and online chat platforms, students can connect with advisors and counselors for academic guidance, career counseling, mental health support, and other essential services. This virtual approach removes geographical limitations and ensures that all students have access to the support they need.
Expanding academic access
- Adding online core programs for international students to access.
- Creating pathways into training; training students to learn, including language development, basic skills development, and pre-diploma tracks that prepare students for success once in the program. Online and adaptive services to support access to any groups.
- HyFlex classrooms for on- and off-campus programming delivery. Program size reduction and new streaming technologies to allow for lower-bandwidth areas to obtain and stream content and classes.
- Increasing digital services in support of UDL for online components of our courses.
- Launching additional online certificate and credential offerings that can also be stacked and converted into a degree.
- Moving to more cloud-based instructional software where remote access is available for no charge to the student; enhancing reliance on no charge to the student/faculty of cloud-based storage and collaboration tools, making on-premises resources unnecessary; promoting eduroam; continuing to invest in virtual computer labs; growing loaner mobile devices.
- One of the strategic initiatives that has been announced this year is to establish a co-enrollment process with community colleges for students to take upper-class courses while staying in the community college, offering students the chance to dual enroll at both the community college and Sacramento State, saving them time and money.
- Reimagining processes and automating them. Allowing staff to be reassigned to high-touch, high-value in-person services.
- Adding more functions to our teaching and learning mobile app (e.g., online chat).
- The college is very serious about ensuring that all students have equal access to all resources, regardless of their modality or geographic location. A lot of this has to be done through the use of technology (e.g., digital IDs, chatbots). Simply trying to staff up won't work, nor is it feasible.
- Universal design has become part of our course design process, and we use a variety of tools to check courses and immediately respond to any concerns.
- We are developing a campaign for Fall 2024 to provide training on building accessible documents with the use of UDL for instructional and administrative/web-based materials.
- Enabling services that leverage emerging technologies (e.g., chatbots using large language models and conversational AI).
- Leveraging chat and SMS tools more widely. Experimenting with AI-driven chatbots.
- This term has been used in healthcare to describe blended digital and physical environments. See, for example, Artin Entezarjou et al., "Health Care Utilization Following 'Digi-physical' Assessment Compared to Physical Assessment for Infectious Symptoms in Primary Care," BMC Primary Care 23 (January 12, 2022). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
Param Bedi is Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Bucknell University.
Susan Bowen is Vice President, Chief Campus Operations Officer, Durham Technical Community College.
John Fritz is Associate Vice President, Instructional Technology, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Carolyn Lightfoot is CIO, Office of Information Technology, Lee College.
© 2023 Susan Grajek and the 2023–2024 EDUCAUSE Top 10 Panel. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.