Learning in the age of the digital revolution

By Claire Roper-Browning, Regional Director of Marketing, Recruitment, Admissions and Communications (MRAC) at Heriot-Watt University Dubai.

The digital revolution has changed people’s perception of business strategies. From skimming the newspaper daily to find out the latest events to receiving instant updates from social media, people’s perceptions have been shaped by technology on digital platforms. With this change in perception, comes an inevitable change in communication and engagement. As such, businesses have implemented strategies to engage with their stakeholders through digital platforms and provide an interactive, meaningful way of communicating with them. The education industry is not exempt from this transformation. Contrary to the belief that changes in the “business” world are not applicable to education, digital marketing has assumed a crucial role in education. From just face-to-face interaction with students locally through on-campus events and tours as well as in high schools and local communities, student recruitment is now a deeply complex process that includes tailored marketing plans, target segmentation and a global approach to attract prospective students. Although many are sceptical of this process, viewing it as a form of commercialisation of education, the issue is far more complex.

The use of digital marketing in education has proven beneficial to students and their parents in several ways. Considering the unique challenges that schools and higher education have faced with the transition to online learning, digital engagement played a critical role in communicating relevant information about online learning programmes, course offerings and schedules with parents and students. In addition, with the rapid industry changes taking place in a post-covid, digitally enabled market, students largely use social media to choose their college and field of study. In fact, a survey by the Higher Education Marketing Report shows that 87% of prospective students use social media as part of their decision-making process when choosing a college or university. Additionally, the International Student Survey shows that 45% of students found out about their chosen university through a digital channel. This is especially relevant in light of figures by the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency in 2022 showing that universities have reported increased applications from foreign students since COVID-19 restrictions have eased. As such, outreach through digital channels is essential in guiding the choices of students looking to find the most suitable university locally, regionally, and beyond.

Not only have digital channels proven beneficial in bolstering global outreach and reaching the target audience, but they have also made education more accessible to people around the world.

Digital marketing has enabled higher education institutions to cater to diverse learner profiles, including those who work a full-time job, working parents and others who simply cannot be physically present at the university. For example, findings from Coursera’s recent Women and Skills Report signal an increase in enrolment in STEM courses among UAE women between 2019 and 2021 because of online learning. At Heriot-Watt University, we have launched a global online education initiative called Heriot-Watt Online designed to open higher education opportunities to non-traditional students around the world. As such, digital marketing has proven essential in increasing the accessibility of education to learners around the world.

Most importantly, digital engagement allows educational institutions to create personalised learning experiences for students, using data analytics and other tools to understand students’ unique learning needs and preferences. In today’s age, a one-size-fits-all education approach is no longer relevant. Online classrooms, blended-learning models and the increased use of technology has changed teaching approaches, and with it the needs of students. While acknowledging that higher education institutions are still facing challenges in adopting personalised learning approaches, leveraging digital tools to familiarise themselves with the diverse needs of students is a great start.

Since most young people rely on social media for choosing their fields of study and finding the right institutions, several studies have pointed to the importance of fostering student engagement through social media. This is especially relevant to the UAE, which has a 99% internet penetration rate and a young demographic that actively engages with social media. Educational institutions can engage with current and prospective students through using social channels to discuss popular dialogues about current events, sporting events and academic discussions. This can give students an insight into the values and ethos of the university, fostering positive engagement with current students and attracting prospective students.

With digital marketing constantly evolving and changing the way information is received and acted upon, educational institutions need to be able to keep up with the latest trends and techniques to have a solid understanding of their target audience and tailor their strategies accordingly. The use of digital marketing channels presents a valuable opportunity for students to find the right universities and learning approaches. Most importantly, it can help universities and higher education institutions make learning accessible to diverse learners around the world.