Insight | 28 January 2021

The digital transformation of higher education

James Bloor 800

James Bloor

Chief Strategy Officer

Tags: Digital Transformation

The digital transformation of Higher Education hero

Digitisation of higher education was already well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic. Programs with online learning were becoming common, smart learning was almost ubiquitous, and students could count on better and easier access to information.

When coronavirus swept through the world and caused the closure of schools, colleges and universities, the world realised just how ill-prepared we were for disruption of that scale. Institutions scrambled to set up new systems and policies that would ensure continued operation through these unusual times.

Despite the best efforts of institutions and educators, frustrated students were on the brink of strike action over the quality of their education, demanding partial refunds on the tuition fees.

The pandemic forced institutions to consider what can be done through digitisation of higher learning. The UN Policy Brief Education During COVID-19 and Beyond calls for ‘reimagined education’. That is exactly what we need to ensure that higher education transforms successfully into the new age of digital learning.

Higher education and digital technology

Digital technology brings to mind data, electronic devices, systems, and the use of cyberspace for various applications. In higher learning, digital technology has endless applications ranging from how students learn to how institutions are administered.

Educational institutions, especially universities and colleges, have had a love-hate relationship with technology for a long time. On the one hand, it has:

  • Brought increased opportunities in higher learning through collaborative and remote learning
  • Made institutions truly borderless and expanded their reach to previously unreachable student markets such as foreign students and working-class adults
  • Also made the instructional process easier through tools such as Smart Learning
  • Improved academic administration through digitised databases, fee payment, course tracking, and more

On the other hand, it’s exactly this integration with traditional methods of teaching and learning that is proving to be a problem. Traditional beliefs and policies have been a major barrier to the adoption of modern technology.

If you go through The Campus Computing Surveys from the year 2000 to 2019, you’ll quickly realise that people are the biggest barrier to full-scale digitisation of higher education, not tech products.

Largely because of the passion and effort of college administrators and educators, institutions have reacted quickly to the pandemic. However, there has been a hesitancy to make the radical changes that digitisation demands, with technology taking centre stage in the delivery of education. It’s easy to understand why, with us all wondering what the ‘new normal’ will be like, and the lack of support from government when compared with schools and colleges.

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Distance learning is a reality for many students now.

State of higher education during COVID-19

At the time of writing, most students in the UK have been at home for over 9 months since campuses were closed down. Institutions have had varying reactions to this, including setting up online instruction on instituting hybrid or blended learning models with limited reopening.

In truth, the transformation in higher learning has been much greater, according to the World Economic Forum. Some of the changes forced on institutions by COVID-19 are deep and hard to navigate, having a widespread ripple effect on students, faculty, and the world at large.

Economic impact

The biggest impact of COVID-19 on education has been economic. Institutions and students alike have suddenly had to deal with tight budgets, prompting a lot of strict measures. A survey of the financial health of universities during COVID-19 has been shown to be ‘reasonable’, but a lot of institutions will likely have it much worse.

The biggest impact has been from the loss of international students. England has 350,000 international students from a total of 2.4 million (or 14% of the total student population).

Due to travel restrictions and harsh economic downturns, many of these students have been unable to return to school. Some who were stranded are now reliant on government support.

A summary report suggests that 13 universities would likely end up insolvent without a financial bailout.

Methods of instruction have changed

Another obvious effect on education from the coronavirus pandemic has been the sudden move to remote learning solutions. A lot of institutions had to deploy in-house learning management systems (LMS) where course material, online classes, and assessment could all be carried out and monitored.

Many others have had to use third-party learning platforms. UNESCO even published a list of recommended distance learning solutions to help those schools that are yet to figure out how to adapt to the disruptions. The change has been painful and costly but necessary, demanding a technological leap for many students and educators.

Professors and lecturers are no longer the ’Sage on the Stage’

This part of the transformation did not start with COVID, but it has certainly been accelerated. Today, educators are merely there to guide students as they explore the subject rather than passively absorb the information being dished out. Thanks to the availability of better information and more authoritative teaching figures from a plethora of online platforms, students have more opportunities to explore subjects and choose what to consume.

Educators now have the added responsibility of creating environments conducive to learning in the new online world. Due to the loss of the valuable social experience an in-person class brings, it’s up to them to ensure acceptable levels of engagement and interaction among students. Even the most technically savvy educator needs support evaluating, selecting and implementing appropriate technologies to enhance their environment. For many, the student has more knowledge than the master in this space.

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Educators now need to create online environments conducive to learning.

Assessment models adapted or overhauled

The shift to remote learning solutions has also led to a change in how assessments are handled. There were already questions about traditional systems of assessment, especially the credit system. A move to competency-based assessment has been in the works for over a decade, and COVID-19 may just have set in motion a series of events that could make it a reality.

Our recent project with the CPD team at The Institution of Structural Engineers highlights this well, with the digitisation of a 100-year-old process that was creaking at the seams.

The assessment tools in use today include portfolios, learning journals, projects, as well as peer and self-assessments. Educators will have to get even more creative to ensure more accurate and practical assessment solutions.

Technology arms race

The suddenness with which higher education was caught out has led to a massive race to kit up with the most appropriate distance learning tools including conferencing, studying and notetaking, analytics, and many more. eLearning has made the use of the best tools necessary and crucial to maintaining competitiveness and enhanced student experiences.

Whilst selecting ‘edtech’ is more than a checklist exercise, a few questions you should ask yourself when considering new technology include:

  • What value does it really add? Will it improve our learning outcomes?
  • Who does is benefit? Teachers and students alike?
  • Will my team use it? Can they use it? Do they buy in to using it?
  • Will my students use it? Is it easy to use?
  • What onboarding is provided?
  • How safe is it? Can I trust my data to be stored safely?
  • What’s the total cost, both initially and over the lifetime of the product?
  • What does the ongoing support look like?
  • Will the platform evolve over time? What’s their track record of doing this like?

Evolution of digital content across platforms

As late as 2019, a lot of institutions featured websites with outdated, incorrect, or simply missing information. It has been a commonly accepted problem, and few schools had enough incentive to change. However, COVID-19 has forced them to rebuild or update their sites to include the services, information, and systems they would need for distance learning.

A recent project with Hult Ashridge Business School saw us transform their institution by resolving fragmented and conflicting website platforms and content.

Digital marketing efforts are now crucial to the survival and growth of higher learning institutions. They will need to maintain and grow student populations, capitalising on campaigns such as email marketing and social media for recruitment.

Develop the right digital strategy for higher education before and after COVID-19

Universities and other educational institutions have shown remarkable mettle by transforming rapidly in unprecedented situations. There had been speculations that the traditional higher learning institution was becoming obsolete, but COVID-19 has been a disguised boon. They have shown that they can adapt and remain relevant even post-COVID.

Resilience and adaptiveness aside, these institutions still have a lot of distance to cover. The hasty transformations still happening need to be consolidated into strategies that can guide them for years to come towards new growth. The institutions that will thrive in future aren’t resting on their laurels and treating COVID-19 as a one-off event. Instead, they are seeking ways to innovate by asking ‘what if…?’, knowing that the future of education is being irretrievably transformed.