Beyond Academics, a higher ed consulting firm, issued their Top 10 list of things to expect in 2023. It’s a list worth reading and rather than repeat much of what is in the short report, I thought I’d provide a few comments.
1 – Enrollment campaigns start to leverage emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).
Of all the items on the list, I found this one to be the most disappointing. Colleges and universities that have recruited online students have been using paid search and search engine optimization (SEO) tactics for nearly two decades. Even colleges and universities with low online enrollments likely utilize tools like Google Analytics to understand where their web visitors are from, what their profile is, the pages that they visit, etc. The colleges with large online student enrollments (more than 2,000 online students) have likely enhanced their web pages with keyword hyperlinks that are picked up by web crawlers, implemented content marketing strategies to enhance organic search findings, and employed AI tools like DataRobot to gain a deeper understanding of the effectiveness of key word pairings and visitor patterns and profiles. This is old news to any institution using internet marketing techniques.
2 – Co-Bots join the staff.
Collaborate robots (co-bots) are digital assistants designed to work alongside people, taking on repetitive or mundane tasks to allow employees to take on tasks requiring more critical thinking. Examples cited in the writeup include using an AI-bot to help faculty members grade papers or serve up content to students as they enter the lecture hall. Co-bots in the finance department can predict enrollment trends. Co-bots in the registrar’s office can copy scanned transcripts for transfer students and match them with equivalent courses before a final review by an employee. While bots have been available for nearly 20 years, the frequency of their utilization has increased as well as the sophisticated applications in which they are used. Robotic process automation (RPA) is now offered through the cloud by more than 80 vendors. Any college or university not considering the utilization of co-bots is behind the times.
3 – Credentials get some street cred in the market.
Beyond Academics reports that the long awaited arrival of credentials as an alternative to the degree path for job seekers is here. I wrote at least four articles about this topic in 2022, the most relevant to this discussion is likely The Emerging Degree Reset. Bigger than the news that employers are reducing four-year degree requirements is the fact that non-traditional education providers are doing a better job at offering and marketing these non-credit credential offerings than colleges and universities. Given how slowly changes are implemented at more traditional colleges and universities, the current market leaders could be entrenched by the time the traditional institutions decide to adopt credentials more widely.
4 – Blockchain transforms the credential process.
I agree that utilization of blockchain by colleges and universities will transform the credential process. At the same time, before college and universities implement blockchain technologies for reporting non-credit credentials completed by students, they should determine what they need to report in a digital badge (course syllabus, learning objectives, competencies, students’ results, etc.) before spending the money to embed these credentials in a blockchain. Implemented correctly, blockchain credentials could replace transcripts and would eliminate the slow response time of registrars’ offices mailing out transcripts as well as reduce the hostage situations that occur when students owe the university money after graduation.
5 – The fog of student cloud dissipates.
Until I read this item, I had no idea that there was a student cloud fog. I believe it refers to the digital access by students of classrooms and other campus-based functions. While this may be a project in process at traditional campuses with entrenched systems, The nimbler online universities have had to implement a digital campus from day one of their existence. In many cases, the IT systems embraced by traditional institutions were slow to accommodate online, so many of the first movers developed custom Student Information Systems (SISs) as a necessity. Not surprisingly, there are still few fully integrated student facing systems that are in the cloud with the notable exception of Learning Management Systems (LMS). It’s time to move, but it will take time to move away from incumbent systems.
6 – The focus shifts from SIS to SOS.
According to the consultants, it’s evident to many that the old Student Information Systems (SIS) are repositories for enrollment and academic history and are being replaced by a System of Systems (SOS) approach.
Systems included in the SOS approach include CRM (customer relationship management), LMS, AI/ML, and mobile to create a technology stack that provides a student-centric experience. One of the reasons the consultants cite for moving away from the SIS approach is that the SOS approach results in a quicker implementation of a more modern, student-centric system.
7 – Immersive learning gains momentum.
Virtual reality (VR) training has been proven to be more effective for learners than many traditional classroom experiences. Alignment between IT and Academic leadership is necessary for a healthy immersive learning implementation. Beyond just using AR/VR strategies in the classroom, the Metaverse can broaden the opportunities for access of scalable learning for learners around the globe. I’ve seen some wonderful examples of VR utilization in programs and classes, but nothing on a widespread scale yet.
8 – In person conferences get their swagger back.
More than 68 percent of attendees of academic conferences believe that in-person conferences are better than virtual. Beyond Academics predicts a much higher attendance at conferences in 2023. I agree that more people prefer in person conferences than virtual but budget constraints due to declining enrollments may hurt attendance at some conferences. I attended a conference last week that was operating in person for the first time since 2020. The attendees present agreed it was great to be back in person but noted the absence of more than a few since the last in-person conference. I think many of the non-attendees were not ready to spend the money for conference travel and lodging, an amount that can exceed conference registration fees.
9 – The labor market in higher ed tightens even more.
If it wasn’t for the emphasis on “schools struggling to fill open positions, particularly in fields such as IT, student affairs, and administrative support”, I would have balked at agreeing with this statement. I think experienced and successful IT, data analytics, and enrollment management employees will be in demand for a while, particularly as more schools compete for fewer students and more students compete for online students. It’s been a well-known fact that America’s colleges graduate more doctoral students than colleges need to teach courses, so beyond a few high demand specialties like accounting and engineering, most teaching positions can be filled. Outside of IT, some of the other positions mentioned may fall victim to declining enrollments if universities must cut their non-teaching positions.
10 – The hybrid campus (finally) enables “work from anywhere.”
This one is tough to evaluate. I believe that employees find hybrid working situations more attractive than being required to commute to a job five or more days a week. At the same time, parents paying full tuition for their children to attend a residential institution may object to finding out that their child must go online to get help versus show up in person. Managing this will be tricky for most college presidents, administrators, and deans.
I don’t disagree with the summary conclusion of the authors that technology and disruption will enable colleges to consider making changes in 2023. At the same time, I predict that the tougher to implement changes (specifically IT changes) will be slower to change despite the availability of better options. In the past, colleges have focused on what it takes to survive, and that will likely be maintaining or increasing enrollment and controlling expenses.