Outdoor Speaker Series: Digital Experiences in Higher Education

A group of people talking and smiling at Mindgrub's Outdoor Speaker Series event.

The October event in Mindgrub’s Outdoor Speaker Series focused on “creating cohesive digital experiences in higher education.” We asked five of the region’s top minds in digital leadership about how they’re currently infusing technology into their institution’s growth strategy and what the future looks like for the higher education community. 

Here are some of their top (very tweet-worthy) insights.


Kevin Frick, Vice Dean for Education, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School

Josh Harless, Executive Director for Digital Experiences, University of Maryland

Mike Lombardi, Senior Manager of EdTech, Amazon Web Services

Lauren Moriarty, Director, Content Management Systems, Custom Applications, & Consulting Services, University of Virginia

Sue Subocz, Vice Provost, Curriculum Strategy, Innovation, & Design, Walden University

Laura Gousha, Vice President of Engagement, Mindgrub (Moderator)

How would you describe the current digital landscape at your institution?

“I compare it to the Weasley house in Harry Potter that’s held together by magic. We’re in the place where a lot of early adopters are, when you try something new and then keep adding onto it over time. The question we’re asking today is, ‘Do we continue to make this more complex and add more layers of technology, or do we tame the landscape and simplify it?’” - SS


What are the next big digital initiatives that your organizations are considering?

“We’re slowly changing the mindset internally that people will engage with your website just because you build it. We’re taking a look at new ways people are seeking information - like tuition estimates via voice search - and optimizing our digital experience for that.” - JH

“We’ve spent the past few years expanding our online course offerings dramatically, so now our job is to optimize the online learning experience. We’re incorporating experiential learning into the online format, which is outside of the box, making every course more interactive, and finding ways to update our courses to present the most up-to-date information to our students at any given time.” - KF

“Students are coming to campus with different expectations than they did even five years ago, so we’re thinking seriously about blended experiences and making sessions with faculty and peers more interactive. On the web side, because our system is decentralized, another big initiative is auditing our digital properties and incorporate web governance in a way that keeps every one of our websites up to date, secure, and accessible.” - LM

“The traditional university-level degree program keeps getting shorter and shorter; how can we segment our content that people are used to getting quickly while maintaining a level of academic rigor? How can we build micro-experiences that can be linked together in multiple different ways to meet the education and training needs of a diverse audience? For instance, offering content for a few CEUs and being able to link them together as a 3-5 credit course. 

Furthermore, now that you’re working in smaller units of instruction, how can you use this format to spark innovation? When you used to consider how to innovate your material, it would be a major undertaking, since it was so large. Now you can make each smaller experience really interesting and innovative.” - SS


How has the faculty responded to changes in the digital landscape?

“We started with all of our external-facing sites - creating an infrastructure and building or rebuilding properties according to best practice - and then used that momentum to engage faculty at the right time.” - JH

“We seek to break down the barriers between academic units and marketing teams, because they rely on each other for success. Our goal is to create coalitions between them so we’re delivering a clear message across the board.” - SS


How has the cloud impacted the higher education space? How can it solve some of the problems we’ve discussed so far?

“A lot of the tools educators use are powered by Amazon Web Services, but we also work with the institutions themselves. It’s not within a university’s mission to manage highly-scalable data centers - they should be focused on the outcomes fueled by those systems and tools that impact their students and communities. Cloud platforms take that burden off their shoulders.

When we’re talking about education technology, like interactive online learning platforms, it’s important to remember that almost every EdTech company is mission driven, even if it’s a for-profit enterprise. They’re focused on positive student outcomes, so they want to make whatever they’re creating easy to use.

For instance, the video platform at Echo360 wanted to offer transcription options for their users, which would have required them to invest heavily in machine learning and natural language processing, but with AWS, it was a simple API call.” - ML


How do you create a cohesive experience across all of your digital touchpoints?

“The brand department helps our organization not by being the “brand police,” but by being evangelizers of the brand. They focus less on reacting to misuse of our brand elements and more on showing departments how they can be creative on top of the foundation they’ve laid - it’s essentially using the same set of “legos” in different ways to build something unique.” - LM

“We also leverage modularity to help departments create something unique to their own instance, but also something truly ‘Maryland.’ Our other approach is to provide resources. Previously, if you needed to create a website for your group, it was hard to find out where to get started. A lot of people want that help and support, so they can get back to serving students and the community, and when we’re able to give it to them, they’re more likely to enjoy the outcome.” - JH

“After relaunching our website four weeks ago, our marketing department has a brand standard document that we find really helpful. The next step is determining how we want those brand elements to be reflected in the online course environment, especially if we’re using third party tools.” -KF


How do you prioritize requests for new digital projects?

“We want to work on projects that will have the greatest impact and tie it to a KPI. For instance, how can this produce better yield for donations or enrollment? We also invest in elements that can be used across multiple websites, like calendars and newsfeeds, which yield a lot of impact for the effort.” - JH

“We have a robust prioritization and governance process for our prospect sites, which are geared towards people who aren’t yet our students. Where we need to look next is towards properties that people engage with once they become students, like the writing center and career services, and create a common way to access them and experience them. Our focus moving forward will be to make resources more accessible within the instructional experience.” - SS


A university website has to serve a lot of different purposes. How do you make that happen?

“Your flagship site does have to speak to a lot of different users: prospective students, alumni, community members, staff, and more. The challenge is to get people where they want to go from there. This presents a huge opportunity for getting on board with personalization technology. The strategy behind that tech is agreeing on the different journeys we can create for different individuals.” - LM

“You can’t be all things to all people if you’re relying on a static sitemap. There’s so much information and so many pathways, and even different needs per single user to consider. There are lots of opportunities with artificial intelligence to help people find what they need when they interact with your website.” - SS


What do you think the future of online learning looks like?

“Aligning more closely with employer outcomes and conveying to students that what they learn in school is making them more employable. For instance, employers want candidates with critical thinking skills and people who are great communicators, and that’s what you get through education; but we’re not explicit enough about that to our students. We need to make it clear that what they’re learning will be relevant outside of the experience you’re in at the moment.” - SS

“There’s a large skill gap in today’s workforce, and AWS is specifically targeting those IT skills that are most in-demand among employers. We created the Cloud Degree through community colleges in multiple states, where we’re integrating cloud-related content into existing degree programs and partnering with companies to identify which skills they need people to know on day one.” - ML

“Those partnerships are really ideal, because institutions won’t have to update the technology or platform-specific content that’s coming from a provider like AWS. The provider can fill the content gaps in the course curriculum and make sure it stays updated.” - SS


What digital project are you most proud to have worked on?

“We moved news and editorial content that was only distributed in print onto a fully digital platform, which can scale across multiple properties, is searchable, and can reach more audiences. It’s really reinforces that we’re digital-first now.” - JH

“We’re really proud to have gone from zero to over 60 online courses through a rapid development process. It takes a lot of communication between instructional designers and facult members to keep rolling things out.” - KF

“Forming an internal agency where departments actually have to pay for our services. It makes them a lot more engaged in the process, and it’s made a hugely positive impact, 250+ projects later. I’m really looking forward to seeing the positive effects of the new platform that leverages modularity to improve scalability and standardization across all of our digital experiences, as well.” - LM

“An amazing innovation we’ve implemented in the classroom is synchronous simulation, where a student can interact with avatars that are part digital display, part human actor. For instance, teachers in training can work on their classroom management skills with a ‘real’ classroom of students. I’m looking forward to seeing how we can scale this in the future.” - SS

Learn more about Mindgrub’s work in higher education by visiting https://www.mindgrub.com/work/education