The Retrofuturist Chronicles: On the Fly Making Higher Learning More Intelligent

Episode 7 begins with Miranda and Aunt Natalie on a research mission to the local university library, which ends prematurely after a mishap with a microfilm reader (remember those?). Even though the incident jeopardizes a reel from the university’s archives, it’s the catalyst for Aunt Natalie’s account of her time at the Flying University when future Nobel laureate Marie Curie was her lab partner. This is a good time for a reminder that Aunt Natalie’s stories tend to take liberties with factual history—but they always highlight an important truth. In this case, we learn that even institutions of higher learning need to adapt and innovate to continue to fulfill their mission.

Changing the paradigm for a new reality

Whether they see it that way or not, educators have a business model—and that model is undergoing radical revision. Even before the pandemic, disruption was the “new normal.” It all starts with the changing expectations that students have regarding the value of the education they receive and whether the outcome is worth accumulating a debt burden that will follow them for decades. With the growth in remote learning, students are also questioning the high cost of tuition, given that the traditional “experience” of higher education and campus life isn’t always a part of the package. At the same time, colleges and universities struggle to control their costs and find ways to equip students with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to face the challenges of a more unpredictable world.

A diploma from an esteemed institution isn’t necessarily the ticket to success and prestige that it once was. In response, institutions are shifting their focus away from traditional measures of student success and embracing the concept of “student engagement.” In this new paradigm, institutions have to abandon the “If you build it, they will come” mindset that characterized higher learning from the beginning and turn more toward the experience economy model that has revolutionized so many other areas of our lives.

Becoming intelligent institutions

Navigating this sea change means that higher-ed institutions have to do for themselves what they’ve helped countless generations of students do: become more intelligent. The next-generation learning environment — and the administrative functions that support it — will embrace the technologies that enable an experience-centric service model. They’ll collect the needed data to transform longstanding practices and overturn timeworn assumptions about student needs. They’ll deploy analytics to anticipate and understand trends in learning and research and to optimize the business processes related to running the institution. Artificial intelligence and Robotic Process Automation will take repetitive administrative tasks off the to-do lists of faculty and staff and free them to focus on those activities that create richer learning experiences for students.

Rethinking the curriculum with a data-driven perspective

Curriculums are evolving as well. Institutions are collaborating closely with public and private enterprises to adapt to changing professional requirements and equip students with the skills they’ll need to make an easier transition to their working lives. The same technology that can help the university run more efficiently can also support alternate learning environments and give students hands-on experience with the tools they’ll use in their future careers. These interactive, real-time platforms can improve student engagement, support personalized learning, and improve accountability for administrators, faculty, and students alike.

As in the private sector, the best-performing institutions that excel in effective student engagement and operational transformation will pull away from the rest of the pack. The evolution to the intelligent university will affect every activity, interaction, transaction, and outcome—from business operations to workforce support to supply chain management. The intelligent institution will deliver the seamless virtual support, superior experiences, and greater value that attract more students and top-tier faculty.

In other words, institutions will lose their reputations as isolated ivory towers as they become intelligent, data-driven organizations that foster the skills students need to compete and thrive in a fast-moving economy. Most importantly, though, the technology that drives this transformation is a means, not the end. It’s the platform for creating value, enriching experiences, and creating efficiency and transparency. To learn how SAP can help your institution begin the transformation toward experience-centered education, visit . You can take our self-assessment to gauge your progress toward becoming a data-driven intelligent enterprise.

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