Before 2020, higher education was faced with increasing financial challenges caused by declining demographics, a dwindling international student base, and numerous other issues. The COVID-19 crisis forced schools to transition their spring semesters online very quickly. Technology proved not only useful but vital for them to survive until the fall semester. It seems that digital transformation has now become less of an “if” and more of a “when” for higher education, something essential for all but the largest organizations that are likely already utilizing the technology. The caveat, however, is that what is often considered digital transformation will not suffice to save higher education. Cultural and operational changes must be as much a part of your transformation as technological advancements or else you risk digitizing a failing process instead of transforming it.
What is Digital Transformation?
“The odds of digital transformation impacting an organization is directly correlated to the extent that the institution is using it to modify their business model to account for a new reality.”
Although digital transformation means a myriad of things to many different people, simply put it describes how businesses and institutions utilize technology to respond to their stakeholder’s needs in new and transformative ways. For higher education, those stakeholders are primarily students, faculty, and staff whose needs are numerous and growing as COVID-19 presents additional challenges on top of those present prior to 2020.
Digital transformation within higher ed can include initiatives to expand online learning opportunities, data-driven decision making, or use technology to monitor and improve student success among others. A key distinction should be made between transformation and the utilization of technology to improve systems or processes that your institution already provides. Simply upgrading your technological offerings will not be enough to transform your university’s short-term and long-term outlook, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. True digital transformation is necessary for survival during these trying times, but the odds of digital transformation impacting an organization is directly correlated to the extent that the institution is using it to modify their business model to account for a new reality.
The concept of digital transformation is not new to higher education. In fact, many of the larger institutions have been investing in innovative technological transformation for years now and have reaped the benefits as external circumstances expedite our transition to remote learning. Technologies such as MOOCs, chatbots, blended learning, and flipped classrooms have offered students new opportunities to learn in environments that are best suited for their success. Advanced data analytics are being used to predict student success, as well as the success of individual courses or programs. Increased interest in the internet of things (IoT) has also shown unique use cases for technology to be utilized throughout the entire life cycle of a student. While some of these technologies have not yet lived up to their hype, many have gone on to find a more permanent place in the higher ed ecosystem.
The truth is that higher education is in desperate need of transformation, but is also adverse to it in many ways. 97% of institutions surveyed by Bay View Analytics report that faculty with no previous online teaching experience were asked to transition their courses online this year. Providing them ample training, encouragement, and technical support is necessary for bringing everyone on board. Share the vision of your digital transformation project with stakeholders in order to increase buy-in early on and establish the necessary cultural changes required for true transformation to occur.
Surviving and Thriving Post-COVID-19
There’s no going back to “normal” after COVID-19. This pandemic has undoubtedly changed not only higher ed but the world as we know it going forward, and that shift must be accounted for when considering a digital transformation initiative in 2020. Are students going to want to pay full tuition if all of their classes are transitioned into remote delivery? Are constituents prepared to make the necessary changes to adapt to a world where social distancing and contact tracing are essential for any organization hoping to gather in-person before a vaccine is widely available? These kinds of questions cannot be answered with digitization alone.
To design a strategy to achieve true digital transformation, colleges must ask themselves these fundamental questions:
- What is your institution’s key differentiation?
- Who is the transformation meant to serve?
- Do you know those stakeholders? What are their needs?
Adopting an entrepreneurial mindset is key to recognizing the crucial aspects of an institution’s offerings and provides a laser focus on the efforts that have the most benefit to your stakeholders. Unprecedented circumstances require unprecedented and innovative solutions. Colleges should use this opportunity to embrace what makes their institution stand out and carve a space for the college in our “new world.”
– Nuno Couto (CEO & Founder)
Before you’re able to harness an entrepreneurial mindset to align your institution’s strengths with trends in the higher ed ecosystem, you must first identify what those trends are and which will have the biggest impact on your institution’s short and long-term goals. Here are a few examples of new trends that will shape the face of higher education going forward.
While the current model for higher education is predominantly focused on the two to four-year college experience with the potential opportunity for postgraduate studies, current trends are leaning more towards a lifelong learning approach that encourages students to engage with the institution throughout the course of their careers, not just in preparation for entering the workforce. For some institutions to survive in a post-COVID-19 world, they’re going to have to acknowledge this new reality for students and shift their services to better suit the new approach to learning.
Customized, Just-in-time Learning
Like most services in 2020, higher education is changing to become more customized, individualized, and provided just-in-time when the user needs it most. Whether it involves expanded and targeted online learning opportunities, specified and expedited credentialing, or short-form video content, education will soon become more readily available on an individualized basis, providing exactly what the student needs at that specific time rather than a one-size-fits-all solution.
In the near future, schools are going to have to consider collaborating with one another much more, uniting to create credentials that are cross-school and best of breed. Blockchain technology is likely going to enable the ability for students to receive micro-credentials and pick and choose components of their education from various sources to be able to get just the credentials that they need. This information would potentially be available through the blockchain for future employers or other institutions to access.
Intercollegiate pedagogical collaboration
As courses and programs rapidly move online, students are already beginning to question the rigid nature of higher education learning. In the near future, schools will begin collaborating on pedagogical resources, offering programs that are accessible to students at other institutions. Students would then be able to pick and choose from the best courses that are available and create an individualized learning experience most in-line with their own long-term goals.
The institutions who will thrive are the most entrepreneurially minded, those who can take calculated risks. While the Harvards and MITs of the world have plenty of safety nets, the at-risk institutions will need to think of change at these levels. On the other hand, those same schools are presented with a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of trends that their competition isn’t as well suited to take advantage of or may not yet be considering. If they don’t take advantage of these shifting trends, they risk being disrupted by venture capital firms and their respective startups.
When Digitization Falls Short of Transformation
Digital transformation is an incredibly daunting task, given how many moving parts are involved. Thankfully, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from both the successes and the failures of other digital transformation initiatives. Some common issues include:
- Fatigue from continuous change and a lack of change management
- A lack of upfront commitment to the project
- Evaluating ROI and determining whether less risky changes may yield better results
- Ensuring that the digital initiative is truly transformative rather than simply digitizing your process
- Focusing on both short-term and long-term goals
- Determining the strategic focus of your initiative and sticking to it
Although each of these issues can be addressed in turn, they represent a few key points to consider. Digital transformation requires that everyone does their due diligence ahead of time and prepares the students, faculty, and staff for all of the challenges that they will inevitably face during the transition. This combined with having a clear vision and strategic focus for the project will put your institution’s best foot forward towards making the digital transformation a success.
Digitization alone won’t save higher education. True digital transformation, however, will be a necessary part of our new normal as colleges, universities, and the rest of the world prepares for a post-COVID-19 future.
If you’d like to learn more about how digital transformation will continue to impact higher education, consider joining the Higher Ed Technology Professionals Meetup on Friday, November 20th at 12 PM EST for their seventh virtual Meetup event.
Avoid costly mistakes and wasted time – talk to an impartial peer in Higher Ed!
There is nothing like speaking with a peer who has implemented the same product – send us a request.
You can also provide general feedback, inquire about additional free resources, submit a topic you’d like us to cover, tell us about a feature you’d like to see, or request the best staff for your project.