The Digital Transformation of Higher Education

Bob Nilsson Director, Vertical Solutions Marketing Published 21 Oct 2019

Accelerating toward the future of higher education at Educause 2019

There are always multiple themes at the annual Educause conference. Digital transformation (Dx) was an explicit theme this year but emerging and implicit hot topics included:

  • Cloud: There were no less than 27 sessions about the cloud’s growing impact on higher education, of which cloud-driven networking is playing an increasingly important role. Two notable presentations were: Rising Through the Cloud: Transitioning from Experimentation to Maturation and Research Forecast: Cloudy, with a Chance to Scale.
  • Esports: This was a new hot topic addressed by sessions and it directly helps with student recruiting and retention, an Educause Top 10 Issue. Extreme has set up an esports reference center to share ideas and best practices for schools getting involved in esports. As one of the attendees noted, while esports may depict violence, no participants ever suffer physical injuries or concussions. To control the realism of the violence, one school allows only games that depict blood as blue, not red.
  • Internet of Things (IoT): Harvard and Northern Arizona University got together for a poster session on The Connected Campus: How IoT Is Transforming Education. The Educause Top 10 Issues committee found that the percentage of institutions who have implemented IoT is doubling between 2018 and 2020. You can learn more with The Internet of Things: Riding the Wave in Higher Education [Educause report] and Internet of Things Network Campus Solution.
  • Online Testing: Each year more schools move to automated and online testing. The options for maintaining test integrity and minimizing cheating include: in-room proctors, live online proctoring, video recording with post-test review based on suspicious results, and fully-automated online monitoring. All of these involve a lock-down or kiosk-mode browser.

The session, Make Way for Gen Z, vividly illustrated why digital transformation is so important in higher education. Students today are realistic (they’ve experienced an economic recession and a drop in their parent’s net worth), driven (no participation awards for them), Phigital (blurring the physical and digital worlds), and demand hyper-customization. To meet their needs, schools must go well beyond simple digitization, and further than digitalization; all the way to digital transformation, defined as: a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution’s operations, strategic directions, and value proposition.

Gen Z-ers may hate group projects, but keynote speaker and author Steven Johnson has many examples demonstrating the value and importance of collaboration. He traces a surge in scientific thinking and innovation to the liquid network of the coffee houses that emerged in the mid-17th century. The Lloyds of London insurance market, for example, germinated at Lloyd’s Coffee House. Fun fact- in a nod to the rhymes of history, that site is now occupied by a Starbucks coffee shop. Collaboration as a teachable skill is one of the areas that will give our students the edge over robots and AI in the competition for future jobs. The vaunted international measure of a country’s education system, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), now includes measures of general or cross-curricular competencies, such as collaborative problem solving. Johnson makes a strong case that both diversity and cross-functional collaboration are key ingredients for innovation. “Chance favors the connected mind” is his catchphrase.

An example of the downside of working alone is the case of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Frenchman who invented an early phonograph in 1857, twenty years before Edison! The issue with Scott’s invention was that it had no playback mechanism. Sounds were recorded visually on smoke-blackened paper or glass. Had he not been working alone, a collaborator likely would have pointed out the drawbacks to write-only memory, as well as the tremendous benefits of providing sound output. In fact, recently scientists have been able to play Scott’s recordings by optically scanning them.

About 50% of Gen Z students believe an online degree is just as valuable as a traditional one. These students are what most would call practical. 79% of Gen Z favor integrating education programs with real world experience. They don’t want to pay for Greek history and the theory of art. You can argue this point, but it’s what many of Gen Z believe. They need to see a strong connection between what they study and their desired career. The growing acceptance of micro-credentials, which may one day replace the college degree fits here. Two Educause sessions on that topic were Blockchain in Action! Microcredentialing/Digital Badging the Bitcoin Way and Maximizing Microcredentials: Leveling the Playing Field for Underserved Learners.

Escalating the urgency of digital transformation at Educause 2019


EDUCAUSE 2020 Top 10 Issues

To determine the top 10 IT issues in higher education, Educause committee members started by speaking with leaders within the member institutes, specifically asking about their strategic priorities. The top themes that emerged this year were: Student Success, Financial Health, Reputation and Relevance, and External Competition. The drive to digital transformation ran through all the themes and top issues.

Here are the EDUCAUSE 2020 Top 10 Issues

  1. Information Security Strategy: Developing a risk-based security strategy that effectively detects, responds to, and prevents security threats and challenges
  2. Privacy: Safeguarding institutional constituents’ privacy rights and maintaining accountability for protecting all types of restricted data
  3. Sustainable Funding: Developing funding models that can maintain quality and accommodate both new needs and the growing use of IT services in an era of increasing budget constraints
  4. Digital Integrations: Ensuring system interoperability, scalability, and extensibility, as well as data integrity, security, standards, and governance, across multiple applications and platforms
  5. Student Retention and Completion: Developing the capabilities and systems to incorporate artificial intelligence into student services to provide personalized, timely support
  6. Student-Centric Higher Education: Creating a student-services ecosystem to support the entire student life cycle, from prospecting to enrollment, learning, job placement, alumni engagement, and continuing education
  7. Improved Enrollment: Using technology, data, and analytics to develop an inclusive and financially sustainable enrollment strategy to serve more and new learners by personalizing recruitment, enrollment, and learning experiences
  8. Higher Education Affordability: Aligning IT organizations‚ priorities, and resources with institutional priorities and resources to achieve a sustainable future
  9. Administrative Simplification: Applying user-centered design, process improvement, and system reengineering to reduce redundant or unnecessary efforts and improve end-user experiences
  10. The Integrative CIO: Repositioning or reinforcing the role of IT leadership as an integral strategic partner of institutional leadership in supporting institutional missions


Diversity and Gender Gap in Technology

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, drove home the theme of increasing diversity in technical fields and the role higher education must take in that endeavor. Unfortunately, we’ve been going in the wrong direction. In 1984, 37 percent of computer science majors were women, but by 2014 that number had dropped to 18 percent. We’ve found the same thing working with schools on esports. It’s been difficult to recruit girls onto their teams. The notable example is at SUNY Canton, which has an all-women’s varsity esports team. Keeping in mind that today’s female students are part of Gen Z, good advice to attract them into technical fields is to keep it relevant. Show how technical knowledge helps solve real world problems.




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