Seeking Seamless Modalities: Revisited in 2021

I originally formulated this post in–what will now be described as–better times in many ways. Of course, market forces were present at the time, the very ones that informed my perspective. I had returned from assignments on multiple campuses where the organizing principles were built and duplicated by delivery method. “Online” had its own organization, “residential undergraduate” its own and “graduate and/or degree completion”, its own. Not only were students unable to travel between deliveries based on admission processes, calendars and credits didn’t align. In many ways, institutions installed themselves as competitors for their own prospects. In the worst cases, delivery methods were as willing to lose a prospect to an outside competitor than any form of learning within the institution.  

Now, centralizing business processes under a single enrollment structure has become slightly more common. In our CRM work, we’re starting to see a swell of institutions come together under a single instance which presents technical and cultural challenges, but in a more productive form. In terms of a single student receiving their education in multiple formats, well, the trauma of COVID-19 rapidly caused institutions to create a virtual facsimile of place bound instruction. This created two levels of exposure, of which probably the most significant was the expectation gap between what the student received and what they thought they were investing inand subsequently the perceived monetary value of the education. Institutions were slow to discount anything, however room and board, gap years, etc., became concessions. What these behaviors revealed was that there was an actual formula for the cost of attendance that was previously opaque. One that could be reverse engineered and scrutinized.

Maybe the most disheartening byproduct of whatever lasting effects the pandemic will have is the notion that access to delivery methods will be nearly exclusively married to the ability to pay. Decoded: the wealthy (or perhaps the wealthier) will continue to grow their share of residential education. There are far more knowledgeable professionals who can speak about college access (email me for a list), but what I can say is these mounting external factors (pandemic, civil unrest, racial inequalities) no longer have an ignorable effect on institutions. 

Perhaps surprisingly germane to this post was a conversation that we had with a client as they worked through scenario planning in the spring. We somewhat pointed asked: “Has anyone run the math to know what you would ‘save’ by closing completely until it was safe to reopen?” The client crinkled and admitted they had not, which signaled to us two important things. First, the mission was to be supported by almost any means necessary, which included secondly, that there were some students that were safer on their campus. This posture led me to an important point of reflection: That higher education may be able to have it both ways: a commodity in the eyes of the consumer but a transformational cause from the perspective of the institution. 

Lastly, and it’s repeated below, I realize nearly as well as anyone that the logistical barriers to more seamless delivery methods are significant. I believe it’s the cultural shift, even if catalyzed by trauma or threat, that presents the greatest opportunity for those willing to experiment.

You too will read this with new eyes. I look forward to your thoughts.

The teaching and learning process on a college campus was once rigid—not necessarily in approach—but in format. If you were a student attending a college or university, 99.9% of all your academic learning was going to take place in a building on campus. This would’ve been a lecture hall. A laboratory. Or a library, perhaps. The .1% might have included the lawn of the quad on a pleasant sunny day. Higher education was delivered in such a way that there was little relative flexibility in where or how learning took place. But now, the expectations are much different. Offering students seamlessness and flexibility in the modalities through which they learn during their academic career is the new expectation. And it makes a lot of sense.

Disclaimer: I realize that college administrators reading this might cringe at the contention that such “seamlessness” is an easy adjustment to just suddenly offer, or switch on and off. It most certainly isn’t. But, I do contend that it is not impossible. In fact, I would take it one step further: I contend that the offer of multiple learning modalities as a feature set may border on mandatory for an institution’s survival in the near future, since the audiences they wish to serve will certainly expect this. And the institutions that transition to this the quickest will be the ones that survive.

“So why must we change?” some may ask. “For years the same model has worked. We provide the housing, the bookstores, the facilities, the faculty and everything else—and the students show up on campus at the times and locations that we say. Then the learning happens.” Here’s the problem: that mindset is no longer viable in today’s culture. Expectations are different. For modern consumers, the mindset is: I prefer to operate on my timetable, not yours.  

The consumers are the ones who set expectations. That’s a sea change for higher ed, and a bitter pill. We’ve already seen the results of this adjustment in expectations over the past 20 years. As an example, the way that students perceive normal residential circumstances has altered. There’s no longer a comparison between a residence hall and an army barracks; we’re more likely to compare a residence hall to a Marriot Courtyard or a Hampton Inn. Rec Centers are no longer humid, mildew-scented gymnasiums with a couple of Weider weight machines and a squash court. Now, they are more reminiscent of an LA Fitness, with upscale fitness center accoutrements like blow dryers in the locker rooms, steam rooms and saunas, and an all-natural smoothie bar. The notion of bookstores—the musty textbook and supply shops of the past—hardly exists. Students today rely on sources like Amazon. If a student needs a book, there’s a good chance they can simply download it and read it on their tablet or phone from anywhere on campus.

So it’s not a far cry to assume that the modalities of learning will be dictated by a change in customer expectations as well. For one, there is an expectation now that the majority of students are probably going to work while they’re in college. There is also an expectation that a student can keep going to school even when their professional, financial or family circumstances change. This requires flexibility in not only when and where students take courses (i.e., late-night, online, winter break) but also the rate at which they can finish their degree, too (i.e., accelerated programs). Institutions will need to figure out how to make it possible for a student who may be perfectly suited to be on a residential campus to remain there for a while, and then complete courses online for a semester or two while they work and earn some money. If a student’s family or financial circumstances change, they will want options to attend a regional campus to do some degree completion studies or other alternate steps toward graduating. In any case, they shouldn’t have to stop learning, and they shouldn’t have to stop going to school, so long as they are plugged into one of these modalities.

The future prosperity of an institution is contingent on its ability to offer these different modalities. Perhaps there is a similar parallel to what we’ve seen in the transition from video stores like Blockbuster to content providers like Netflix and Hulu. Instead of having to make a trip to a video store to rent a movie and then watch it in a fixed location, today’s consumers can log into an account through their content provider and watch all kinds of media from their laptop, tablet, phone; in a plane, a bus, or a doctor’s office waiting room. And while nothing beats the thrill of watching a movie in a theater on a state-of-the art screen with world-class sound (the parallel here is your state-of-the-art facilities and world-class professors), there is something to be said for the convenience of watching a movie anywhere, whenever. The same is true for education. And just as cinema aficionados sometimes willingly trade ideal setting for convenience, so your students will make choices to compromise for the sake of facilitation.

There are some serious hurdles that higher ed administrators face when it comes to implementation of seamless modalities. For one, the actual mechanics are quite tricky. Administrators need to ensure alignment with the standard academic calendar and articulation with other courses while also being mindful of program costs and fair revenue splits. These issues, while notably challenging to resolve, can be resolved with enough planning and effort. Even if you already offer multiple modalities, the real difficulty is in making them truly seamless for students.  

Another set of barriers that is more insidious and perhaps, in worst-case scenarios, insurmountable has to do with campus culture. Difficulties related to campus culture include fighting over ownership of curriculum, perceived quality and prestige (or lack there of) and resistance to technology. How open will your tenured faculty be to learning new ways of doing things? Which school develops the programs? Sorting out these issues takes a greater degree of finesse, or in some cases, determination to accomplish.

At the end of the day, no matter which modalities a student pursues for learning, it will still be your institution’s name on the diploma, and they still trust your “brand” to mean the facet of an education that is most important to them—prestige, value, alumni-network, etc. Hybrid classes and alternative learning opportunities are the way of the future; if students don’t pursue them through your institution, they’ll take them somewhere else and transfer those credits in. Ensure your institution is ahead of the curve in offering seamlessness in modalities. This is no easy task, particularly if you don’t have the capacity to do so. But if you don’t offer this flexibility to students, your competitors will.

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Sam Waterson

Sam is President at RHB.