Higher Ed decision-makers haven't quite created a desirable 'product' for their students during COVID-19. And no, it's not 'different' at your school. Tuck away the ego and read on, friend. Fortunately, there's still time to make a change for the Fall. You can still ensure that your students are present, engaged, and excited to be back for the coming semester. We believe in you.

⚔️ A War Of Two Worlds

Turn on the ol' imagination, and picture this scene: you're seeing a beautiful valley at golden hour, the sun streaming over willowing grasslands - imagine Return of the King - there's a war being waged. Who are the two sides of this battle? What are they fighting over?

Ladies, gentlemen, fabulous foxes, and minxy marsupials, welcome to Administration vs. Students in the war of Higher Education Decision-Making in COVID-19.

Feeling baffled? You should be. University administration and students should not be fighting each other, and they should not be enemies (not even frenemies, for my Mean Girls fans out there). This shouldn't be a matter of what the students want versus what the administration wants. I mean, I get it if administration aren't so keen on students cutting class and rolling into lab three sheets to the wind, but shouldn't everyone want the students to enjoy the learning experience that they are paying for, and for them to graduate educated? The whole promise of the degree - fulfilled?

🔍 Let's Zoom in...

So where's this fallout, exactly? Where's this friction? Well, it's no secret that school administrators are woefully not on the same page as their students.

Example #1: the insistence on using outdated LMS' that serve only admin needs. Most LMS are made to serve the educator and school administrator with the student (the actual user!) as an after-thought. That means they don't have any usability or built-in features to make the students' lives easier to help them learn better. All the LMS does for students is serve as a document platform - and a pretty disjointed one, at that - where students log in, click download, and immediately bounce to do their learning elsewhere.

Example #2: mandating physical textbooks in many instances (why are we still buying physical textbooks? Do you know who feels bad for the trees that died to make those pages? Your students. And what about the looming back pain from lugging those things around? And before you point out that one kid who loves textbooks, I'll first raise you a lesson in statistics and the concept of outliers).

And now, in the COVID-19 era, the administrations' latest trick: thinking it's a beautiful idea to stream hours and hours of lectures. Admin says "virtual lecture"; students say, "our minds just touched the void! 🤯👹☠️👻".

Look, students just want to be given tools to help them learn efficiently, to be super organized, and to collaborate with their classmates. They don't want to deal with Zoom lag, the impossibility of finding and hastily downloading materials on an LMS, and the loneliness of studying alone in a room for 46 hours a day. And they sure as heck don't want to pay upwards of US$50,000 a year to do any of this.

🚀Finding a good role model

Let me back-track a hot minute. Let's reframe this problem. Let's take a look at Tech. That's right, Tech, with a capital T, the new(ish) employer of those who want to be living in the Future, not the '50s. Glory Hallelujah and all that jazz to Silicon Valley 🙌🏾, but there is something Tech typically gets right and that's focusing on the end user. Products and features are designed and built with the end user in mind, to directly solve their pain points. Market forces ensure that the companies who don't do a great job for their end user will fail, while those that listen and cater to their end user do phenomenally well. Think Tinder, Waze, Venmo, Spotify, and Basecamp as examples of tech that has so far done a great job catering to their specific user.

At this point, it seems like everyone and every thing (moving or not) on this planet has heard of 'customer obsession'. Everyone except university administrators, that is. This is particularly odd because it's not like they can't empathize with the 'customer'. I mean, we're willing to bet that at the start of the COVID madness, some of them flipped their s* when they found out toilet paper was out of stock, raging at the Amazon warehouses who didn't have their best interests in mind as 'the customer'. We're all customers of something, so we should all be able to empathize with students - the customer in the present day quandary.

🏛 "Okay fine, we'll listen to the custo...I mean, the student..."

To build a good user-focused product, you have to listen to your users. In tech, that means user interviews, focus groups, surveys - all constant feedback loops. It also means that you — the company, the educator, the Grand Poobah of Lalaland as these titles apply to you — need to be open to listening to your users. That means university administration need to listen and hear their students. This is rarer than you might think, because their goals are generally not aligned.

Here's the other rusty nail in the coffin of higher ed in the time of COVID-19: it's not even totally clear who the decision-makers are. Students don't necessarily have clarity on who to approach because the decision-maker could be...a Dean, a Provost, the CFO, faculty, staff, non-faculty administrative staff, and any number of other long-winded titles that make up administrations. But the collective administration - those elusive Powers That Be - hold the decision-making ability and, currently, they aren't making decisions that have students at the forefront. They're customer-ignorant, not obsessed.

😰 Oh man. So what's the plan?

As with any market product, the customer can choose to say sayonara ✌🏻, and take their business elsewhere. And that usually comes through to the ears of administrators with Bose-like clarity. Money talks, and increasingly during the pandemic, the customers (students) are making their voices heard. And that will be to the tune of an estimated US$23 billion loss when 15% of students choose not to return for Fall semester. And guess who's listening, all of a sudden? You know who's listening. It's all over the news.

There is still hope, and the answer is pretty straight-forward. University administrators simply need to choose to engage with and adopt tools that bring about a virtual vision of school that actually excites their students. This can easily be done - and we can help you get familiar with the methods. Let us help. 👇🏽

If you're an educator and want to learn about some of the tools and methods to engage your students and make sure we don't fail them, let's talk.

About the authors:

Vishal Punwani is the CEO of Sophya, the world's first Learner Optimization platform. He is a resident physician, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs, and a mentor for startups at Harvard and Oxford Universities. He loves animals, worldly adventures, and extreme sass. Follow him on Twitter @Vishy_vish 🤵🏽

Ayse Baybars is the CJO (Chief Joy Officer) at Sophya. After graduating from Harvard College, she received her MBA from Harvard Business School. She gained expertise in public health working at the World Health Organization before joining Sophya. She is currently stuck in the English countryside and loves spin, soft-ripened goat cheese, large format wine, and the German national football team. Follow her on Twitter at @ayse_baybars 🙆🏼‍♀️

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