Digital Transformation in Higher Education: an Overview

There is no doubt that higher education transformation is already underway, with every university leader indicating they are at least part way through their digital journey.

The university leaders, edtech entrepreneurs and students interviewed for the study we’ll consider here believe transformation in higher education is essential.

However, university leaders, edtech founders and students have divergent views when it comes to priorities for change, and how imminent disruption of the traditional university model will be.

Data Except Disruption Within the Next Decade

Whether they were university leaders, students or edtech founders, at least 50% of respondents expect the traditional university model to be disrupted by 2025. Students and edtech entrepreneurs expect the timeframe to be even shorter, with approximately one in four expecting disruption within the next two to three years. While universities expect disruption to take longer, nine out of 10 university leaders nonetheless expect the university model to have been disrupted by 2030 – when this year’s five-year-olds will be starting university

A Shared Focus on Student Experience

In general, there was consensus on the importance of using technology to improve the student experience – such as through digitising content, automating administrative processes and integrating systems. All of these might be considered ‘digital hygiene’ factors.

However, there was a striking disparity between university and student priorities when it comes to using technology to support internships and pathways to employment. This is a very high priority for students, but less so for universities. Edtech founders appear quite attuned to this demand – perhaps explaining the momentum that ‘learning to work’ models have gathered over the past decade.

Across the board, perhaps as expected, edtech founders also place a higher priority on change, particularly in areas where technology can enable better student experience and job outcomes. 68% of founders surveyed reported that universities are not at all, or only marginally effective, in using technology to enhance the student experience. Students were more satisfied with their university’s performance, with four-fifths (81%) saying their university is doing this ‘somewhat effectively’ or ‘very effectively’.

Universities Aim to Improve, Rather than Replace, the Traditional Model 

University leaders view digital transformation as a way to improve ‘how’ they do their existing work. Threequarters plan to partly digitise their current operations while creating new digital models in parallel. Very few aim to create wholly new digital models or fully digitise their current model, suggesting they remain confident in the current university model.

Similarly, university leaders cited the key outcomes of transformation as ‘improving student experience’ (94%) and ‘meeting changing student needs’ (83%). Initiatives that would improve the current experience, such as course development, enrolment, and administration, were considered more important to digital transformation than initiatives that would change what the university does, such as alternative credentialing.

Edtech Entrepreneurs See Potential for Improvement

Edtech companies surveyed are more pessimistic than students in their assessment of universities, with only a fifth indicating that universities do enough or are ‘very effective’ at preparing students for work. This is most pronounced for early-stage startups – edtech companies that identify as ‘mature’ appear to have a more optimistic view of how universities are adapting to change student needs.

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