There’s a lot the higher education sector can learn from the newspaper industry’s experience of going digital that will help universities deliver successful online learning strategies post-pandemic, says Fred Singer, CEO of Echo360.

Back in the early 90s, I worked in the newspaper industry as it faced the first wave of digital disruption.

My employer, the Washington Post, a veritable institution in the US responsible for mega stories such as the Watergate scandal, risked being outgunned by emerging online news outlets if they didn’t act.

It was my job as a VP at the Post to help oversee the move of the newspaper online and look at effective ways to engage our audiences in this new environment.
My career has since moved away from digital news media and I now develop IT solutions for the higher education sector. But I’m seeing a lot of similarities to my newspaper days in the way that universities moved learning online in response to the pandemic.

With a mix of in-person and online learning likely to continue in the 2021/22 academic year, there are five key priorities that should feature in a university’s digital strategy in the months ahead to avoid the mistakes made by the newspaper industry and better meet the needs of students and staff.

1. Prioritise systems that encourage interaction

The first instinct of many publishers in the 90s was to simply reproduce their hardcopy newspaper online. However, it rapidly became clear that this was not enough to retain their audiences. Journalists could not truly stimulate their readers’ interest by repurposing the print edition online. They simply switched off.

However, at a time when chat rooms and social channels were starting to boom those outlets that gave readers the freedom to interact achieved much better engagement.

Asking readers to register or subscribe allowed them to read and comment on articles or view the remarks of others. Later, the exponential growth of content being posted on social media channels helped connect people and generate discussion.

A similar shift is happening in higher education. In the early days of lockdown, presentation software such as PowerPoint was often used to simply reproduce the traditional lecture format online. But it was quickly recognised that more was required.

Collaboration is key. Multiple lockdowns have emphasised the importance of the shared experience and the systems students use need to enable them to interact with their tutors and peers - whether this happens on campus or remotely.

Video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams are an effective way to bring students together online, allowing them to collaborate on problem solving tasks and share their views with their classmates remotely. When used well, they can help students to feel part of a learning community too, which teaching staff want to recreate for their students who can’t be there in person.

2. Provide tools teachers can use to create engaging experiences

In the digital news world, the growth of multi-media such as video, online surveys and clickable content have helped to keep readers coming back.

The traditional university lecture is also seeing a similar overhaul in some online classrooms to better engage students.

We’ve seen universities using the quizzing and polling tools in our hybrid teaching and learning platform, Echo360, much more extensively to spark discussions and assess students’ knowledge as sessions progress, for example. Online chat streams have enabled students to ask questions anonymously and get immediate responses from their instructors too.

While some universities have embraced student engagement tools during lockdown, others have some way to go. Conversations about how IT can support active learning practices need to take place in good time to ensure universities can continue to meet the changing needs of students in the future.

3. Build in flexibility for students

Another consequence of the digital journey the media took in the 90s and 00s was the move away from the publication of daily or weekly newspapers to news updates 24/7, 365 days of the year. People wanted to stay up to date online from any time or place in the world.

University students, often now dispersed across the globe, are looking for a similar experience.

Consequently, adjustments are being made to the curriculum in some institutions to allow students to learn how and when it is most convenient.

Group sessions have been scheduled at different times of the day for students in different time zones. Smaller team activities have allowed students in certain geographic areas to problem-solve together too, tagging their tutor in the online chat if they have any questions or need support.

Flexibility has been much appreciated by those students juggling study time and family commitments in lockdown and it’s safe to assume this expectation will continue as more students return to a mix of online and on-campus learning. This will likely have a bearing on the sector’s IT and networking priorities in 2021/22. It might be worth looking at the hybrid cloud solutions available so systems can flex to meet changing demand.

4. Encourage data driven decision making

Another lesson quickly learnt by newspapers was that data was critical in winning at the news game.

News outlets quickly had to become savvy at understanding how their readers behave and digest news online. Analysing information such as who is reading what content, when and for how long helped digital publishers to fine tune their offering and keep readers coming back.

This needs to happen much more in our universities, with better use being made of the student data gathered and stored securely in the various learning management and video platforms in use.

With the right training and support, academics can use this information to identify students who might not be regularly accessing reading materials or recordings before and after a class or spot when students are not contributing in live class discussions. It provides teaching staff with the opportunity to clear up areas of confusion and encourage participation.

At one university, running an online poll asking students how they feel each day has been an effective way to flag potential issues with wellbeing that can then be addressed in a timely way. If used more widely, measures such as these could help teaching staff to ensure students get the academic and pastoral support they need.

5. Explore opportunities to generate income

The shift of the media online has seen the global readership of some outlets increase exponentially.

As universities move away from large in person lectures to a combination of remote learning with smaller group teaching taking place on campus, more course materials could be created and syndicated to reach more students and generate global income streams.

The pandemic has accelerated awareness of what technology can deliver in higher education by at least 5 years. IT professionals working in the sector can grasp the opportunity to encourage their institutions to innovate so they can deliver quality teaching online, at scale, that is as good or better than the traditional face-to-face experience.