How technology is changing access to the college experience

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Twenty years ago, most students installed a desktop computer in their dorm room to complete coursework. If you needed to use a computer while on campus, you went to a computer lab or the library. Cell phones didn’t have apps or offer texting. However, it was the beginning of the fast-growing partnership between technology and education, as students started to rely less on printed resources and in-person collaboration and more on the same information published online.

Young college student works on laptop outdoors.


More connected students today than ever before

Today’s college students are much more invested in technology than those of two decades ago. For example, according to survey data from the Pew Research Center, roughly half of all Americans own a tablet or some form of screen reader.

Today, college students bring multiple devices with them everywhere they go, whether it is a laptop, tablet, or phone. Information is literally at their fingertips any time they need it. That includes course materials, discussion forums, or lengthy search results for research topics.

Rather than spend hours at the library logged into LexisNexis, students now use their own devices wherever they happen to be to conduct academic research, complete assignments, and interact with fellow students and their instructors. As a result, education can go beyond the classroom in ways it never was able to before.

This improved access has changed the landscape of education and is a fact of life college leadership should address in order to maintain student engagement. It is common for college students to expect classes to be available wholly or partially online or for course materials to be digital, and college and universities should meet these expectations to foster strong learning environments.

Reconciling the effects of technology in higher education with the benefits

In the fall of 2018, more than 35% of enrolled college students took at least one online education course, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This is part of a larger trend of the overall acceptance of online learning education.

If the biggest benefit to technology is improving overall access to information, thus giving more students the chance at a higher education, why is there a disconnect between offering online courses and accepting their value?

The answer may lie in one of the modern challenges of higher education, as revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic: if university and college faculty are not properly incorporating technology into curriculums, they will be woefully unprepared for a sudden shift in usage — and so will their students.

If, as college President Jose Bowen says in a VOA News article, “the job of a college is to teach people how to think critically and find their place in the world around them,” then it is important for college leadership and faculty alike to utilize the technology students are already accustomed to in the classroom.

Responding to COVID-19 challenges 

COVID-19 was also instrumental in revealing the communication challenges of online learning, such as the importance of including a human element like active discussion boards or live video classes. The winning equation, regardless of course format, is most likely a combination of technology and human connections.

This includes being inventive, without fear to try new things in the classroom. So, it becomes up to college leadership to develop ways to train instructors on how to use technology in conjunction with their teaching rather than in lieu of it.

Here’s how higher education leadership can prepare:

Prepare for change

As technology makes information more accessible and colleges offer more options for students, i.e. full- and part-time enrollment, online learning, etc., it is correct to assume college enrollments will rise. Already, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase by 2% by 2029, bringing the total number of undergraduate students to 17 million.

While this is encouraging news, it makes it all the more important for college leadership to prepare to address the needs of this growing student population with a collegiate program that takes advantage of the enhanced access to content provided by technology.

Be open to change

First, being open to change may give college leadership an advantage. Historically, change has been difficult to achieve at educational institutions, so for upcoming graduates, embracing change to traditional higher education curriculum is imperative.

While diverse solutions will prove successful across institutions based on curriculum and student populations, possessing a willingness to try various options will placate and well as stimulate both students and faculty.

Engagement matters

Second, remember that technology alone is not the answer to engaging today’s students. Active teaching by faculty, giving students that human connection to learning is just as vital as giving students access to technology to enhance their learning experience.

That means exploring solutions that are a combination between traditional teaching methods and technological support. Some examples include:

  • Making learning materials available online to students before they come to class so that more active discussions take place during class time.
  • Requiring assignments be submitted online so instructors can offer longer office hours to visit with students directly.
  • Finding processes that work, where improved student success is evident and a better learning experience is had by students.

Take special measures

At its very center, technology improves educational access. Willing learners can obtain the content and materials they need to have a successful collegiate career with technology. However, if they aren’t taught how to properly use that technology by instructors, the system ceases to be beneficial. It is up to the college leadership of today and tomorrow to consider this aggregate approach when developing programs for future college students.

Maryville University: Uniquely equipped for online learning

When it comes to online learning, Maryville University is all in. We’ve established a tradition of innovation and engagement to enhance our online education for nearly a decade. It’s a prioritization that has allowed us to reach new and emerging students like you to help you earn your degree anytime, anyplace.

Current or prospective higher education leaders can further explore ideas such as these in Maryville University’s online Doctor of Education – Higher Education Leadership program. Contact our enrollment advisors today to learn more.

Recommended Readings:
Careers you can pursue in higher education leadership
CAOs weigh in on liberal arts education

Student Voice: How Should Professors Be Using Classroom Technology?
Pew Research Center, “Mobile Fact Sheet”
VOA Learning English, “Does Technology Belong in College Classrooms?” 
The National Center for Education Statistics, “The Condition of Education”
The National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts”
Inside Higher Education, “Online Enrollments Grow, but Pace Slows”