How Digital Transformation Will Shape Higher Education Practices Post-Post-Pandemic

While digital transformation was already well underway, the pandemic accelerated our collective adaptation to new ways of living. Many digital capabilities already existed in February 2020, but the mandate to stay at home a month later forced us to avail ourselves of the possibilities already in place. Like me, you probably have more groceries and products delivered to your home than you did a couple of years ago. If you’ve visited your physician, you’ve done so online. We made a decision to adopt a remote working environment at RHB; we downsized our office space and allowed everyone to work from home. The office is visited occasionally, but the days of all of us being in one space are over. 

While digital experiences were increasing as a regular part of our everyday lives, until the pandemic, we weren’t forced to use them.

Now that we’ve become adept at virtual experiences and digitally-enabled experiences, we won’t be going back. Sure, we’ll visit the grocery store. Yes, we’ll go see the doctor in person. But video conferences for a checkup and grocery delivery will now always be part of our lives. Think back to your retail shopping habits as a case in point. There was a time when you had to go to the store to buy stuff (though you may not remember it). Ebay and Amazon changed the face of shopping and retail. While novel at first, digital technologies made our encounters with online shopping the norm. We should expect the same transformations to digital dependence as the norm going forward in the post-post-pandemic world.

Even as we conquer the pandemic (hoping, of course, that ultimately we do), there’s no going back to a pre-digital experience. With that in mind, it’s important to think about how we begin interactions with customers and constituents. Our first encounters will be digital for the most part, for example. (Think virtual campus visits, Giving Tuesdays on Facebook). We may, in fact, never meet some customers in person. 

The pandemic helped us see that the digital transformation of everyday experiences is suitable for achieving what we may have previously regarded as possible primarily in-person. Face-to-face has taken on new meaning as we have identified the power for digital experiences.

To that end, we need to be planning better introductory experiences digitally. How do you create the best experience to say hello for the first time? How can you initiate conversation when you don’t have a party or cocktail hour to prompt an occasion to start talking? How do you take the first steps toward exchange if virtual is all you have? Your future depends on your ability to make your first impressions using technology to convey your winning smile and personality.

More than a form or enticing email. How can we change the inquiry process? How can video introductions help us do a better job of welcoming families, courting new donors, engaging potential partners, or recruiting faculty.

How will the digital transformation we are experiencing (due to the force of the pandemic) shape our practices in higher education?

Keep reading to gain insight from my distinguished RHB colleagues. Then, be sure to take time for reflection about how technology is changing the landscape and your opportunities for the future. What can you do better now, post-post-pandemic?

Assess, Reimagine and Redefine

—Erin Gore, Vice President for Client Technology

The topic of digital transformation has permeated discussion in higher education since the pandemic hit in 2020; however, institutions have been technologically evolving for over a decade. The difference now is that the pandemic pushed the pendulum—forcing even the most hesitant and reluctant institutions to technologically evolve the ways in which they operationalize, communicate and teach. Additionally, admission offices had to reinvent the ways in which they approach recruitment and outreach.

March 2020 is a month and year permanently ingrained in my mind. At the time, I was overseeing at Technolutions—a free platform for secondary school counselors, community-based organizations (CBOs), students, and colleges and universities. In speaking with school counselors and CBOs, the collective concern was clear: How would a virtual world impact the college admissions process? More importantly, how would it impact college access? How do you maintain communication and reach your most vulnerable and underserved student populations when they’re disproportionately impacted by the pandemic?

There isn’t a magic answer to these questions, especially due to the systemic challenges that forced us to ask them in the first place. However, at RHB we would start by encouraging institutions to ensure that their digital investments align with their institutional strategy and goals. After all, the pandemic has signaled the need for holistic change. 

So what now? Assess, reimagine and redefine. After all, this is how we approach diagnostics at RHB. What are you currently doing? What’s been working? What are the pain points? What do you aspire to do? We work with hundreds of clients each year and help them to gain efficiencies  through technology and innovation while emphasizing the human experience. We’ve all received that one email with the wrong name or content merged into it. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a conscious reminder of automation. It can be beautifully efficient, yet impersonal—and students know it. If the goal is to attract, yield and retain the best fit students for your institution, you cannot disregard the human element. You must consistently think about how your digital efforts will foster a human connection.

Technology is powerful. It can transform how institutions connect with students (current and prospective), but it does not define or replace human interactions. A pivot to virtual events should be accompanied by follow-up calls. If your institution is cutting back on in-person travel, think about how you’ll reach underserved students. Send that personal note. Be in touch with family/guardians, their counselor or CBO. Share application, tuition and financial aid data transparently. Connect.

The Importance of Context

—Aimee Hosemann, Director of Qualitative Research

What’s been reinforced as truth to me in my role as Director of Qualitative Research is how important context is when we ask about digital transformations that have occurred since March 2020 and which ones will stick. Specifically, we need to ask: which transformations, where, and for whom for which purposes. Keeping these questions in mind will help us understand which transformations should occur following an important time in which so many institutions made heroic efforts to change course delivery and keep their communities close in new ways.

One factor that plays an important role in answering some of the questions I asked here is whether institutions have the will to transform tactics that worked during an emergent situation into routine features of life on their campuses. This also pulls in work-life issues for faculty and staff. One possibility here is that those institutions with the will to continue to allow flexible course delivery and work options will draw faculty and staff from institutions where there is less such will. As well, I’ve observed that students may newly understand their power as consumers who can make demands with an expectation that those will be met. This can further put pressure on institutions to consider routinizing flexibility in working and learning. This flexibility is not now and will not be distributed equally across institutions. It also likely won’t apply equally across academic programs because of academic freedom concerns.

Speaking of concerns about academic freedom, we cannot remove legislative context from this conversation. For instance, consider states where there are moves in legislatures to challenge tenure and the ability to discuss race and identity through an honest lens. Add in the politicization of pandemic response, and we have an environment in which institutions of higher education could be subjected to ever-greater forms of control over their daily functions.

My point here is not to discourage long-term digital transformations. Rather, my point is to be clear that they should be well considered in relation to the nuance of your particular situation. The encouragement I provide is to carefully plot your digital transformations through strategically-minded, specific plans that are transparent and realistic about the goals and priorities those transformations can meet. ‡

Mission-focused and Student-driven Intentionality

—Amanda Sale, Senior Consultant for Enrollment Management

I distinctly remember my last day in the office as COVID-19 shut down in-person operations—it was Friday, March 13, and I walked out of the brick-and-mortar space with my laptop and a screen in the late afternoon, preparing to set it up in my home office for what I thought would be the next two weeks. We had just released decisions and had full campus visit programs throughout the next couple of months and admitted student events that were close to waitlist capacity. What happened next can only be described as a flurry of impressive pivots and creative problem-solving in a mad-dash to create virtual experiences that didn’t duplicate our in-person events, but at least engaged students and told them our story.

Now, two years later as we’re transitioning into an endemic and I’ve transitioned into a new role, I’m drawn back to the lessons I’ve learned and thinking about how I can use them moving forward. Maybe you were at an institution that was at the forefront of the digital landscape, barrelling into virtual options much before it was necessitated by the global pandemic; I was not. We moved into the fully virtual world with hesitation, maybe not kicking and screaming but there were some deep sighs and a few tears. When the visit experience holds a pivotal role in yielding a student, how can you reframe the situation and engage them differently?

The creative problem solving that I witnessed during those first couple of weeks and over the next couple of years is my biggest takeaway and lesson learned from the pandemic and the pivot to our digital environment. It was exciting to watch the conversation shift and take a reverse-engineered approach that focused on the purpose and outcome of a program first and built out the details after that was vetted through. This gave the team an opportunity to build a program that incorporated various platforms, met student needs and identified a plan to measure outcomes, creating an intentionality that was mission-focused and student-driven. It is my hope that we can take that approach much more often than not, because doing this type of heavy lifting before deploying specific tactics gives institutions an opportunity to coherently tell their story and deliver an experience across platforms that is meaningful for both students and their supporters. ‡

The Digital Campus and Flexible Work

—Rob Zinkan, Vice President for Marketing Leadership

The future of work and the Great Resignation are constant topics in our organizational design work with institutional leaders. Across our portfolio of clients, we are seeing all versions of staff work arrangements for individuals and teams. A marketing and communications team, for example, is working fully remotely at one university, while their counterparts at another university are physically together in the office 100% of the time. For most of our clients, the current state is somewhere in the middle. Post-COVID remote work policies—many still in a pilot phase—look different depending on the institution. At colleges and universities where department or division leaders can make those decisions at the individual staff member level, you may have all three work arrangements—fully remote, fully in-person (physical campus office) and hybrid—across a single team. The considerations for building and developing an effective team and desired culture are both significant and complex.

I was listening to a recent episode of the Future U. podcast where Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun discussed lessons for higher ed from the pandemic. “What we learned during this COVID period is that there is a difference between a university and a campus, because we always assumed that, for instance, if I ask you, ‘What is Princeton?’ You say, ‘Oh, Princeton is in New Jersey.’ When Princeton closed its campus at New Jersey, it doesn’t mean that it closed itself. It kept functioning. So this congruence between the university and the campus has been called into action. We have been liberated from there. Therefore, in order to maintain the contact with the students, you have to go where the learners are. And that’s what we’re doing with our building global university system, where we are in California, in Canada, in Seattle, in London.”

I would argue that there is not a difference between a university and a campus. Rather, we need to broaden our definition of campus to include both the physical campus and the digital campus. Before the pandemic, the digital campus was already playing an increasingly vital role to support, supplement and enhance our physical campus experiences. (Previously, we may have only considered the digital campus to be a gateway to the physical campus.) Post-post-COVID has heightened our awareness that these modalities are not binary. Even institutions that are committed to a residential experience have realized the effectiveness and/or efficiency afforded by the digital campus for certain experiences, ranging from specific course offerings to various support services. Marketers should play a leadership role in ensuring that the experiences of those who matter most to your institution, including staff, are congruent across your campus—physical and digital—and with your market position. 

What are the implications for work if the university and the campus (both physical and digital) are indeed the same? Our terminology and labels matter. (I previously advocated rethinking the “office of” nomenclature for administrative units given the changing nature of the “office.”) I hope we move away from the narrower “remote work” label and instead focus more broadly on “flexible work” as the future of work. If our campuses are both physical and digital, our work should not be defined primarily by location. Flexible work takes a more holistic view of work, encompassing location and time and a host of other factors related to employee well-being. It is now among the requirements to attract and retain top talent in marketing and communications and other key functional areas. ‡


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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.