Omnieducation: The Future of Higher Education? 

We were pleased to engage President Bill Hardgrave, The University of Memphis as our Kick Off Keynote Speaker at our 2022 Annual Seminar. President Hardgrave’s speech was entitled, “Omnieducation: The Future of Higher Education?”. We asked President Hardgrave to share with us additional reflections on “Omnieducation”, we hope you enjoy his piece.

Dr. Bill Hardgrave
University of Memphis President





In retail, a concept known as “omnichannel” has fundamentally shifted the retail paradigm.  Historically, retailers were “unichannel” – that is, they provided their products via one channel, mostly physical store locations.  Early online retailers, such as Amazon, were also unichannel, providing their products online only.  Then, retailers started adding channels to become “multichannel” – for example, Walmart added an online presence and Amazon added physical stores.  In these early efforts, the channels were treated separately – i.e., you were an in-store shopper or an online shopper and the retailer recognized you as two shoppers, rather than one.  In the past few years, though, the more innovative retailers have moved to “omnichannel”.  The concept behind omnichannel is simple, but profound: provide the products when, how, and where the customers want them.  For a true omnichannel retailer, a customer can seamlessly move between the store, catalog, mobile app, and online (website) to buy and return goods and the retailer recognizes the customer as one.  Think about how you can buy products – you can go to the store (traditional), you can buy online and pick up in the store, you can order products from your mobile device or computer and have them delivered to your home, you can purchase products with your mobile device while in the store and have them shipped to your home, etc.  Omnichannel retailers have made it easy for you to get the products you want when, how, and where you want them.  

In many ways, higher education has mirrored the retail industry in how we deliver our primary product: instruction. For centuries, higher education followed a “unichannel” approach – i.e., instruction was delivered in classrooms in person on campus. Then, more than a century ago, distance education was introduced by sending materials via the postal service which much later morphed into online education – essentially, a “multichannel” approach.  This is where most higher education institutions bogged down – they added some online classes and programs which were separate and distinct from their ‘traditional’ classes and programs.  There was little or no seamless movement of students between online and traditional programs, and students in online programs were often treated differently than traditional students.  To my knowledge, no higher education institution has moved to “omnichannel education”, which I will shorten to simply “omnieducation” – delivering instruction when, how, and where the students want it.  Omnieducation is a term I first used about seven years ago and, admittedly, I didn’t get much traction with the concept.  Enrollments were growing and things looked good; no one saw a real need to move to an omnieducation environment.  Then, along came the pandemic …   

Let’s use an example to explore the omnieducation concept. Professor Smith has taught her accounting class for several years in the traditional (in person) lecture style, with 120 students filling the classroom.  Through mid-term, she gives five assignments with 95% of the students completing all the assignments.  The average mid-term exam score is 72%.  Then, Professor Smith, facing the difficulty of teaching in a traditional setting due to the pandemic, adopted an omnieducation approach.  Instead of offering only traditional (in person) instruction, she offered three ways of receiving instruction: (1) attend in-person in the classroom; (2) attend ‘live’ remotely via Zoom; or (3) watch ‘on demand’ recorded class sessions.  A student could freely move between the delivery methods. Note: to provide all three options, Professor Smith taught the class in person, with a camera to live-stream via Zoom, and recorded the class (via Zoom).  After a few weeks of settling in, a pattern of ‘attendance’ emerges – in this case, about 20% attended in person, about 40% joined the class live via Zoom, and about 40% watched it on-demand.  A core set of students stayed with one delivery method (i.e., there was a small group of students who always attended in person, another group who always attended remotely live, and another group who watched it on demand), while other students moved between delivery methods (either moving between two or all three).  In some cases, students would use two delivery methods for the same class session (i.e., attended in person but also watched it on demand later).  Essentially, students were choosing when, how, and where they wanted the instruction delivered.  The result: by mid-term, 99% of the students complete the assignments, and the average on the mid-term exam has increased to 83%.  In this example, student engagement (as measured by completed homework assignments) and student learning (as measured via a mid-term exam) improved.  This is only one course and the subject matter lent itself to delivering the instruction using multiple delivery methods – but, it illustrates the “art of the possible”.  

The basic premise of omnieducation contends that students, if given the option, will naturally migrate to the approach that fits their learning style or situation the best.  In the above example, students chose a particular delivery method (either consistently throughout the semester or on a session-by-session basis) because it fit their learning style or fit their lifestyle demands (i.e., work, social, etc.). For any particular class session, it could have been driven by the topic – e.g., an interesting topic may have drawn people to the in-person or live delivery, while a more difficult topic may have pushed some students to use two delivery methods for the same class session (e.g., in-person and watching the video on-demand).  

The pandemic has, to some extent, shaken higher education loose of its centuries-old foundation and forced us to do things differently.  This is not necessarily all bad – some things needed to change and the changing demographics (i.e., few college-eligible students) in the coming years was going to force a reckoning for many in higher education.  In some ways, the pandemic merely shortened the timeline. Innovative higher education institutions will adopt an omnieducation approach to truly cater to their students and deliver instruction when, how, and where they want it.  

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