The era of the hybrid university has arrived. What many expected would take decades to occur saw rapid acceleration due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A shift to remote learning, remote work, and digitalisation of student services all saw dramatic changes over the last two years.
As the world looks to emerge from the pandemic, the focus is increasingly shifting to the future of education and how universities take what worked during the pandemic, adapt what didn’t, and invest further in digital transformation. This is the era of the hybrid university.
Traditionally universities have viewed remote or online learning as a secondary offering. In many institutes, their online learning division was run entirely separate from the rest of the institute. The pandemic has changed that and so too have the demands of the student. A hybrid university not only focuses on providing online learning, but rather focuses on elevating the world of the student experience to one that can be equally delivered online or on campus.
To deliver this experience, universities need to place the student at the heart of their decision-making process and ask “if a student can do this on campus, how can we ensure they can do it online as well?”.
Place the Student at the Heart of the Decision-Making Process
Student satisfaction with the university education sector dropped sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a survey by Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching, only 68.4% of students nationally said they were satisfied with their undergraduate education during 2020, compared to 78.4% in 2019.
While this drop was heavily influenced by the pandemic, it should not mask a broader trend of heightened expectations from the student body. As everyday consumers, we have seen digital transformation shape how we think about banking, staying in touch with friends, or even ordering a meal. The ease with which we can interact with these products and services has heightened expectations in other areas of our lives and education is no different.
As universities look to adapt and land somewhere on the continuum of on-campus, hybrid, to fully online, ensuring that the student is at the heart of the experience is paramount. This requires new thinking and skillsets, as the thought process doesn’t just end at determining how we provide this service online, but rather includes exploring the best way of providing this service to the student. Skills that will be increasingly in demand include UI and UX designers and product managers who can tie functional requirements back to an optimised end-user experience.
Think Beyond Online Learning and Elevate Student Services Online
A report by Deloitte describes a hybrid university as one that “reimagines residential education in a tech-enabled world: a technology-enabled student experience. This is not only hybrid instruction, but rather a blended, immersive, and digital residential experience that fuses the online and physical worlds across campus. It transcends the current concept of blended education, which too often focuses solely on classroom instruction that toggles between face-to-face and online. Instead, the hybrid campus can deliver everything an institution offers with a blended approach.”
This description gets at the core of how universities need to think about a hybrid university experience. For students who opt to study most or all of the time through online channels, they will seek out universities that support that decision, while minimising the sacrifices required to do so. The hybrid university of the future understands that the student experience is more than a purely academic one. Universities that get this strategy right will elevate access to other student services, societies, and extracurricular offerings online, to create a more compelling value proposition for their students.
Support Flexibility and Personalisation to Meet Changing Student Expectations
The adoption of a hybrid university structure opens up a world of opportunity for students, especially those with unique or extenuating circumstances that may have trouble meeting the traditional time demands of university.
While universities will adopt different approaches to how flexible they are with course delivery options and timetables, the one constant will be an increased focus on providing a personalised end user experience.
Personalisation has been a topic of conversation for many years. However, it is often presented as a challenge that is difficult to overcome. For that reason, universities should look to an iterative approach in this domain. While the end goal may be to deliver a truly unique experience to each user, universities can start with more achievable goals on this journey to delivering more relevant experiences by creating segments based on a student's unit of study, campus choice, or bands of academic performance. For example, different experiences can be delivered for a new student studying economics predominantly online, compared to a final year graduate studying engineering at a specific campus.
View Student Experience and Digital Transformation as an Iterative Process
Traditionally, many organisations have viewed digital transformation initiatives as projects, something that has a defined start and end date. As student experience is elevated as a point of differentiation, universities need to adopt a more agile approach that views digital transformation as an iterative process.
This allows universities to close the loop on the student experience by delivering new capabilities on shorter timeframes, seeking feedback from the student population, and working to improve or extend what is provided.
This approach also helps optimise the student experience as it delivers value on a more regular basis. A stark contrast to the way projects are typically run where wholesale changes are only delivered after 12, 18, or 24 months of effort.
Use the Advantages of a Hybrid Model to Improve the Value Proposition for Students
Amongst many universities, there is a natural hesitancy to what a hybrid learning environment may mean. As outlined previously, there will not be a one size fits all approach. Some universities will adopt a completely hybrid approach. Others will fall somewhat closer to the traditional experience that is delivered primarily on campus.
In each situation though, there is an opportunity to improve the value proposition for the student. By elevating all of the services and opportunities available to a student online, universities can look to increase the frequency and length of engagement they have with their students. This can help address one of the key concerns that came out of the pandemic, where out of 300+ academic leaders surveyed, more than 53% feared that student engagement was down.
With the core services of a university being offered online, new opportunities will emerge. One such example is the closer alignment between commercial organisations and industry. Previously a university’s ability to facilitate these connections was largely limited by geographical reach. With an online, hybrid model, it is significantly easier to connect a student studying commerce in Sydney with an organisation based in Melbourne, for example.
Finally, while the privacy of the student needs to be balanced, the feedback loop available gets shortened significantly. A hybrid university environment provides new opportunities for universities to track student engagement, identify students in need of assistance, improve course content, and deliver targeted student support based on the data generated by their engagement.
Each of these approaches allows universities to adapt to the needs of the modern student in a more timely and efficient manner. The future success of a university will in large part be influenced by its ability to be agile and willing to respond to the changing demands of our world and its students.
To find out more about adapting to modern expectations, see how the University of East Anglia overhauled their existing self-service portal to enhance the user experience, ensuring they could effectively support current and future students and staff.