What Colleges Can Learn From Online Retail This Holiday Season

Opinion | Higher Education

What Colleges Can Learn From Online Retail This Holiday Season

By Emily Lammers Cole and Rob Kadel     Dec 17, 2019

What Colleges Can Learn From Online Retail This Holiday Season

This holiday season, we’ve been thinking back to simpler times—long before Cybermonday was a thing or the Internet was in widespread use. Back then, holiday shopping often meant mail-order catalogs—poring over the pages, and circling and dog-earing our favorite gifts—then sending away for them weeks in advance.

The holiday catalog was valuable in its day because it brought all of a retailer’s offerings into the view of a consumer anywhere, provided that consumers picked up the catalog and flipped through hundreds of pages. But by today’s standards, that approach sounds pretty inefficient, if not archaic, for both the retailer and the consumer.

In an era of online shopping, digital marketing and personalized recommendations, retailers collect data on their prospective customers, deliver targeted marketing messages, recommend products based on purchase histories and other factors, and update product supplies with real-time demand. On the other end of the process, consumers search for what they want from across many retailers at once, narrow their search by product name, category or price, receive recommendations for things they didn’t even know they wanted, and check reviews to inform their decisions.

While data collection and analysis has transformed the holiday shopping experience, shopping for postsecondary education still resembles the outdated catalog model. This failure to evolve has come at the detriment of education providers and, more importantly, learners—who do not have access to the information or options that other shoppers enjoy.

Take the the experience of searching through college course catalogs, for example. Students seeking a course are limited to searching the digital catalog in front of them—they are not able to compare or select from courses available across multiple institutions. They can narrow their searches by department and, maybe, course level. They scour the course catalog to find the right fit—for their major, prerequisites, and, if they are lucky, interests. And then they select courses based on brief descriptions.

Like retailers in decades past, education providers predict course demand and build their catalogs based on historical data that is semesters old, not with real-time student or employer demand.

As we build a new learning ecosystem that better meets learners’ needs, an improved model that more effectively uses and shares data from learners, providers and employers will be vital.

Providers could use analytics to learn about their prospective consumers, project education demand and build a supply that aligns with learner needs. They could make personalized recommendations for learning opportunities based on an individual’s past performance and future goals, or on the experiences of learners with similar profiles.

On the other side, learners could benefit from support that helps them navigate their educational choices to find the best fit. They could consider various paths forward for work and education, look across education providers to identify the learning opportunities that best fit their goals and lifestyle, and then validate their choices with reviews from other learners. The result would be a more personalized and efficient system that connects education supply and demand and yields better results for learners.

Despite this potential, most providers don’t harvest the potential of student data and analytics. Several barriers stand in the way of change, including incompatible data languages and systems, organizational culture, and lack of interest alignment between education system stakeholders.

Each of these barriers is significant on its own. Together, they present a daunting and complex puzzle that we must solve to better meet learners’ needs. Fortunately, there are innovators that are making progress on their own pieces of the puzzle.

Postsecondary education has an opportunity and imperative to transform to meet the needs of adult learners who will tap in and out of learning throughout their working lives. Topping our holiday list this year is a wish that stakeholders from across the education ecosystem will work together to better leverage data in the best interests of learners.

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