Over the last year, I've been touting the benefits of helping learners and corporate partners hone a digital-first mindset. However, I think it's also imperative for residential higher education institutions to embrace digital-first philosophies in order to thrive in the future. Sounds counter-intuitive?

The melding of the physical and the virtual worlds is transforming the way people live, learn, and work and how companies operate. Through the clever integration of digital assets alongside physical assets, distinctive pedagogical combinations that will unlock wholly new sources of value for residential higher educational institutions are possible than relying on face-to-face instruction alone.

It is not difficult to incorporate a digital-first paradigm in higher education. Most academic residential institutions have already digitally transformed many of their practices, with the exception of large-scale digital creation. For example, we recruit and admit students through digital media, use virtual platforms for messaging and communication, and utilize digital analytics to make decisions and track individual student and institutional successes. In other words, we utilize a digital + physical approach for the entire student journey already.

Before I dwell deeply on the digital-first philosophy for residential higher education, it is important to understand the conceptual difference between face-to-face (f2f) and digital content creation. An f2f setting relies on the principle of the inseparability of production and consumption, i.e. a lecture produced by the professor is consumed by students at the same time. Students see instructors in flesh-and-blood and hence engage in a personal way. The size of an f2f class is dependent upon the room size, so scaling in the physical world is difficult. 

Digital content for fully-online programs

In a digital asynchronous setting, the production of the lecture is separated from the consumption. Instructors create digital content that can be re-used in multiple settings. Students watch the videos on their own time, rewind back-and-forth till they understand the material, and engage with other students in course fora. This is unlike a f2f setting, where the instructor controls the class discussion (for the right reasons) by focusing on one or two discussion threads and then students on online fora can engage in multiple threads.

Of course, as seen in the COVID-19 era, digital asynchronous content is usually coupled with virtual classrooms to create fully online courses. Too often, though, institutions port their f2f programs online and do not develop unique products for the Internet. This is a mistake. We're not using the strengths of the online medium to develop a distinctive product that works. It's like filming a play and calling it a movie.

Digital content for scale-based online programs

Class size restrictions are obliterated in the digital world. It is theoretically possible, as shown by platforms like Coursera, to reach millions of learners with digital content which gives rise to scale-based online initiatives. Universities such as Illinois and Georgia Tech have launched scale-based disruptive graduate programs in disciplines with great learner demand and have reached millions of learners around the world. D'Amore-McKim is in the process of launching several scale-based programs starting with an exciting new collaboration with PwC.

One critical point to bear in mind as schools think about scale-based programs: high scale is generated only through affordable pricing. Unlike margins that can be used to evaluate the performance of f2f or small-scale online programs, total revenue is the right metric for evaluating a scale-based program. Otherwise, we'll run the risk of utilizing 20th-century metrics for evaluating 21st-century programs.

The best of both worlds for residential institutions: f2f + digital learning

It is important for residential institutions to have a full portfolio of f2f, online, and scale-based programs in order to develop resilience, and investments must be made to build digital infrastructure. Too often, f2f and online instruction have been considered two ends of the continuum, and that mindset needs to vanish. When we combine f2f teaching with digital content, powerful possibilities emerge for residential institutions.

We need learning designers to work with f2f instructors to identify their specific strengths and craft unique offerings that blend digital and f2f teaching together; this would deliver exemplary engagement and drive successful academic outcomes. Both rote and complex content can be presented digitally to students so they can work on their own before coming to f2f classes, leading to fruitful in-class discussions and deeper engagement. By utilizing the strengths of each modality, we are able to create compelling value propositions.

Residential institutions need to be thoughtful and develop a concerted strategy around digital content creation. The name of the game should be ‘unbundled content.' They need to think in terms of disaggregate modules that can be stacked together into courses. The same digital modules can then be utilized in different courses and contexts with different audiences, which enables different revenue streams for residential institutions. This capability in digital content will enable these residential institutions to broad base their vision from catering to just undergraduate and/or graduate audiences to fully incorporating lifelong learning business models.

Raj Echambadi
Dunton Family Dean
D'Amore-McKim School of Business