Mar 22 2021

Designing a Top-Tier College Experience in the Digital Age

To enhance online learning programs, Maryville University embraces AI, blockchain, data science and more.

Experience matters.

University leaders spend a lot of time discussing and selling “the collegiate experience.” For centuries, this definition has emphasized synchronous, in-person learning, grounded in a physical classroom. The pandemic shattered these timeworn expectations in just a few short weeks.

When COVID-19 forced on-campus classrooms and lecture halls online, many students struggled with a new experience that didn’t square with previous expectations. The reaction to this new reality was swift and fierce. Many voiced displeasure, and some demanded refunds.

But at Maryville University, an early and sustained emphasis on learning design enabled us to rapidly scale and evolve our online learning environment. We’ve spent a decade pursuing a seamless, digital-centric collegiate experience. This has greatly enhanced our online and in-person courses.

Achieving this vision required technology investments, talent development and a shared commitment among faculty, staff and students. The past 12 months stand as proof that our investments in time and resources were well worth it.

AI, Blockchain and Learning Design

Prior to shutting down our campus last spring, nearly 90 percent of Maryville students had experienced at least one online class, and 63 percent have taken two or more online courses. For these students, the transition to a fully online learning environment was neither foreign nor suboptimal.

Our students and faculty have experienced the value of learning design, as well as the powerful efficiency of AI and blockchain. They also integrated myriad collaboration tools and apps, which have fostered a robust and borderless learning environment.

MORE ON EDTECH: As colleges adopt AI, they’ll need ethical frameworks.

The Digital Classrooms of the Future: What to Expect

The pandemic hasn’t changed the future, it has accelerated it. The physical calendar may say 2021, but the digital calendar reads 2025. According to Pearson’s 2020 Global Learner Survey, 3 in 4 adults worldwide believe that education will fundamentally change as a result of the pandemic. In the U.S., 87 percent of respondents expect online learning to remain a part of the collegiate experience moving forward, in part due to the post-pandemic workforce’s dire need to upskill.

Maryville University has offered online degrees and certificate programs since 2012. On the digital evolutionary chart, that’s a lifetime ago. In 2015, we also partnered with Apple to launch a Digital World Program, which equips every traditional full-time undergraduate student with an iPad that serves as their personal digital learning hub. More than 150 tailored learning apps, and the majority of the students’ course materials, are uploaded to these devices.

Maryville learning designers have a full suite of tools at their disposal, including state-of-the-art production facilities on campus, and third-party apps and services such as VoiceThread, Flipgrid, Lightboard and Zoom.

RELATED: Here's 5 videoconferencing tools for student group projects.

Engaging Online Courses for the Post-Pandemic Workforce

As the pandemic emerged, our faculty — with their learning design partners — had to translate in-person curricula into a digital space. To accomplish this, they emphasized experience design and tool integration to foster engagement, collaboration and connectivity among students and faculty. This created dynamic learning pathways, optimized for the different ways that students learn.

Our online platform is also evolving to help students learn high-demand skills through digital certificates, credentialing programs and bootcamps. In the fall of 2019, we experienced 10 percent growth in total enrollment, including 17 percent growth online. Much of this growth is driven by the rapid development and deployment of new programs based on market insights and workforce needs. In 2019 alone, we introduced 11 new programs, and another seven in 2020. We are on a similar pace this year.

We will play a critical role in developing and sustaining a highly-skilled, post-pandemic workforce. We accomplish this by building close partnerships with leading businesses and employers, and forming innovative collaborations with nonprofits that upskill underserved populations. Data shows that 96 percent of our online graduates either find a new career in their chosen field or move on to a graduate program within six months of graduation.

MORE ON EDTECH: In post-pandemic higher education, plan B matters as much as plan A.

Emerging Tech Solves Administrative Problems

This digital-centric vision means harnessing technologies to create a more connected, consistent and seamless user experience.

Taking a page from premier customer-centric giants like Amazon and Apple, we are using AI, digital humans and blockchain to streamline many administrative tasks and interfaces at speed and scale.

Students interact with AI chatbots throughout their day, and there is no reason why they should not enjoy the same level of service at higher education institutions. Providing access to information and services 24/7, from any device, not only enhances the user experience but also removes layers of administrative costs.

LEARN MORE: In AI, colleges see cost-effective ways to boost enrollment.

By offering blockchain transcripts and digital diplomas, our graduates can securely own their learning credentials. Blockchain provides graduates with perpetual access to secure — and tamper-proof — information that can be easily shared, managed and verified within seconds. This approach echoes the digital world that our students embrace, and it eliminates another administrative task for our university to manage. This frees up resources for us to address more pressing student, faculty and business needs.

Why Go Back When You Can Move Forward?

Given all that transpired in 2020, I cannot fault my colleagues for wanting to return to the old normal. I, too, yearn to see our students without having to social distance or wear a mask. But a simple return to the old normal would mean a failure of imagination.

The pandemic forced us to question and reassess every decision, assumption and contingency plan we ever made. In a post-pandemic world, there will be an on-campus experience at Maryville and at universities across the nation. There will also be a wealth of online options for everyone. At Maryville, those experiences and platforms are not separate, but integrated. And they are powered by the most sophisticated technologies of the digital age: AI, blockchain, data science and more.

In education, there is enormous opportunity and responsibility. We have the ability to revolutionize how higher education is delivered and valued. To break free from what Abraham Lincoln once described as the “dogmas of the quiet past,” we must create a different future. We have the tools and technologies to blast open the doors of exclusion and make education more equitable, immersive and collaborative for millions of young adults and continuing education students. It’s time for more universities to join us.

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