Harnessing the Power of Digital Transformation in Education

Keith Smith, Vice President & Dean, Purdue University Global

Harnessing the Power of Digital Transformation in EducationKeith Smith, Vice President & Dean, Purdue University Global

With over 25 years of an awe-inspiring tenure in developing ground-breaking hybrid clinical programs, a unique military-only associate's degree, and innovative 3+1 bachelor's degree programs geared toward community college partnerships, Keith Smith is currently serving as the vice president and dean at Purdue University Global. Smith began his academic career as an adjunct faculty member at City University, teaching leadership and organizational courses, later serving as dean there as well as for National-Louis University and National University of Health Sciences. He has taught and presented on a variety of leadership and organizational topics domestically and internationally. He has also been responsible for leadership and management programs offered in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Prior to entering higher education, Smith served as an executive vice president for a regional nonprofit and consulted with business, government, and nonprofit organizations on leadership and organizational change initiatives. 

What are some of the significant challenges and trends that have been impacting the education space lately?

The last 18 months have significantly been disruptive, and we expect it to go on a bit longer. Institutions have been impelled to create online courses within days or weeks. The task was undoubtedly cumbersome for them who had little to no online experience. But on the high end side, the COVID-19 pandemic drove a positive transformation. It propelled universities to invest more in appropriate faculty training and a strong curriculum best suited for the online environment—a huge leap toward the new-age university.

"I’d advise the community to nurture an entrepreneurial mindset because you need to have an impactful thought process to achieve success"

Another challenge that traditional universities are facing comes in terms of population decline. In the last five years, it has become quite apparent that unless you are a flagship institution or an Ivy League university, you’ll be required to aggressively get into the adult learner market because it’s already a crowded space. The adult learner market has great potential. It is because candidates ranging from 30 to 40 years of age are enrolling in courses to upskill themselves or to complete their bachelors or masters degrees.

Also, the current business environment demands people to continually and consistently upgrade their skills to progress in their careers, which requires proper training and curriculums. I think universities need to understand that the current world is not about admitting a student and having them complete the program at one go. It's more about offering a lifelong learner experience to candidates by providing them with micro-credentials or bite-sized courses suitable for skill enhancements.

Can you tell us about the latest project that you have worked on, and what are some of the technological and process elements that you leveraged to make the project successful?

Our latest projects are all about harnessing the power of the ongoing digital transformation. We’re working our best to move our operations to that space. Making courses digital would also attract the digital native students who expect a hassle-free, efficient, less time-consuming method of learning from universities today. Accordingly, we’re making those adjustments to enable students to log into a virtual classroom and continue their education in the most effortless manner possible. I would like to draw the analogy of the operational aspects of these classrooms with Amazon, Netflix, or Best Buy, though it doesn’t mean that it will lessen the rigor of the courses.

We’ve got a number of projects along these lines that will help us upscale our offerings. Another key thing is that today, institutions realize the significance of the virtual environment in enhancing their infrastructure. In that context, they are implementing virtual labs, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other technologies. Our university has sensed this need for digital transformation and the expectations our pupils have from us. So, we’re making more engaging and robust online courses that offer an immersive virtual experience similar to the real world.

What do you think the future holds for the education space in the upcoming 12 to 18 months?

In the next couple of years, we’ll see whether the on-campus universities will embrace the online learning methodology to an extent or go back to their traditional mode of providing education. However, I hope to see more universities investing in online education as it is really up for grabs at the moment and holds too much potential to ignore. Given the topics we’ve covered on investing in the future and comprehending the value of online education, this is undoubtedly the way forward for the industry.

At this moment, several well-established universities are successfully adopting digital transformation in their education system. They are aggressively moving towards the status of mega universities, such as Penn State University, Colorado State Global University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Purdue University Global, to name a few. Apart from us, there are several mid-size universities that are trying their hands in this game as well. But due to this huge competition, penetrating this online space will demand a sorting out process, and institutions with a strong financial background will do well. However, unfortunately, some small players may have to shut their doors due to financial constraints and lack of resources.

Would you like to give a piece of advice for the community on approaching this industry?

I’d advise the community to nurture an entrepreneurial mindset because you need to have an impactful thought process to achieve success. I’d also recommend my peers to think more of the blue ocean rather than red. To put it simply, it is essential not to invest time, energy, and finances into things that are already there in the market. Instead, we must think differently, understand where the market is heading, what could happen in the future, and have an attitude to hustle and explore the new promises in the education industry.

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