The digital transformation of higher education is at hand. Leaders must prepare their institutions now to take strategic advantage of the coming shifts in culture, workforce, and technology.
Digital transformation (Dx) is 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.
Dx is being driven by technology trends and changes that are enabling a new approach to everything from how digital architectures are being incorporated to how campus leaders interact with the IT organization, all targeting improved student outcomes, more effective teaching and learning methods, new research capabilities, and an evolution in business models. Dx requires agile and flexible leaders at all levels who can enable the college or university to rapidly and efficiently achieve its strategic aims.
Dx requires a new approach to how campus leaders interact with each other—an approach that entails a laser focus on progress toward institutional goals, a broad emphasis on change management, and an increase in institutional agility and flexibility to meet rapidly changing needs. A higher education Dx culture requires campus leaders to form new and re-imagined partnerships across the institution in order to identify and work collaboratively to meet business needs, make informed decisions quickly, balance risks and rewards, and introduce innovations and improvements widely and rapidly. This culture is also focused on the end-to-end experience of students, researchers, educators, staff, and all those who touch the institution.
Expect the following culture shifts as part of a successful digital transformation strategy:
Leadership and Collaboration
- Leadership support and involvement at the highest levels will be necessary, enabling alignment across campus between institutional mission/goals and departmental efforts. This high-level support will be especially needed when departments across the institution are working on increased student success and a seamless student experience.For the campus to achieve this level of student UX and overall success, unprecedented levels of cross-organizational collaboration will be needed
- There will be a greater emphasis on coordination, collaboration, and shared goals. Consensus-based decision-making and the ability of strong voices to veto decisions will impede progress. Leaders and their campus partners will need to develop a culture of trust that is corroborated by accountability and data.
- Information technology and IT leadership will become embedded into institution-wide strategic planning, and procurement at all levels (from leadership to projects to services). Accordingly, the IT organization must be charged and staffed with the means to discover and invent new digital strategies, architectures, and technologies to enable the institution to meet its many challenges.
Strategy and Process
- Leaders will develop a sharper focus on institutional and student outcomes.
- New, creative strategic directions, made possible in part by new technologies and greater use of data, will lead to institutional differentiation, requiring alternative business and funding models.
- As change will continue unabated, institutional priorities and investments in technology, human resources, and other core institutional functions and business processes will need to be flexible and agile in order not only to shift in response to changes but to anticipate future changes.
Data and Analytics
- A reliance on data and analytics for making decisions, tracking progress on goals, and adjusting the institutional course will increase.
- Business models will evolve to reflect a data-informed and continuous-improvement approach to management and decisions.
- Institutional leaders will need to emphasize and support institution-wide data governance, prioritizing institutional benefits over departmental or individual benefits.
- Rich data and interface platforms, equipped with improving AI components, will drive automation and pattern recognition in areas such as student well-being, student achievement, and administrative tasks.
How to support these shifts:
- Leaders will need to practice strategic innovation focused on key institutional goals and ambitions.
- Decision-makers will need to become adept at change management and risk management, with a shift away from risk aversion.
- Institutional leaders and boards will need to consider new strategic directions to meet 21st-century challenges and opportunities.
- Leaders will need to define transformation goals and then set up matrixed response teams to execute on the transformations.
Many of the changes associated with Dx—such as the increased role of data and analytics; the advent of AI, the cloud, and mobile technologies; increasingly complex digital architectures; and the growth in personalization and user-level control, social network use, and storage capacities—not only are having an inexorable impact on the day-to-day work of IT professionals but also are creating the need for new skills and competencies across the institutional community. The result is lost jobs and new jobs, not just within the IT field but across the entire higher education workforce. In addition, socio-political changes are introducing new expectations of the current and entering workforce at the same time that they are bringing their own shifting expectations of the workplace. All these changes are creating new opportunities and threats and demanding a reinvention of human resource management.
Expect the following workforce shifts as part of a successful digital transformation strategy:
New Roles and Jobs
- Institutional reliance on data-related competencies, vendor relationship management, enterprise architecture, and professional skills such as communication, critical thinking, and teamwork will increase. The entire workforce will need technology and data skills. The IT workforce will need to fully understand business unit functions and goals in order to serve the institution.
- New leadership roles will be required in areas such as student success, innovation and transformation, data and analytics, and enterprise architecture.
- Faculty roles will change to include an emphasis on advising and student success and a need to re-create and continuously adapt teaching and mentoring practices to reach changing demographics, use new techniques and tools, and make data- and evidence-based pedagogical decisions.
- Researchers will need to learn new research techniques, adopt a research approach that includes students as collaborators and contributors, and collaborate more frequently and deeply with other faculty and with other professionals. There will be a blurring and re-forming of academic disciplines.
- Researchers and scholars will apply digital methods such as computation, analysis, and visualization more comprehensively to their work. Institution-level research services (including research data management) will be more integrated, at point of need, and available across the research lifecycle and across fields.
New Skills and Competencies
- Leaders will make a new commitment to the integrated provision of customer-centric quality services. Continuous improvement, service management, change management, agility, and flexibility across all roles will by key. User-centered and customer experience design will become critical to delivering the hyper-personalized experience.
- The need for data literacy, management, and analysis skills across all areas of the institution will increase as data becomes the currency for institutional decision-making and for automation.
How to support these shifts:
- Institutional leaders will need to learn how to reskill and restructure their workforce often and rapidly, requiring institutional-level coordination and strategy. Leaving this work to individual managers or departments will result in chronic recruiting and retention challenges and staffing inefficiencies.
- Technical and business functions will continuously evolve; incumbents as well as new hires must be ready to adapt to a shifting landscape that requires regularly learning new skills and rapidly adjusting job descriptions, roles, and jobs throughout their career.
- An institutional commitment to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion will become the norm, in order to take advantage of the value that a diverse workforce brings, to provide an optimal work environment, and to attract quality staff with the diverse skills and perspectives needed to fuel strategic transformation.
- Supporting work-life balance with flexible schedules and work locations while offering professional development, training, and career growth will be viewed as good management and a way to attract and retain the best talent. Remote work will extend the geographic pool from which institutions can draw and will become a mitigation against weather-related disruptions and disasters.
- Institutional leaders will need to cultivate the talent pipeline to retain promising staff members early in their careers.
Technology will continue to change, with astonishing speed and with consequences that are difficult to predict, much less prepare for. These changes include the way technology is managed, what technologies are available, the power and speed of technology, and how technology is applied. IT leaders must adopt innovative practices and create digital environments that provide unprecedented agility and flexibility. At the same time, they must also manage a complex and ever-changing technology ecosystem in a way that enables the institution and its academic and business units to rapidly and efficiently achieve its strategic aims. New technologies do not by themselves bring about Dx. Institutional Dx initiatives can succeed only through the strategic application of a changing set of technologies in support of the institutional missions.
Expect the following technology shifts as part of a successful digital transformation strategy:
Sourcing and Scaling
- The sourcing and control of technologies will shift and consolidate as infrastructure and services move to the cloud, as platforms merge, and as new services emerge.
- An increased exploration of and movement to shared and consolidated services and standards, including shared services models that span institutions, will reduce the cost of commodity services and increase affordable interoperability.
- Enterprise architecture will play a major role in aligning services to institutional needs, designing services to enable business outcomes, managing data to enable decision-making and future opportunities, streamlining business processes, and balancing trade-offs in solutions (e.g., functionality, lifecycle costs, risk).
- Methods and processes for managing technology will continue to evolve with an increase in service and product management efforts and project management offices.
- The challenges of information security will continue to expand and become more complex as threats become more sophisticated and increase in both frequency and severity. Meanwhile, the available tools will also grow, requiring an increasingly technologically sophisticated approach to information security.
Personalization and Individuation
- Individuals on campus will have the ability to make increasingly consequential technology investments. IT leaders will work more closely with faculty, researchers, and staff to help them make decisions with a full awareness of security requirements and other technology investments across the institution.
- All stakeholders will expect greater and more relevant personalization.
- The use of emerging technologies—such as extended reality (XR), robotics, blockchain, and internet of things (IoT) technologies—will rapidly expand across the spectrum of institutional missions and will do so seemingly overnight.
- Digital technologies will open new opportunities for higher education's missions and priorities (e.g., via ever-greater computation capacities and XR simulations).
- New architectures will provide greater degrees of digital agility, enabling the institution's digital resources to keep pace with the degree and rapidity of strategic change.
How to support these changes:
- IT leaders will need to work with institutional leaders to clearly define the goals of transformation efforts so that effective plans and roadmaps can be developed. Developing a partnership with the institution's IR professionals can be an effective starting point.
- IT leaders will need to focus their efforts on enabling the kind of digital agility and flexibility that will be required for new and emerging opportunities.
- Institutional leaders will need to improve their IT governance efforts to support effective institutional decision-making about investments and initiatives.
- Data is becoming the new currency as higher education evolves. Institutional leaders will need to harness the full power of data, analytics, AI, and machine learning and must be ready to consider and adopt other emerging technologies.
The digital transformation of higher education is at hand. Even if institutional leaders take no action, Dx will remake colleges and universities from the ground up through inexorable external changes. The challenge for those leaders is to become agents who guide this transformation by proactively defining new strategic directions and value propositions. Leaders must prepare their institutions now to take advantage of the coming shifts in culture, workforce, and technology.
For more information about digital transformation, please see the EDUCAUSE Dx website.
We would like to thank the many people whose thoughtful expertise and vision informed the various drafts of this article. Malcolm Brown (EDUCAUSE Director of Learning Initiatives) and Karen A. Wetzel (EDUCAUSE Director of Community and Working Groups) made every draft better, and John O'Brien (EDUCAUSE President and CEO) provided much-needed final improvements. Teddy Diggs (EDUCAUSE Review Editor-in-Chief) helped us find closure and publish an article that could be under continual revision, because the possibilities and practices of digital transformation are constantly evolving and, we hope, advancing.
This article was inspired by the initial Dx definition that the EDUCAUSE Digital Transformation Task Force developed. The members of this task force greatly improved early drafts and have been our partners in envisioning and shaping the EDUCAUSE Dx initiative:
- Brendan Aldrich, Chief Data Officer, California State University, Office of the Chancellor
- Mark Askren, Vice President for Information Technology, University of Nebraska
- Josie DeBaere, Director of Technology Architecture, Boston University
- Joe Moreau, Vice Chancellor of Technology and CTO, Foothill–DeAnza Community College District
- Amy Pearlman, Director of Client Services and IT Procurement, Bryn Mawr College
- Jim Phelps, Director, Enterprise Architecture and Strategy, University of Washington
- Matthew Rascoff, Associate Vice Provost, Digital Education and Innovation, Duke University
- Jennifer Sparrow, Senior Director of Teaching and Learning with Technology, The Pennsylvania State University
- Dave Weil, Associate Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Ithaca College
Susan Grajek is EDUCAUSE Vice President for Communities and Research.
Betsy Reinitz is EDUCAUSE Director of the Enterprise IT Program.
© 2019 EDUCAUSE. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.