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Universities: Take a step back to let digital in

Universities: Take a step back to let digital in

By Paul Hoskins, chairman and founder at Precedent.

For many years, universities have taken an administrative approach to digital. They have looked at their current structures and have mapped technology onto them. Digital has been seen as a communications channel or efficiency tool only and not as an opportunity to improve student experience and learning outcomes. This approach is no longer tenable. Disparate systems with multiple logins and confusing journeys need to be replaced with joined-up, intuitive online-offline experiences. This can only be successfully achieved by reducing the importance of the institution and its structures while at the same time bringing the student experience to the fore.

What’s driving your technology decisions?

In an increasingly turbulent time for higher education, when the value of a traditional university education is being continuously questioned, the last thing that universities need is competition between faculties and departments for scarce resources. But it’s surprisingly common. This is often prioritised around risk and the latest ‘burning platform’ rather than a clear strategy based on the many opportunities the future offers.

It’s critical that universities stop purchasing technology to meet the needs of individual departments. It’s only by putting the student experience centre stage that the full benefits of technological advances will be gained. This requires taking the time to explore exactly how students interact with their courses, their administration and their academic life – and how they would like to interact, whilst also understanding the wider implications for digital in HE, and ensuring that universities can successfully meet their needs.

When a digital strategy is implemented effectively, the institution, with all its trappings of departments and protocols, should ‘disappear’ behind the experience offered to the student. That’s not to say that the inner workings of the university aren’t important, but they should be the infrastructure, not the identity. Their activities should become so seamless that students don’t notice when they’ve moved from one function to another, enabling them to focus on what’s most important – learning.

It’s the end of digital as we know it…

In order to even begin thinking about this process, universities need to reconsider how they position digital within their organisation. Often it’s viewed simply as an external communications tool for an organisation’s marketing messages. Standalone digital departments need to become a thing of the past. Strategies and targets can’t be defined and met without the effective use of digital and data.

The current trend of positioning digital strategy as separate and distinct from the overall institutional strategy means that staff see themselves as distinct from developments in digital. It fosters a culture where digital is seen as nothing to do with academic or administrative departments. Staff members become mere business consumers of vendor-provided solutions and remain isolated from the decision-making process. The result of this is a huge amount of wasted capacity. The similarities between the challenges faced by different departments can be surprising, along with how easily one team’s problems could be solved, if only they had access to the knowledge of another.

Time to act

Institutions must react, and realise that their students and research are the focal point. By putting the student experience first, and incorporating digital at the core of thinking, universities will go some way to creating the collaborative working culture and buy-in that they need to build student journeys fit for the 21st century.

Universities need to let go – embrace the journey, embrace data, embrace digital.

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