Wednesday, December 7, 2022


China has overtaken the U.S. for the first time in the ranking of the world’s best universities.

China’s strict lockdowns have pushed their universities to build strong online platforms to attract students and heavily invest in frontier technologies. Artificial intelligence, education and educational research are some of the new subjects added to the ranking criteria. With the rapid growth of online and hybrid learning after the global pandemic, the adoption of research-backed educational technologies and AI will have a disproportionate impact on future rankings.

In the U.S., online and hybrid learning have become the favored methods of learning. If conventional U.S. universities don’t rapidly undergo a digital transformation, their global standing will be increasingly challenged by their peers who embrace the future.

While online learning is not a new development in the education sector, the recent pandemic has given all students a taste of a digital education experience across the globe. Now they expect this flexibility to be the norm. Workplaces have adopted hybrid working, the majority of social experiences happen online, and all our information is digital. Every aspect of our lives has an online presence. We must cater to this shift within our education system to prepare our young people for the world they’ll be stepping into.

Our students already know this. Eighty-two percent of students recently surveyed stated they wanted their education to involve a form of digital learning, and 41% would prefer a completely online experience, while only 18% desired a completely in-person education.

It’s no wonder that traditional universities have seen a 3% decrease in enrollment while online universities have seen an 11% increase. The reason for this is not only the longing for this approach to learning, but it also comes from the value and recognition that online education and certification bring today.

The biggest online institutions have been investing in digital learning for many years, so when the pandemic hit, they were well prepared for the influx of students they received. Those students were able to not only receive equally recognized qualifications as they would from brick-and-mortar institutions, they were also more well versed in the ways of the modern world.

Most traditional universities were not as prepared and fell behind. IT departments in universities were focused on building networks within universities and supplementing technology into face-to-face learning. They simply didn’t have the expertise or capacity to build the entire infrastructure for an online learning environment.

This often resulted in a hodgepodge of systems being stitched together just to provide some sort of digital experience — often trying to directly replicate the in-person experience online instead of adjusting for the needs of remote students: shorter lectures, intentional community-building and modified assessments, to name a few.

Time for Class is a national survey of over 4,000 higher education faculty and administrators. They found the Net Promoter Score in their latest survey to be -42, meaning users are incredibly unsatisfied with current courseware. Students want to learn online, but a poorly executed online education strategy leaves students with even less faith in the higher education system.

Traditional universities need to catch up — fast — or they risk failing altogether. Established universities have had decades and, in many cases, centuries to aggrandize their physical environments so as to enrich the learning experiences of their students. Now they have only years to translate that experience to an ever-changing online world.

Not all universities are trailing in this regard, however. Arizona State University is one example of a university that has embraced online learning and created a digital environment that elevates their students’ education. Not only are the online degrees they offer as robust and well respected as their in-person counterparts, but their online student support is as personable and community-focused as their campus — 91% of students have said they would choose ASU Online again if they were to start their degree over.

I may be simplifying it a little, but there are really two key things that will help traditional universities flourish in a digital landscape.

The first is to be student-driven; they are the main stakeholder, after all. Listen to their needs, analyze data, and see what works and what requires improvement. They should also take what successful online universities have been doing and incorporate techniques that foster educational components that students care about, like belonging, career relevance and peer support.

The second is to know that they can’t do it alone — not in the time frame they need to, anyway. Institutions need to partner with companies that have the expertise to deliver a digital experience for their students: one that is designed for the needs of universities. There are plenty of companies that invest in universities and work with them to expand their online learning capabilities.

These digital-minded companies will have the means to help deliver what the students want and need. By tracking results, collecting feedback and building the infrastructure, universities can digitally transform and focus on delivering an effective academic experience.

Traditional universities don’t have the luxury of time to get this right, especially if they want to keep up with those in China. Students know what they want, and they’ll go where they can get it. If universities don’t provide students at home and internationally a robust and student-driven online experience, they will be missing an essential component of today’s educational market.

• Shaunak Roy is CEO and founder of Yellowdig, a plug-and-play, community-building platform with seamless integration with your learning management system.

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