Four-year colleges may face up to a 20 percent reduction in fall enrollment, according to SimpsonScarborough, a higher education research and marketing company. Its findings are based on surveys of more than 2,000 college-bound high school seniors and current college students. 

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, nine percent of institutions plan to operate only online during the fall semester. The remainder will take a hybrid approach, with some classes offered online, while other classes will operate both online and in-person. 

Some of the realities that colleges and universities now face include:

  • A large percentage of students who won’t start or continue their higher education until the pandemic is largely behind us, as reflected in the study cited above.
  • The movement to remote learning means that colleges will have much more direct competition. The higher education systems will be viewed as a commodity, with students able to select the college with the best results, not the one nearest to home.
  • Students will demand reduced tuition because they will not use the college facilities, dormitories, or even interact directly with professors.
  • The most appealing higher education choices will be those that deliver a better digital experience for the student, not those that have more traditional attributes.

How does this relate to cloud computing technology as a tool to save many of these colleges and universities? Clearly, it’s the fastest path to a digitally enabled future. However, the more important role of cloud is its ability to leverage existing educational delivery systems that are purpose-built to quickly enable an institution to move into remote learning.

For example, look at the movement to cloud-based student information systems. These systems register students for classes, document grades, deal with transcripts, and record student tests and other assessment scores. They can also build student schedules, track attendance, and manage many other student-related data needs. 

If this seems like something the brick and mortar institutions already have in place, that’s a sound assumption. However, they don’t always have the capabilities to deal with remote learning systems, including integration with content, usage, and tracking student progress. Without this integration, it’s unlikely that colleges will be successful in their move to digital learning. 

This is not about existing universities keeping up with the new world during and after the pandemic. This is more about the ability to take advantage of a technology (specifically, cloud computing) as a force multiplier to provide a better education per dollar spent. 

Here are a couple of emerging opportunities in this arena:

Enhance the student experience using cloud computing technology. Machine learning-based systems can monitor and enhance the learning process for each student. They can provide deep analysis of learning activities, change learning paths on the fly to better accommodate the needs of the student, and dynamically monitor student well-being.

Provide real-time course feedback to continuously improve the learning experience. Actual changes to courses, authors, and instructors has always dragged far behind feedback. 

The larger issues are how to deal with the more systemic changes that need to occur at the same time. Institutions need to consider culture, the way the institution sells itself, the differing student personas, and—what might be a new factor for some institutions or instructors—students who never set foot on the campus because they are 100 percent remote. 

The end goal is to use technology to meet students’ learning expectations. The most innovative institutions will go well beyond expectations to improve the educational experience as compared to traditional educational operations just last year. 

This paradigm shift has been on higher education’s horizon for decades. Remote learning has always been around. Thirty years ago, personal computers made it easier.  Five to ten years ago, cloud made it more feasible. The pandemic simply pushed this shift to the top of the to-do lists within most higher education institutions.

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