Digital Tools in Higher Education: Empowered Learning

The future of higher education is digital — something that Dr. Mark Lombardi, president of Maryville University, recognized long before many other university leaders. “Maryville is leading the revolution because we understand the way students engage with learning and information is fundamentally different than it was in the past,” Dr. Lombardi told Maryville Magazine.

A professor shares their screen on a whiteboard while students work on computers.

With its comprehensive approach to leveraging digital tools in education, Maryville University is leading the charge.

“The demands of a rapidly evolving digital world, the democratization of knowledge, the availability and access of content, and the fierce market demands of demographic change combined with price sensitivity and public scrutiny of higher education have illuminated the academy’s shortcomings,” says Dr. Lombardi, co-author of the book Pivot: A Vision for a New University.

Maryville’s approach to leveraging digital tools in higher education is multipronged, including its commitment to:

  • Relentless innovation
  • Democratizing education
  • Elevating faculty innovators
  • Boldly leading institutions through change

Maryville is leading the way in making lifelong learning accessible to all through innovations to its student-centered digital infrastructure.

Relentless Innovation

The Maryville approach to change in higher education begins with a reprioritization of student learning. Dr. Lombardi explained to Jeff Young on the “EdSurge Podcast” that students are losing their confidence in higher education and that a greater number of them aren’t completing their degree programs.

He’s right; recent metrics suggest that public confidence in the value of higher education is declining broadly in the U.S. In 2020, around 69% of Americans said colleges had a positive effect on the way things were going in the nation, but this percentage dropped to 58% in 2021 and 55% in 2022, according to a poll reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education. That’s why Maryville is working to make higher education more relevant for today’s students by making innovative changes to the learning environment.

Student Goals for Higher Education

The shifting views on  higher education suggest that universities must adapt to student needs. Which needs specifically, though?

University mission statements often reflect the idea that students enter higher education for transformational reasons: to develop a broad sense of belonging, community, and civic responsibility, as well as other lofty aims of lifelong learning and personal development. However, research shows that this may be out of touch with students’ primary goal for pursuing higher education: to better their job prospects.

According to research from The Real World of College: What Higher Education Is and What It Can Be, reviewed in 2022 in the journal Higher Education, around half of all university students viewed college  “as a means to smooth transitions to the labor market or graduate studies.” Less than 1 in 5 students viewed higher education as a transformational place to develop personal beliefs and values and cultivate a sense of self, according to the same study; this suggests that universities routinely misunderstand student motivations for entering degree programs.

Maryville’s  solution is to give students what they want: a clearer pathway between higher education and better career prospects. Put another way, Dr. Lombardi views transactional education not as a problem, but rather the solution to making higher education more relevant and useful to students.

Universities Due for Digital Disruption

Dr. Lombardi believes that universities can provide a higher return on investment to students by personalizing and digitizing the college experience. “I would describe the New University as one that is based solely on the student — their data, the way they learn — and restructuring and reorganizing the university starting with that principle,” Dr. Lombardi told the “EdSurge Podcast.”

Dr. Mark Lombardi, President, Maryville University.

His vision to create connected, student-centered campus learning environments is providing a model for how universities can disrupt traditional approaches to digital tool use, empowering students along their educational journey.

Dr. Lombardi sees a tension between tech-savvy students and the many higher education institutions that have been slow to adopt new technologies on their campuses — from high-speed broadband internet, to hardware like smartphones and tablets, to cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) tools and cloud storage systems. In contrast, Dr. Lombardi describes his approach to digital transformation as one of “relentless innovation” in “The EdUp Experience” podcast, and it shows in his university’s recent technological upgrades:

  • Investing in unrivaled high-speed internet on campus. Lombardi recognized that reliable internet access is key to student learning. That’s why Maryville upgraded its internet systems to provide high-speed service across campus.
  • Updating campus hardware. Along with access to high-speed internet, students need power for their devices. Maryville provides accessible charging stations so that students can work from anywhere.
  • Partnering with Apple to secure tablets for students. Maryville has allies in the tech industry, with Apple generously supplying students with hardware, such as tablets, to improve learning outcomes.
  • Growing online programs and degree programs to prepare students for tech, business, and healthcare careers. Faculty at Maryville is encouraged to provide robust online options in all its programs for students looking to return to school. That means investing in online learning initiatives.

Democratizing Education

The digital revolution is also a matter of expanding access and inclusion. Dr. Lombardi believes that digital tools in education need to be developed to support students from radically different backgrounds.

The term “democratizing education” refers to an active effort to expand access to high-quality, affordable degree and certificate programs. Digital accessibility empowers diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts — countering elitism in higher education.

Creating access for students who’ve been historically marginalized in higher education is one of Dr. Lombardi’s core missions. “As I pursued my education, including a PhD in political science, and started teaching, I realized that access and opportunity was the fundamental missing element of higher ed,” he told interviewers on “The EdUp Experience” podcast.

“Higher ed is elitist. There’s no other way to say it. And I thought that was wrong, fundamentally wrong, when you talk about access and opportunity for people of color and women and so many others. So, I vowed that in education; I wanted to be a force of shifting that paradigm.”

Elevating Faculty Innovators

How can universities drive a digital revolution that empowers students? Dr. Lombardi believes that universities should tap into the resources and insights of faculty collaborators to create a digitally advanced college community.

It’s hard to estimate the importance of elevating and empowering faculty innovators — the “pied pipers,” as Dr. Lombardi calls them, with the expertise to lead classrooms and campuses in developing innovative learning approaches. The problem is that too often, college faculty members are siloed into departments with too few opportunities to work across disciplines on long-term university wide initiatives, according to Dr. Lombardi.

By breaking down traditional university siloes, Maryville seeks to bring talented professors into communication with one another. For the past few years, Maryville has embraced this type of experimental learning through faculty peer sessions during its annual professional development weeks. During this time, professors from across the university can collaborate on digitization strategies, share tactics for optimizing online classes, and tackle big problems inherent to a growing university.

Boldly Leading Higher Education with Digital Tools in Education

Maryville’s multiple investments in digital tools in education put students’ needs first, making career development more affordable and accessible. A digitally connected campus empowers student-centered, personalized learning opportunities across multiple platforms — and that’s exactly what leaders like Dr. Mark Lombardi, the president of Maryville, aim to provide students.


Business Insider, “I’m the President of a College Scott Galloway Predicted Would ‘Perish’ — But He Overlooked One Important Thing”

Cheddar News, “President of Maryville University on Remote Learning”

The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Americans’ Confidence in Higher Ed Drops Sharply”

EdSurge Podcast, “Why One University Is Moving Toward a Subscription Model”

The EdUp Experience, “Relentlessly Innovative with Dr. Mark Lombardi, President of Maryville University”

Higher Education“Student Perceptions of College—How to Move Beyond Transactional Approaches to Higher Education”

Joanne Soliday and Mark Lombardi, Pivot: A Vision for the New University

Maryville Magazine, “A Vision for the New University”

St. Louis Business Journal, “What Does the New University of the 21st Century Look Like?”

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