Digital Transformation on Campus: An Introduction to the Journey

digital classrooms

Digital transformation on campus: An introduction to the journey

How your college or university can improve the student experience through technology and data


Spend a day in most any part of the world in 2019 and you’ll see how greatly technology has impacted the way we do … everything. From the way we work to the way we live at home to the way we interact with each other, our routines and relationships are almost unrecognizable from those of a few decades past. As we’ve changed the way we do most things, we’ve changed the way we expect to do everything else – as consumers, we expect to be able to do almost everything immediately, online, from the comfort of our homes.


This level of expectation has brought about a wave of digital transformation in organizations across all industries, including – perhaps a bit behind the curve – higher education. After all, students are consumers as well – consumers of knowledge, consumers of the promise of a better future, consumers who expect their education like they expect any other service – at their fingertips, customized to their needs, and in real-time.


Without fingers on the pulse of digital transformation, campuses worldwide will be left behind in favor of those faster, more agile and more connected. “But we already offer some of our classes online,” you might be thinking. Unfortunately, online education – while it’s certainly a part of digital transformation on campus – is only a small part.


Throughout 2019, Career College Central will explore various aspects of digital transformation for colleges and universities, including how it can impact your recruitment, admissions and engagement efforts, your registration, monitoring, payment and retention activities, and your instruction, programs and student feedback processes.


What is digital transformation?


Across all industries, digital transformation is generally considered to be the process of adapting and reconfiguring core business processes with technology and data to better meet the needs of customers or users. For higher education specifically, Educause considers digital transformation to be a “ cultural, workforce, and technological shift … driven by technology trends and changes that include advances in analytics, artificial intelligence, the cloud, mobile, consumerization, social networks, and storage capacities. Those drivers are enabling a new approach to everything from digital architectures to how campus leaders interact with the IT organization, all with the expected outcomes of new business models, improved student outcomes, different teaching and learning methods, and new research capabilities.”


What does digital transformation mean for higher education in 2019?


If the heart of digital transformation involves improving customer satisfaction, and the primary customer of a college or university is the student, then ultimately, digital transformation in higher ed is about happier, more satisfied students. However, it also affects the satisfaction of other important “customers,” including faculty, staff, alumni, supporters and donors.


Regarding the student experience, Educause includes the following practices and processes as examples of digital transformation:

  • Recruiting students digitally, using social media and text messaging as part of a data-driven decision process
  • Allowing students to register via cellphone on scalable cloud-based student information systems
  • Providing a variety of online learning options so students have enough courses to choose from at key points in their academic career
  • Working with faculty and programs to convert courses to flipped and blended models
  • Using technology to monitor student progress and success metrics and execute intervention protocols
  • Partnering with industry to provide digital badges and certificates to enhance career opportunities

“Digital transformation sets aside the notion that it’s preposterous to reinvent the wheel,” claims a 2019 EdTech article. “It goes back to the beginning to question what the ultimate goal is, then explores new ways of achieving that goal. It can apply to just about any process on a campus.”

What is the status of digital transformation in higher education?

Historically, higher education has been slow to adopt new forms of technology, and that hesitancy affects the industry’s digital transformation. On the whole, higher ed has been much slower to transform than retail, banking, or even healthcare.

In his 2015 article Why the Education Sector is Ripe for Digital Disruption, Rob Buckley points out that education processes and structures have barely changed over the past decades whereas other industries have been highly disrupted. Since then, not much has changed.

In a 2018 Educause panel on digital transformation, panelists agreed that while digital transformation is already underway at almost all colleges and universities, the higher education community is “still in the early stages of change, and the ultimate destination isn’t quite clear.”

“We’re at the point between disruption and transformation,” said Betsy Reinitz, Director of Enterprise IT Programs at Educause. “We don’t really know exactly what it looks like for higher ed.”

“The digitalization of higher education is still evolving,” Professor Pierre Dussauge said in HEC Paris. “But the sooner we, as educators and learners, start working with these tools, the better we will understand how they can best enhance learning and optimize their use.”  


When Gartner Inc. conducted its 2018 CIO Agenda Survey of 3,160 CIO respondents in 98 countries and across major industries, it included 247 higher education CIOs among its respondents. Those higher education CIOs ranked digital business/digital transformation as the fifth most strategic business priority.


However, when it came down to actual investment, digitalization/digital marketing came in “eighth amongst higher education respondents, compared to second across all industries.”


“This may be because higher education is among the least digitized industries,” said Jan-Martin Lowendahl, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. “The average higher education institution has a large backlog of digital enablement before it can even can think about digital transformation.”


Our institution is steeped in history and tradition – why would we want to go digital?


The intent of digital transformation is not to erase the history or change the culture of your college or university. Instead, it is to give as many students as possible the easiest, most clear-cut access to that history and culture, in the ways they expect to access it. There are four primary reasons organizations embark on digital transformation: customer experience, competitiveness, profitability, and agility. Higher education is immune to none of these.


What are some roadblocks on the path to digital transformation in higher education?


A 2018 Educause paper entitled 7 Things You Should Know about Digital Transformation says that, first, the “full scope of digital transformation, with its many facets and complicating factors, can be difficult to grasp and even harder to explain.” Moreover, digital transformation requires a campus-wide paradigm shift to achieve. It “demands that institutions get better at embracing and managing proactive change and establishing a culture open to wholly new ways of working. Getting buy-in for that degree of change will be a challenge. Envisioning what transformative change might look like is inherently difficult; enacting such change is even harder. The academy’s traditional resistance to change exacerbates these challenges. Another factor is that the costs of retooling for [digital transformation] may be formidable. Institutions that could be helped the most by [digital transformation] – those that are most imperiled today and have the most ground to cover to catch up to their peers – will be most challenged to fund the required innovations.”


What should my institution focus on if we’re ready to digitally transform?


Tackling digital transformation will require investment of time, labor, and a certain aspect of stability. So it’s important your campus puts its initial digital transformation efforts toward the right aspects of student experience.


According to research by McKinsey & Company, digital transformations in all industries are more likely to succeed when organizations focus on four critical dimensions of their business: Capabilities, Modern IT foundation, delivery engine and sources of value.


Capabilities include: talent and partnerships, financial processes, governance and organizational health


Modern IT foundations include: data backbone, cloud, security, IoT


Delivery engines include: agility at scale, data sciences, customer experience design


Sources of value include: reimagined processes, getting closer to customers, assuming more risk as appropriate, and building more intelligent products.


It’s also important to remember that digital transformation truly is a journey, not a destination. At no point should your campus consider itself “fully transformed,” since technology and student expectations will continue to evolve as the years go on.

Join Career College Central in the next edition as we take a look at how digital transformation can impact your recruitment, admissions and engagement efforts.


Tech that higher ed CIOs consider most likely to win, vs where they’re actually putting their money:


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