The Challenge of Digital Transformation in Higher Education

Disruptive forces are sweeping the educational landscape. As this wave increases in amplitude, a responsive student learning experience and quality outcomes remain the keys to growth. In this post, we’re going to explore why these two concepts are so important.

Disruptive forces are sweeping the educational landscape. As this wave increases in amplitude, a responsive student learning experience and quality outcomes remain the keys to growth. In this post, we’re going to explore why these two concepts are so important. 

We’re told that the reason enrollments are falling is because of the great economy. That was my position until I saw the WGU and SNHU IPEDS numbers. They didn’t just grow, their enrollments exploded relative to everyone else. That caused me to take a closer look at SNHU now the largest university in the US at 140,000 students and WGU a close second. I asked some hard questions and got some very interesting answers I’ll share with you below. Lee -

Note: Updated for 2019 - SNHU is 139,000 and WGU has increased to 97,000.

In order to retain students and turn them into advocates, you need flexible, personalized programs and a capable digital technology framework. Fast-growing universities are smartly leveraging modern technology to create an operational ecosystem designed to build the strong relationships required to grow at scale. Over 33% of all new students at fast-growing universities are generated by internal referrals. 

When you couple this with appropriate operational processes, you’ll be able to systematically identify key student events to enable superior student services required to leap-forward. Integrating a coherent learning ecosystem with turnkey data and personalized, flexible learning pathways is critical to success. Legacy systems are no longer adequate for staying afloat. There also needs to be solid communication with marketing.


You must employ a growth formula that involves a combination of flexible, popular degree programs aligned with employer and student goals; relationship management; and intentional communications between the learning experience and marketing. Here’s an overview of a few of these pivotal factors required for enrollment growth and sustainability.


Flexible, In-Demand Programs Aligned with Employer and Student Goals


In order to expand market share, it’s a must to offer personalized programs that align with in demand job skills and abilities.

You’re only going to attract more students if the ones you have are appealing to potential employers.

Technology is now a competitive advantage that most institutions lack. Just because you're online with a legacy learning platform doesn't mean you'll grow. It likely means you're mystified about why you're not seeing positive ROI. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as simply “going online.” Innovative institutions must realize the need for a complete growth learning ecosystem in order to keep up.


What is a learning ecosystem? It's a complete system that connects student and faculty support. It enables automations, integrations, core learning functions (e.g., learning, interoperability, analytics, assessments, personalized learning, collaboration, and pumps actionable information back to a CRM integration, etc). It means that educators can identify and engage as soon as they notice a student has a problem. If a student fails a test, for example, the instructor can call that student and personally assist and engage at an unprecedented level.


Courseware should also be flexible and specially-designed for the self-paced and personalized experience needed to create a more flexible learning environment. The networked world has fundamentally changed how we teach and how we learn. Knowledge is no longer a commodity delivered solely from teacher to student, but something that emerges from the learners’ own exploration—whether that’s in an online discussion with other students, in a classroom debate with a professor, or a mix of both.


A learning ecosystem also offers personalized programs. Strut worked with faculty, administrators, students, educational psychologists, and technologists to create a personalized, flexible learning experience that tailors learning to each students’ needs and supports the underserved. For example, we can show a single, student-specific learning activity required to master their overall objectives. Other players offer a product, but Strut provides the support to get from the product the outcome you’re looking for.

Relationship Management for Sustainability and Growth


Relationship management is required for sustainability and growth. It requires research along with coherent and efficient technology. This is required to consistently deliver client satisfaction and quality outcomes. It allows universities to identify and remedy issues in real-time.


Strut offers a flexible, modular, next-generation extendable base platform with a core set of tightly integrated capabilities. Strut’s Student Experience Management (SXM)™ ecosystem is built around a comprehensive Learning Management System (LMS) with integrated Personalized Learning, Assessments, Course Authoring, and Academic Coaching. 

Strut supports both a traditional and a disaggregated faculty model (Tutorial, Faculty, Coach, Grader, Administration). There’s also out-of-the-box analytics and reporting, along with comprehensive data integration and workflow automation. Finally, Strut’s ecosystem includes a robust Customer Relationship Management (CRM) capability to manage the entire student life cycle from prospect acquisition, on-boarding student to alumni. 

Student Experience Management (SXM)™ - Strut provides clients with a complete SXM digital transformation framework designed to deliver the high-quality user experience mobile tech-savvy students demand. This comprehensive solution is designed from the ground up to manage the efficient delivery of innovative self-paced programs, and maximizes student learning outcomes, retention and success. 

We’re not suggesting higher education emulate the academic model of mega universities, but did you know Western Governors University (WGU) has a “delight index?” Gallup performed a study that examined WGU alumni outcomes based on Gallup’s measures of workforce and life outcomes — including employee engagement, well-being, and emotional attachment to the university. The study provided insight into these outcomes and the graduates’ reflections on their undergraduate experiences.


WGU was then able to analyze this information and assess student happiness. Then, in collaboration with marketing, they were able to leverage these details. They were able to use happy, engaged students for social recruitment. This allows them to expand into new markets and create programs that are in-demand by this tech-savvy generation of students. This is a perfect example of why it’s critical for university operations to be in alignment with marketing.


Intentional Connections Between Learning Experience and Marketing


An intentional connection between learning and marketing is a must. Marketing should also highlight the outcomes of advanced technology. Flexible and personalized programs are designed to maximize student and faculty productivity. They also thus increase satisfaction with the experience and educational outcomes. These outcomes are always linked back to employer demand for these skills and their need for evidence of incremental achievements.


Technology is the tool that makes all these things possible. It brings all elements together in the form of information that enable Academic Coaches and Faculty to provide amazing student support that generates referrals internally and on social.


The takeaway is to offer flexible degree programs in demand by employers. Enrollment increases when an institution offers these. For example, many employers seek candidates with MAOL degrees over MBAs. Thus, enrollments are growing among Organizational Leadership Programs.

Subsequently, students must look for an edge that sets them apart. Marketing materials must stress the flexible and personalized nature of your programs, as well as how in-demand these degree programs are by employers.


The Cost of Data Fragmentation and Archaic Legacy Platforms


Legacy systems don't provide all core learning functionalities within a single platform and thus force clients to loosely integrate external SaaS services. The legacy result is data fragmentation that drives up costs and student dissatisfaction. A new approach was severely overdue, and that’s why a completely-integrated, learning management ecosystem was born. In many legacy platforms, courseware is simply dead: no data, no analytics, no automated remediation. If a student is suffering in silence, they are doomed because no one can be proactive and help.


In order to remain competitive, you must transition to a digital transformation framework that provides fast-paced, personalized, flexible learning capabilities that exceed student and employer expectations. Technology is only the tool. If it doesn’t have the appropriate data and functionalities, it’s not going to serve its purpose.


No one would argue that institutions like SNHU and WGU are growing and have reached critical mass. But SNHU has 75 people on their data analytics team to measure and monitor. Why does it take that many resources? It takes 75 people because their data is scattered in dozens of external silos, in separate databases. From the student information system to the assessment platform, every core system has a separate database. To collect, transform, and reconnect these separate silos requires a massive effort. Data fragmentation also drives up costs and student dissatisfaction.


Systems like Strut are comprehensive, out-of-the-box solutions that keeps all the data in one database. The power of one database is vast. It’s not just a Learning Management System, but a complete Learning Management Ecosystem. This makes analytics much more efficient. It makes the student experience much more personalized and trackable.




The fog of disruption naturally creates turbulence. There are a lot of perspectives and solutions out there making a lot of noise. This creates confusion and it can be tricky to narrow down solutions. Leaders must look toward other leaders and those who are successfully growing.


That path will undoubtedly lead back to the deployment of a digital transformation technology framework required to offer personalized, flexible programs in demand by employers. It’ll lead to the need for a learning ecosystem with the ability to enable high-end student services and support. Then, it’s up to you to provide exceptional student services and support in order to retain and grow.


Ensure program offerings are align with in-demand degrees by employers. Go after local business-to-business relationships to provide degree pathways that closely match what employers are looking to achieve.


Finally, after everyone is aligned it's time to move forward with marketing. The key is to ensure marketing emphasizes self-paced, personalized, flexible, academic badges, high-end student services and support along with employer alignment.


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