I recently co-authored a white paper, "Delivering digital transformation and innovation in higher education”, which explores the speed, success and importance of digital transformation.

In this white paper, several chief information officers and senior academics share their own experiences and challenges. They all agree that university technology departments are no longer just back-office maintainers of infrastructure but now influence recruitment, student experience and research thanks to their ability to innovate and push the technological boundaries.

This was all being done through the lens of continual improvement, with many departments looking to adapt their models at a pace defined by internal drivers such as a campus refresh or the need to upgrade ageing data centre infrastructure. However, those drivers have been surpassed by the Covid-19 pandemic and now our higher education institutions have a much more urgent need to adapt their approach to overcome some of the more immediate threats to their success.

One of the top threats that we’re all concerned about is universities’ ability to continue to attract pre- and postgrads from around the world, to ensure that this much-needed funding continues. To do this, they’ll need to prove that they can provide the same quality of learning / research opportunities that they did before the pandemic while acknowledging that students are highly unlikely to be travelling to study for the foreseeable future. They can do this by using cloud technologies to enable remote collaboration and access to resources and by adapting their marketing and recruitment strategies to focus on digitally-enabled channels.

Although universities have been forced to rapidly adapt their teaching models by the recent lockdown restrictions, they must address those models’ robustness, scalability and sustainability over the longer term as a priority. They can do this by using:

  • cloud technologies to enable simple access to resources
  • seamless communication channels to enable effective collaboration, and
  • digital assessment processes. 

And while many university research departments now use cloud platforms to collate their data, test their models and analyse their findings, they’ll have to make it a priority to understand how flexible they can allow those programmes of work to become. Will existing PHD students from other countries be able to continue their research from home? Will international students have the same opportunity to be selected for new research projects? These key questions will need to be answered.

All of this will no doubt mean getting into the weeds of understanding data sovereignty laws, so that universities can solve accessibility issues and meet security concerns. And that’s in addition to the more human elements of collaborating effectively and having the right support channels in place and accessible to all.

It’s clear, at least to me, that this isn’t a question  of whether technology can enable a different model of learning. It clearly can. It’s more a case of how easily universities can move on from the operating models that they’ve honed over years. Some of the bigger challenges of making the transition successfully are to do with how easily their workforce can adapt, and making sure that they have the training and support to be able to bridge their own digital skills gaps and deliver the same high-quality services through new channels.

Despite the clear short-term challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic has given universities and colleges the opportunity to rapidly modernise their approach so that they’ll be more resilient during future challenges. It has brought ‘Digital Darwinism’ (where society and technology have evolved far faster than organisations’ ability to adapt) sharply into focus. And in the future, those institutions that can adapt to fit the new technological environment will flourish, while those that can’t will fail.

Thinking about your organisation?