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Student engagement will define online education in a post-pandemic world

(Image credit: Image Credit: Billetto Editorial / Unsplash)

The Covid-19 pandemic has stopped most educational institutions dead in their tracks. The industry that changed little over the past two centuries, has been forced to transition to a virtual engagement model that it has largely been unprepared for.

Universities have cancelled on-campus classes until further notice, with some announcing a move to online-only classes until the summer of 2021. There has been a slow movement towards the virtual engagement model, pioneered by the advent of Massive Open Online Courses and EdTech institutions like Coursera, Udemy, FutureLearn, Yuanfudao and Byju’s, over the past decade. But the assumption amongst the majority of brick-and-mortar institutions was that the mainstreaming of blended or virtual learning model, was still somewhere in the distant horizon.

The pandemic has had a Darwinian effect, forcing firms to accelerate transformation overnight or be disrupted into oblivion. The current education system is criticized for retaining characteristics of an earlier industrial age, when a relatively fixed set of skills and knowledge was in demand. In today’s era of disruption, students need to be prepared with skills for jobs that don’t even exist. 85% of jobs in 2030 are yet to be unveiled but will require adaptability, learning agility, emotional intelligence, and resilience to work alongside smart machines.

Opportunities that emerge from crisis

The unplanned, rapid move to online learning – with no training, insufficient infrastructure or bandwidth, and little preparation – has translated into institutions scrambling to put together crude interim solutions. While resources like Zoom and Webex have helped them host synchronous classes, there is still much to be desired in terms of student outcomes as well as challenges for untrained faculty. Consequently, universities are attracting class-action lawsuits as students demand refunds, as the subpar academic experiences isn’t what they bargained for.

Additionally, students deferring their educational plans due to economic concerns and questions of health and safety is threatening the very survival of traditional academic institutions. Even before the pandemic, campus-based programs were seeing declining enrolment and parallel increases in uptake of online courses. What is clear is that the current band-aid setups are unsustainable and a new hybrid model will emerge, with a sharp focus on the student experience and engagement. This engagement will last across the entire education lifecycle – from student acquisition that begins 18 months before on-boarding to actual learning and continuous engagement, career planning and placement, feeding into the alumni network and lifelong learning for career progression.

To enable an experience of the future, educational institutions will need to first understand these digital natives in their present moment. A report that places the spotlight on internet users aged between 16-21, who are most likely to be students, says that they spend nearly 7 hours a day online. An overwhelming 95% of them do so on their mobiles, predominantly to chat, watch videos, use a search engine or shop online. Digital engagement is, therefore, the foundational strategy for engaging Generation Z.

Engagement models for the new era

In the new normal, traditional universities will need to engage with potential students 18-20 months before actual admission. Students take a multichannel approach to college search visiting websites, gathering information from email and social media. They must therefore, be engaged seamlessly across all these platforms, with outcome-focused information. Virtual reality videos are a big draw with this demographic, especially for virtual campus tours and meetings with admissions counsellors. Responses to enquiries must be near-immediate, using automated bots. Once a relationship has been established, personalized emails with clear calls to action, peppered with visual components will promote stickiness.

Next comes the milestone of actually joining the university, starting with the online orientation sessions, which is a great opportunity to set the tone and wow students with a customized, engaging experience as against a traditional orientation program that typically involve a cognitive overload from receiving information all day long.

Once the semester begins, there is an opportunity to use asynchronous learning that students can complete at their own convenient time. This helps prioritize and leverage face-to-face or synchronous time for the learning that are really important where students share virtual space together with faculty to understand, discuss, and solve problems.

New tools, new experiences

Beyond coursework, it takes a more intentional approach to engage students holistically, including career services, mental health, library services, and advising. Institutions can leverage multiple channels of communication, actively track interactions, and adjust approaches if engagement is down. Enabling a well-designed, full-blown digital classroom with a social collaboration platform can beat a normal classroom for learning experience. Options to go to different classrooms, indulge in group discussions, and also socialize outside of the classroom environment in virtual cafeteria or hangout areas, ensures that student can continue having a social experience.

Inbuilt analytics to check for learning progress and application to predict student engagement, efficacy of learning, and likely success rate with an engagement index are normal features in this model. If a student is disengaged, then the online tool can assess the area of disengagement – whether they dislike the faculty’s methods or the current learning style, which enables intervention. These platforms are highly customized towards providing an optimal learning experience for every individual student – from preferred learning styles, to unstructured, non-linear approaches, to best learning times, and studying patterns all of which help in personalizing content, which ultimately leads to educational success.

Students look to universities not just to learn, but to set them up for a successful career. Career planning and placements, alumni network engagement and even lifelong mid-career learning can be as effective virtually, as it is in the physical model. The pandemic has shown the importance of upskilling or reskilling as a necessary economic imperative. New emerging technologies and enablers like the spread of 5G technology will do much to build on the start that the pandemic has given to the educational sector. An anywhere and anytime model will emerge and will be integrated into our daily lifestyles and its cornerstone will likely be built on student experience and engagement.

Higher education institutions have a limited time to react before their customers - the students - start to jump ship and gravitate towards institutions who are early adopters of sophisticated online learning platforms – that provide a seamless experience across synchronous and asynchronous learning, class spot quizzes, proctoring, monitoring of student attention/engagement and much more – all aspects of student learning delivered via one simple Netflix and Spotify like experience. They have to act now else it might be very late for them and they will see a visible decline in their numbers when the enrollment season begins post summer.

Mitrankur Majumdar, Vice President and Regional Head—Services, Americas, Infosys