How Design, Storytelling Can Address Higher Education Challenges

As the Fall semester approaches educators are in planning mode for the school year ahead. As curriculums are adjusted, higher education leaders and staff members must grasp the interplay of the trends impacting the state of higher education – including the drop in university and college enrollment and the secondary education students’ learning slump.

The National Student Clearinghouse Spring 2023 Report indicates that undergraduate enrollment at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions is still declining, although at a slower rate than the previous year. Many reports indicate enrollment is about to reach the ceiling. projects a decrease in undergraduate enrollment from 2025 onwards.

The cause of this decline is multifaceted but has been principally driven by changing demographics. The Great Recession of 2007-09 has resulted in a shrinking pool of high school graduates due to slower birth rates, otherwise referred to as the birth dearth. Perhaps more alarmingly, the 2023 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation's Report Card, shows declines of 4 points in reading and 9 points in mathematics since 2020, and steeper declines of 7 and 14 points respectively in the last decade. This learning slump, worsened by the pandemic, is a roadblock that can have long-term repercussions for students and the nation's future. 

While some of these issues are outside the control of higher education leaders, there is one key area that they can tactically manage within lecture halls – the retention rate of enrolled students. The retention of enrolled students depends partly on their ability to understand and retain concepts accurately, which speaks to the need for quality pedagogy and educational resources. For professors to generate an engaging classroom environment, they cannot rely solely on traditional lesson plans but must look at creative approaches to supplement in-class and digital ways of learning – enter design and storytelling. Let's dive into the added benefits of today’s technologically turbocharged storytelling as well as how professors can better harness this creative tactic.

Engagement and comprehension on a new level  

Stories can provide meaningful context for learning. When paired with audiovisual content – including interactive presentations and multimedia materials – it increases teachers’ ability to capture students' attention and makes the learning experience more engaging and vibrant.

Studies show that 65% of the population are visual learners. By using design assets, educators can break a complex concept into digestible segments and clearly communicate a narrative, which produces improved comprehension. Additionally, in today’s always-online world, students are accustomed to consuming a constant flow of content streamed through digital devices. Students can more closely relate to this teaching method – making it a win-win for educators and pupils.

Accessibility and inclusivity 

In addition to being an excellent method to improve engagement, visual storytelling can enhance the learning experience for students with diverse learning needs and abilities. Graphic elements like images and videos can be essential for students to respond better to methods which stimulate visual cognition. The use of sounds or audio-based elements not only aids the storytelling experience, but it also assists students with hearing impairments, ultimately adding great value and promoting inclusivity in education.

Development of soft skills 

Design and storytelling cultivate emotional ties in students, connecting not only to the material but also to each other. Storytelling fosters soft skills such as communication, collaboration, and critical thinking – fundamental assets for future employability. As the world continues to catch up from the pandemic's gripping effects, soft skills, also known as human skills, took a necessary but unfortunate backseat. Employers have expressed criticisms about their most recent graduate hires, citing concerns such as a lack of confidence, inadequate presentation skills, and difficulties collaborating effectively in teams.

Part of higher education institutions' role is to prepare the next generation with the necessary skills to prepare and integrate them into the workforce properly. Visual design and storytelling is another valuable tactic educators can use to reinvigorate the younger generation’s soft skills.

Leveraging AI for Design and Storytelling

Visual storytelling is far from a novel innovation. However, with more advanced modern technologies available than ever before, including free-to-use AI tools, the accessibility and possibilities for innovative learning are limitless. Without a doubt, artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly important for making classes more interesting for students. When considering design and storytelling, AI can be seen as a unique opportunity for educators to unlock the power of creative lessons. With generative AI for presentations, professors can save time on creating presentations for lesson planning. Educators just need to input the topic, the tone and the style, and the AI will do the rest. Professors can then customize the AI-generated presentations to incorporate images and icons – all within one holistic ecosystem.

Today’s storytelling, supercharged by design and technology, represents a potent tool for teachers to captivate students, improve understanding, nurture creativity, and establish an environment of positivity and inclusivity. For higher education leaders, this should be of particular interest to help with retention rates, especially as enrollment projections for 2025 and beyond reflect a shrinking student demographic. For parents and grandparents, design and storytelling represent an important way we can better prepare our young people for adulthood, and our society for progress.

Jose Florido is Chief Market Development Officer at Freepik Company in the U.S.