Remote learning needs a better ‘customer experience’

The pivot to virtual instruction hasn’t worked for all students. Here’s what higher education institutions can do to improve.

Learn what higher education institutions can do to improve remote learning for students.

The 2020-21 school year turned out to be a crash course for top administrators at colleges and universities.

On one hand, most university leaders did a commendable job of pivoting rapidly to remote learning environments. And in most cases, faculty, staff, and students responded with speed and grace to extraordinary and challenging circumstances.

This year, however, schools are learning another lesson—that there’s a big difference between delivering remote instruction and providing quality teaching. The Student Voice Survey, conducted in May 2021 by Inside Higher Ed, reveals large disparities between what colleges tried to deliver and what students felt they actually received.

More than half of the 2,000 surveyed college students said they learned less last year than in previous years. Just over 80% said they found it more difficult to concentrate during remote lectures, nearly 40% admitted that they were more likely to cheat while attending classes at home, and nearly half (47%) rated the value of the education they received as fair or poor.

These results, combined with a nearly 20% decline in high school students planning to pursue a four-year degree, should be a wake-up call for school administrators.

More than half of the 2,000 surveyed college students said they learned less last year than in previous years. 

The balance of power has shifted away from institutions and toward students—as well as parents who foot the bill for their children’s education. Universities need to address this new reality by treating students as highly valued customers whose loyalty some institutions are in danger of losing. One way they can take a step in that direction is to take advantage of modern digital platforms that can significantly improve the student experience.

How schools can improve

Steeped in tradition, institutions of higher learning are not generally known for their flexibility. Many have operated in more or less the same fashion for more than a century.

But schools that had already begun to re-examine and reform their processes before the pandemic—how they share information, how they onboard new students or deliver technology services—were those best able to rapidly adapt to the new environment.

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These changes are not revolutionary or radical. In fact, they’re the same things that help enterprises improve the employee experience and increase retention.

1. Share information more easily with faculty and students

Universities are enormous repositories of information, and not just about academic subject matter. They also collect huge amounts of data about factors that contribute to student success, such as opportunities for student activity involvement and financial aid options. Unfortunately, relatively few do a good job of distributing that information widely and making it actionable. Some institutions, for example, struggle to communicate effectively about why some classes are being held in person this fall, while others are being taught remotely.

One exception is Indiana University, which recently created web portals for faculty to share best practices for hybrid instruction and other online resources for students to succeed in a mixed learning environment. By curating teaching strategies and empowering students, IU was able to make the transition to remote classes more seamless.

2. Digitize workflows to help students help themselves

It’s no secret that navigating a school’s IT systems can be an enormous challenge, especially for incoming or first-year students. Those who fall behind early may have difficulty catching up. Getting the right technology in place for remote learning—establishing reliable connectivity, gaining access to the VPN, choosing the right online software and storage options, and so on—often means filing support tickets to IT and waiting hours or days for a response. To solve that headache, Iowa State University launched a self-service portal through which students can view how-to articles, order IT-related products and services, and submit support requests, vastly reducing the amount of time students spend seeking tech help.

The portal was so successful that the university extended the idea to create similar portals for HR and Finance, accessible via a single dashboard.

3. Remove silo structures through centralized services

Many universities operate in very siloed environments. For example, a university’s school of business might deploy very different technologies, applications, data, and processes than its school of design. The university administration may use systems for tracking student success that don’t integrate well with any other departmental systems. Students may be forced to navigate across incompatible and even contradictory systems within the school bureaucracy.

Removing unnecessary obstacles can help universities dramatically improve the student experience. By breaking down silos and adopting centralized systems, universities can also reduce complexity and cost. It’s far cheaper and easier to support five software applications instead of 50.


One weeks’ savings at The University of South Carolina from self-service initiatives

The University of South Carolina created a superior digital experience for students, faculty, and parents. They streamlined the systems that manage IT, and knitted together the disparate systems that manage every stakeholder touchpoint. To accelerate digital deployments, the university established an enterprise workplace solution, with a single view of data and operations. They achieved a 79% deflection rate in incoming phone calls and a savings of over $8,000 in just one week from self-service initiatives.

4. Rely on data for decision-making

Schools now have access to data and analytical resources that were unavailable even just a few years ago, such as data from learning management systems and chatbots . But many are still not taking full advantage. Increasingly, students are demanding to see the data behind a school’s decisions—from those about when on-campus instruction will re-open to academic decisions about why, say, certain electives were dropped from the curriculum.

American University implemented a campus initiative called RiSE (Reinventing the Student Experience) to find a new solution that would break down silos between departments and provide better access to information. AU saw a year over year 450–500% increase in knowledge base views from which they can now identify where constituents are seeking more information. As a result, they now develop up to 15 new systems or services per year.

There’s no going back

Today’s students expect more seamless and digitally driven experiences when they invest in a four-year degree. And if universities don’t provide it, someone else inevitably will—whether it’s career technical education (CTE) schools, coding boot camps, or employers who provide state-of-the-art tools and professional training.

But it’s not enough to simply adopt new technologies and call it a day. Universities also need to involve all stakeholders in this process. How can instructors be more effective in this new hybrid environment? How can students enjoy an enriched learning experience while also remaining safe? Everyone in higher education needs to engage in these conversations earlier and more often. Digital platforms and tools can help make them happen.