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Sprinting towards Digital Transformation in Higher Education

By Sidney Fernandes, System Vice President and CIO, University of South Florida

Sidney Fernandes, System Vice President and CIO, University of South Florida

Why has digital transformation dominated the higher education conversation recently? Can it truly work in the complex ecosystem that is higher education or will it soon be another tired, failed hashtag that will be replaced by a shinier one in the future? Without a clear pathway and execution strategy many organizations will feel the pain of the latter.

Why Digital Transformation

It is now universally acknowledged that higher education is in the midst of an unprecedented change. These swift moving changes are due to multiple factors: significant changes in the consumer profile; perceived value of higher education to its consumers; power and choices for consumers rapidly cross the traditional boundaries of geography, age and income.

Institutions of higher education have begun to understand this change. They are looking to orient their institutions by taking advantage of the changing landscape and finding themselves new opportunities that will radically transform how they deliver their product to this new group of consumers.

Who is this new consumer?

According to a report from the National Center for Education and Statistics, the profile of the higher education consumer is changing rapidly. While the traditional 18-24 year old enrollment is projected to grow at 10 percent between 2010 and 2021, the enrollment growth is projected to increase by 20 percent for the 25-34 year-olds and 25 percent for those 35 and older. This varied demographic means that higher education institutions will have to create and deliver products for both Generation Z who will comprise the traditional college age students as well as the millennials who in their early 30’s and late 20’s and will most likely fit the non-traditional student mold, attending less than full time.

"Key to making sure that digital transformation is not just a catchphrase; it has to be an incremental effort that focuses on tangible deliverables for consumers"

What are they interested in?

This new group of consumers are interested in education as a means to an end, where the end refers to attaining knowledge that is useful to them for acquiring and increasing wealth. This is what 75 percent of millennials consider very important in contrast with 45 percent of baby boomers. This group will need that knowledge delivered to them in the same way that they are used to receiving consumer products. ‘Mass customization’ with curriculum and learning pathways that are tailored to the individual will be the way of the future.

What does this mean for Higher Education?

Institutions of higher education need to digitize every aspect the consumer’s engagement. This does not mean that the traditional activities of the institution go away but rather that every interaction that happens in a digital space can then be measured for new insights. These insights should then be used to both increase efficiencies as well as the overall experience of the new consumer. The task is daunting but there is a way.

Digital Transformation Using Rapid Increments

Key to making sure that digital transformation is not just a catchphrase; it has to be an incremental effort that focuses on tangible deliverables for consumers. They need to be able to use it and evaluate it, to see if it suits their needs. Incremental evolution of products geared toward these consumers is the best and most efficient approach. The product is developed, released, and evaluated. It may or may not need any further development. If it does, the teams use what works, eliminate what doesn’t and incorporate new techniques and technologies along the way. The evolution of the product continues in this manner until the stakeholders are satisfied with the end result.

Creating rapid, time-boxed, incremental improvement in how the faculty teaches, or how the teams serve students is essential. This must be followed by an understanding of how the consumers reacted to the change. Equally critical for an organization is improving what works and discarding what did not work. Faculty and staff need to be the focus for higher education digital transformation, not the technologies. They are the ones that will be delivering to the consumers.

Large and long planning cycles for software or programs must be replaced by short time-boxed increments of a digital transformation project for both faculty and staff. Goals and the definition of success must be clearly outlined for that particular increment. This will enable the delivery team to own the transformation, educate themselves about it while seeing immediate impact of their day jobs while delivering value to their consumer. If there is a lack of impact, then the increment needs to be revised or shelved as something to learn from for future increments.This will lead to successful long-term outcomes with the flexibility to change course as the consumers’ needs change.

Digital Transformation: It’s Not Just a Tired Phrase

Done correctly, digital transformation will not just change technology shops at universities but entire teams that are involved in the delivery of higher education. This will ensure that the new consumers of educations receive the education they need in a manner they feel is most effective and valuable to their goals at that point in time. At the same time, you ensure that the teams critical to delivery are not left feeling overwhelmed or left behind in this new world.

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