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 student is much more invested in technology than those of two decades ago. For example, according to survey data from the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of college graduates in 2015 owned a tablet. 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

According to the results of a 2016 Babson survey on the state of online learning in U.S. Higher education, only 29.1 percent of academic leaders report that faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education,” yet more than one in four students now take at least one distance education course. 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?

This same survey also notes that 63.3 percent of the academic leaders surveyed believe online education is “critical to the long-term strategy of my institution,” so then it seems that the challenge today is figuring out how to properly incorporate technology into the curriculum so that faculty support its use as much as college leadership believes in it.

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. As online programs gain in popularity and availability, it’s important to include a human element in these courses such as active discussion boards or live video classes. The winning equation, regardless of course format, is most likely a combination between technology and human connections.

Programmatic changes should be done, according to US News, as a “widespread movement rather than an ad hoc effort” to develop initiatives that engage and invest in students. 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.

Preparing for change

As technology makes information more accessible and colleges offer more options for students, i.e. full- and part-time enrollment, distance learning, etc., it is correct to assume college enrollments will rise. Already, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, undergraduate enrollment increased by 30 percent in college and universities between 2000 and 2015. This number is estimated to continue growing with a projected increase in enrollments of 14 percent by 2026, bringing the total number of undergraduate students to 19.3 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.

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.

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, is ultimately what college leadership should be working to create.

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.

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.

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