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Have it Your Way: How Personalization and Collaboration are Driving the Future of Higher Education Technology

Joe Burkhart
University Business, Oct 2007

IN THE DYNAMIC world of higher education, technology drives innovation and advancement. The role of technology in higher education will continue to evolve as institutions realize the increasing importance of integration between campuses, departments and IT systems --and collaboration-- among students, faculty and staff.

To assess the future of higher education technology, we must first consider several factors that will impact the business of higher education. These factors, including the changing student population, increasing collaborative relationships and the perception of education as a commodity, will add challenges to the higher education environment in the future. However, with innovative technology, institutions will rise to these challenges.

As always, higher education institutions' "customers"--students--are seeking an education to pursue careers and life missions, but today's students are also much more tech-savvy and they demand more from their colleges and universities than previous generations. Additionally, according to United States Census Bureau data, the new student prospect pool will decrease beginning in 2010. Institutions will feel the effect as recruitment becomes even more critical to an already competitive industry. In order to attract and retain this changing--and shrinking--customer base, higher education institutions must focus on life-long education delivery. The requirements of today's workplace, the increased focus on skill development and continuing education, as well as the intrinsic human need for learning, are additional factors leading to an emphasis on life-long education that will only grow more in the future. This means that tomorrow's life-long learning students will be older and better educated, with less time and higher expectations, presenting a whole new set of challenges for educators.

In addition, higher education institutions are increasingly involved with various external partners, including employers, research sponsors, community partners and non-alumni donors. These partners have complex relationships and often multiple touch points with institutions. The ability to manage these valuable relationships is another key challenge more and more institutions will face going forward.

The third factor impacting the future of higher education technology is the perceived value of education. While students need and value more education over their lifetimes, their education decisions are transforming from an investment decision to almost a commodity purchase. This is likely the result of many factors: excess capacity in many traditional institutions; the emergence of financial aid leveraging/discounting which can lead to cost negotiating; and the availability of education from non-traditional sources and modes. Regardless of the reason, in order for an institution to compete in this environment, it must first recognize that many perceive it as a commodity, and then strive to elevate itself above that designation through quality, personalized service.

The business of higher education includes many complex and dynamic relationships - with students, faculty, staff, alumni and various partners as designated above. Institutions have typically managed these relationships through siloed organizational units and information systems. For example, the student services staff may have its own database for student information, while financial aid may have another - resulting in inaccuracies and duplicate efforts. When you add departments working on research grants, community programs, job placement, donor programs, etc., the silos become a daunting obstacle to efficiency. Institutions now realize that integration and collaboration are necessities.

As students continue to push the envelope of expectations, institutions push technology vendors to deliver more value. This has always been true, but tomorrow these expectations will change and evolve with an accelerating speed and agility that must be matched. Higher education institutions and their technology partners can achieve this by leveraging increasingly integrated, standards-based and collaborative technology.

The technology to meet the challenges the future holds for higher education institutions is out there--in some cases already in use, and in other cases in development. The future will see innovative vendors rising to the challenges of their higher education customers.

Vendors will leverage service-oriented architecture (SOA) and business process management (BPM) to manage increasingly complex processes and meet the unique needs of each institution. Constituent insight and business intelligence software will enable institutions to better deliver personalized content and services to each student, raising the academic relationship above a commodity purchase. Enhanced business insight will allow institutions to pull the complicated threads of partner relationship management together to more effectively manage university-wide relationships.

But the key to institutional success will be the collaboration capabilities necessary to coordinate all organizations and activities and unite the institution as a single "enterprise." Successful institutions will act as efficient enterprises that are singularly focused on serving each individual constituent and committed to each unique relationship.

This highly personalized technology landscape will enable traditional students to plan and manage their educational paths in coordination with factors like their finances and extracurricular activities. For example, a freshman embarking on her academic career will continually collaborate with her academic advisor, financial aid advisor, residence hall advisor, athletic coach and others in a multi-dimensional team. Decisions in one of these areas may and will affect the other areas, so with personalized technology the student and institution will be able to make better decisions and plan their relationships for the foreseeable future.

The relationships personalized technology can build will also help institutions drive graduation rates. Many institutions are facing heightened pressure to increase the rate of students graduating in four years. With personalized technology, institutions can create academic roadmaps that allow students to track their progress toward meeting graduation requirements prompting students to take ownership over their academic careers. Institutions also benefit from increased oversight of course offerings, which can help them identify areas where course schedules might prevent students from graduating on time.

Institutions will also be able to readily present students with academic options based on their current successes. For example, academia can benefit from the model, to advise students with insight such as, "Students who have taken this course have also taken this course," or "You have completed 75 percent of the requirements for a degree in Major X. The courses you have completed also meet 90 percent of the requirements for minors in Y and Z," or "Students majoring in X pursue careers in Y and Z. To improve your chances of getting a job in Y or Z, you might consider taking this course."

Furthermore, the personalization of technology will help institutions evaluate the educational pursuits of their current traditional and life-long learning students, allowing them to sculpt programs to meet their unique needs. Collaboration with partners will help here, such as collaboration with employers who can provide insight into future employment needs and job market trends. This will help students, faculty and staff identify emerging needs in the professional world and quickly plan training and development activities to meet them.

Lastly, this technology personalization will enable institutions and their partners to maximize collaboration opportunities. For example, a partner may sponsor joint research with the institution. As the researchers deliver results, the institution could leverage these results by turning them into content for specific courses and deliver them to partner employees as part of a customized degree program exclusively for that partner. A relationship like this is a win-win for the institution and the partner.

The future holds myriad opportunities for collaboration. As institutions take advantage of integrated and personalized technology, they will transform education by better managing complex and dynamic relationships with constituents and partners, driving a life-long learning environment and raising their perceived value to that of a partner for the future.

Joe Burkhart is the director of Oracle Higher Education.