After more than a year of ongoing disruption and uncertainty due to COVID-19, some universities and colleges around the world are navigating a return to pre-pandemic routines, while also realizing that life on campus will never be the same. Though things will be different, the acceleration of the digital transformation that was already underway has led to positive advancements that can increase student engagement and highlight the value of higher education. 

A new whitepaper, “Reimagining higher education as a student-centered experience” by Microsoft Education, explores some post-covid trends impacting higher education, and how technology can help address them. Let’s take a look at three of the top trends.

Trend 1: Students are becoming more diverse and so are their expectations of higher education’s role in their path to employment

Going forward, it will be critical for universities and colleges to help a diverse population of learners get the skills they need to be successful in the workforce. According to the OECD, the negative impact of COVID-19 on the worldwide job market has been 10 times greater than that of the global financial crisis of 2007-08. And for jobs that are available, employers report difficulty recruiting candidates with the necessary skills. At the same time, students are feeling less optimistic about their future job prospects— over half said they had lost confidence in the value of a university or college education and were worried about developing the skills they need. 

“Today’s students and lifelong learners need skills to land jobs and meet evolving workforce trends—and these days, this means digital skills. Microsoft is committed to partnering with higher education institutions to provide the necessary skills, technology, and tools to help equip all learners with the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century.” – Brad Smith, President, Microsoft

As institutions race to keep up with a growing skills gap, they must also address important changes in student demographics. The traditional, “college-aged” student population is on the decline,i and adult learners are a growing demographic critical to closing the skills gap. Additionally, an important demographic for higher education is learners with disabilities. Representing 15 percent of the global population, or 1 billion people,ii persons with disabilities are less likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree or above, and face increased challenges finding employment as compared to those without a disability.iii For those able to attain a higher degree, their chances of being employed increase, demonstrating the importance of higher education in this population’s economic mobility.

To help higher education institutions provide customized career programs for all students, Microsoft announced Career Coach, a Microsoft Teams app that can help colleges and universities offer personalized guidance to students and assist them in identifying career goals aligned with their passions, interests, and strengths. It uses an artificial intelligence (AI)-based skill identifier and LinkedIn integration to align a student’s comprehensive profile with job market trends. Additionally, it helps them grow real-world skills and build connections with mentors and peers. 

Trend 2: Harnessing data and leveraging AI will increasingly help institutions provide more personalized experiences and operate with greater agility

With greater competition for student admissions and a growing emphasis on the value and experiences students expect, a student-centric approach across the student lifecycle can help universities and colleges attract and engage more learners. 

According to a new IDC paper, “Cultivate innovative AI-powered student engagement in hybrid learning for higher ed,” AI is playing a major role in transforming student engagement in higher education for early adopters of the technology.

Microsoft infuses AI in our products to empower all users—faculty, staff, and students—with apps and tools within Microsoft Teams that leverage data and AI. For example, Power Platform enables staff and faculty to quickly spin up apps, automations, and virtual chatbots, with no coding experience required.

When the pandemic began, Purdue University used Power Apps and Power BI to create a custom application to help faculty and university leaders gain real-time visibility into research program status, proactively manage issues, and make informed decisions about budget allocations.

“With our new app built on Power Apps and Power BI, we could catch and report mistakes in real time. Faculty reported more accurate projections and the university could immediately see system-wide impacts and make more informed decisions.” – Ken Sandel, Senior Director of Sponsored Program Services, Purdue University

Trend 3: The integration of technology with pedagogy will enable more flexible, engaging, and inclusive learning experiences

When higher education institutions unexpectedly moved classes online, many of them responded with surprising speed, scaling their infrastructure quickly to keep tens of thousands of students and faculty connected. Unfortunately, despite the excellent work and intense effort, there is no disputing that online classes are not a substitute for the campus experience. Soon, inequities that already existed were highlighted, limitations of virtual pedagogy were revealed, and student engagement declined.

Almost half of students say that the pandemic worsened their ability to stay engaged, and 60 percent of faculty report witnessing a drop in student engagement. 

Before the pandemic, some colleges and universities were already modernizing the learning experience to create more student-centered experiences. These institutions fared exceptionally well despite the disruption. The article, “Reimagining higher education: The post-covid classroom,” explores how institutions like Florida State University (FSU) and University of New South Wales (UNSW) are integrating technology and pedagogy and demonstrating that technology can be accretive to the future of education. 

As institutions continue their transformation, they need tools that offer more than just video conferencing or chat. Microsoft Teams for Education, included in the Microsoft 365 subscription, integrates with an institution’s learning management system and provides a hub for collaborative and engaging learning experiences inclusive of video conferencing, files, chat, apps, and more. Teams supports learners with comprehensive accessibility features including live captioning and translation, and empowers educators and leaders with built-in insights to better understand student engagement, discover trends, and identify at-risk students.  

Throughout this evolution in higher education, Microsoft is honored to provide support with technology and skills offerings for institutions around the world. See our website and learn more about Microsoft’s position on these trends in Higher Education and how we address them in our new whitepaper, “Reimagining higher education as a student-centered experience.” In addition, all sessions from the online event, Higher Education Reimagined, are available on-demand. Sessions explored how to prepare today’s students for the workforce of the future, how to harness data to reimagine the student experience, and how the education community can embrace the shift to student-centered learning. 

iHigher education enrollment: Inevitable decline or online opportunity? | McKinsey

iiNew IDC report shows big opportunities to transform higher education through AI | Microsoft Education

iiiPersons with a disability: Labor force characteristics — 2020 (