Digitalisation of higher education

US education secretary John Gardner wrote a great book in the 1960s that asked the question “Can we be equal and excellent?”. Most university leaderships long ago concluded that quantity, quality, and cost cannot co-exist. We’d like to make the case that while this may have been true in the analog world of education, recent progress in technology can enable universities to break the false trade-off. We think technology can be an innovative disruptor of higher education and could be creatively applied in six areas:

Improving efficiencies – Automated workflows

Automating workflows contribute for increase in productivity by reducing time considerably on non-critical and duplicate tasks. An opportunity to transform and modernize processes with an eye on improving efficiencies can have a cathartic impact on universities. This will need them to identify the process transformation opportunities, design the high-level workflow and the technology and drive organizational changes to fix accountability at every stage. Automation may be used for digitization of processes at source, building smart forms, creating smart workflows and document management, automation of student service requests and creating self-service platforms.

An alternative to traditional higher-ed – Online learning

Internet, today, has provided a plethora of information free to anyone who seeks it. For about a decade, private companies, nonprofits and universities alike have been experimenting with online courses, several of which are offered for free or at low cost to large numbers of students around the world. Online learning has given birth to new business models for the universities whereas flipped classrooms, virtual reality sessions, labs, digital simulations and models, electronic documents, textbooks, online assignments, wide and open resources give students an amazing educational experience. The benefits of low marginal costs coupled with platform driven flexibility, adaptability and personalisation make this model of learning a compelling proposition, not only for the online learners but also for the traditional classroom students.

A changing job market – Employability for the students

The number of jobs involving routine skills – both physical and cognitive – are shrinking over time. Increasing automation is rapidly replacing workers at factories, even in low-wage countries like India, Vietnam and China. Artificial intelligence technologies like machine learning and computer vision are permanently eliminating several high-skill jobs worldwide. People doing other routine tasks will still need some education beyond high school; but they may not have as much need to attend a regular three years degree classes at the university campus. The type of education that creates effective learners who are able to communicate across cultures, time and geographies with the relevant soft skills have become the demands of businesses.

Universities will, hence, need to use appropriate technology to build a credible differentiator for themselves: improving learning outcomes (use of data analytics to drive personalisation), provide modularity in their courses (a continuum between degree, diploma and certificates), progress towards blended learning (online, onsite, on-campus and on-the-job), building industry associations (outreach, network, communication, collaboration) and using data for precision decision making.

Changing face of higher education – Performance management

Traditionally universities have used what many would consider a relaxed approach to performance management; however, changes to the regulatory and funding regime in higher education, combined with an increased focus on quality and outcome, are creating a climate of greater scrutiny. Simplified communication, inter-connectedness, seamless flow of information, creation of strong support system, encouragement of innovativeness and collaboration, transparent and effective governance and 360-degree performance evaluation would be the solicited outcome of digitalization in higher education. As a consequence, universities will need to take a more directed approach, setting short-term and long term goals and measuring their outputs. A technology-enabled infrastructure for performance management and reporting would create a transparent system building trust and camaraderie between members.

Finding new ways to teach – Continuous and adaptive assessments

Modern technology tools, including blockchains, dovetail with the shift toward a more comprehensive approach to assessments and academic credentialing. As competency-based education takes centre-stage, there is a need for a reliable and consistent way to capture a wider range of learning activities that may be just as valuable as classroom hours. Such experience might include study off-campus, apprenticeships or on-the-job expertise that students acquire before they return to universities to pursue their degrees or certifications. To that end, several companies are developing blockchain-based ledgers that would let individuals share verified work projects and experiences. Expanding the scope of information and technology that institutions and employers use to evaluate candidates would give both parties a more holistic way to capture and determine an individual’s qualifications and expertise.

Creating new business models

As per a recent research report published by Schoolguru, while the number of so-called traditional students may not grow as fast, the number of adults and mid-career professionals who either have completed their formal education or need a skill refresh is growing faster than ever. These growing demographics present a unique opportunity for Universities to expand their addressable market with innovative and modular products. The digitalisation of education allows for new business models – virtual university, smart university, digital university, e-university, agile university, university 4.0 and so on. Universities will need to think harder for their product and think of effective ways to deliver them to the modern learner. They will need to continuously upgrade their product, integrate research with academic information and think of modular ways of credentialing – most of which will require integration of technology.

Acting proactively will help HEIs take the lead in this fast-changing landscape. Even assuming that some of the forces described above do exist and will inevitably bring change to higher education, there still remains some uncertainty about how and when higher education will evolve from what it is today to what it needs to be. Universities will soon need to imbibe certain attributes of University 4.0 which keeps students at the center and focuses on outcome, which in most cases is the employability of the student. Universities will need to get ready for more pressing times and would need to be more agile, responsive and resilient. The chronic neglect of higher education is a detriment to society and is untenable in its present form – things must change for the better!

by Shantanu Rooj and Srimathi Krishnan. The writers are with Schoolguru Eduserve

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, and opinions of EducationWorld.

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