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Higher education: Why engagement should matter more than location

Universities seeking to differentiate and improve quality at scale should shift to an engagement-centric strategy. But for engagement to become more than a wish list, it must become easier to assess and implement. Here's how.
Written by Special to ZDNet, Contributors

The following article is written by: Munir Mandviwalla, Richard Watson, Jan vom Brocke and Niraj Patel.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a circuit breaker shining a harsh light on the challenges facing higher education. It raises questions about the importance of access, cost, and digital infrastructure relative to the role of massive campuses, facilities, dorms, and thousands of support staff built up over the last 50 years. 

We believe the challenges come from location-centric thinking that is pervasive in higher education:

  • Universities expect students to come to campus rather than go to where they need the education. 
  • Universities optimize scheduling and use of classroom space instead of fostering interaction. 
  • The instructor is located behind a podium disengaged from students who are separated from each other in tiered case study rooms,
  • Schools compete on location and facilities rather than on content and an engaging experience.  

Location-centeredness overlooks the most valuable aspect of the higher education enterprise -- engagement. The engagement of meeting, working on projects, experiencing joint challenges and relating to different others. It is well known that tacit knowledge develops through engagement which stimulates the problem-solving and critical thinking skills essential to employers. Ironically, even when we are co-located in an attractive and supportive facility, universities don't make much of the time together; the engagement is an afterthought lost in the desire to optimize space usage. Universities forget that once the basic skills requirements have been met, employers mostly hire on personality and engagement skills.  

The access and cost challenges of higher education will not go away. Do universities want legislatures to impose a solution or further cut funding? For example, one logical solution is to build massive, highly scalable, low-cost online universities. These universities would offer uniform content to transfer explicit knowledge, much like the factories from the dawn of the industrial age. Will these universities attract the best students and scholars? Donors? What happens to research programs? Universities need to act now if they want to lead the reinvention of a critical social resource. We propose focusing on engagement.  

Higher education institutions seeking to differentiate and improve quality at scale should shift from location to an engagement-centric strategy. Yet, it must become easier to assess and implement for engagement to become more than a wish list. 

To move the conversation forward, we offer a series of examples: 

  1. Why not go to the student with a lower-cost neighborhood pop-up campus or a rented innovation hub? Almost every type of content can now be engaged with on the cloud, removing much of the need for traditional physical infrastructures. Universities can now orchestrate hyperlocal, small group, in-site engagement anywhere at low cost with immediate impact.  
  2. Going "the last mile" is critical for metropolitan universities that are often resource and space-constrained. Yet, they often ignore a valuable resource -- their local neighborhood -- which offers cultural engagement, reusable adjacent space, and experiential/community learning opportunities to address local social and economic challenges.  
  3. Engagement is often ignored or relegated to secondary "soft skills" status in higher education curricula. Focusing on engagement led to a Temple University program that develops students over time by measuring and requiring professional development points for activities such as leadership, competitions, industry interaction, volunteering, and supporting local businesses.  These activities build the attitude and personality prized by employers. 
  4. If higher education is a service, then why is it sold as a static product? Why do universities ask donors to support static entities such as buildings rather than invest in a two-way engagement model? A subscription service with different tiers of engagement offers a path to the vision of lifelong learning. For example, a subscription that offers intense course engagement during some periods and lightweight Q&A or mentoring at other times.  
  5. Reputation is important to higher education; it influences recruitment and placement. Yet, rankings are often location-centric, including facilities and recognition of well-established brands, while other rankings count publications that typically have little broader impact. An engagement strategy offers a differentiation tool. For example, engaging in joint research with local industry and collaboration on policymaking can generate social and symbolic capital that has a direct return on investment.  

The previous examples by themselves are unlikely to generate sustained impact unless they are part of a university-wide engagement mission. We propose a mindset shift that redirects efforts towards experimenting with engagement-centric university-wide models. Technology can play a major role in enabling digital transformation, especially in achieving engagement at scale and lower cost. However, our concept of technology use will also need to go beyond location centeredness. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic broke the resistance to "distance" education, students and faculty quickly recognized the limitations. Today's technology can go far beyond knowledge transmission from one location to another to innovate on new forms of digital engagement. We call on universities and tech providers to innovate on engagement; this will pave the way to offer high-quality education at scale in the digital era.  

About the Authors 

Munir Mandviwalla is Professor of MIS, Milton F. Stauffer, Senior Research Fellow and Executive Director of the Institute for Business and Information Technology (IBIT) at the Fox School of Business, Temple University. He focuses on research that impacts the community and industry, including micro-businesses, and a nationwide index for careers in information systems.  

Richard Watson is a Regents Professor and the J. Rex Fuqua Distinguished Chair for Internet Strategy in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia. He is a former President of the Association for Information Systems. 

Jan vom Brocke is the Hilti Chair of Business Process Management and the Director of the Institute of Information Systems at the University of Liechtenstein. Jan`s work has been published in many of the Financial Times Top 50 journals and has published over 40 books.

Niraj Patel is Chief Information Officer, Greystone, a commercial real estate finance and investment company with a portfolio of over $70 Billion. As CIO, Niraj is responsible for digital strategy and operations and generating a competitive advantage.


This article is based on: Mandviwalla, M., Watson, R., Li, J., vom Brocke, J., and N. Patel. "Next generation business models for higher education: The pandemic push." Plenary panel. 27th Americas Conference on Information Systems (AMCIS), August 9-13, 2021. We thank Joanne Li for her valuable contributions on the panel, which resulted in this article.  

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