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Digital Upgrade vs. Digital Transformation: What's the Difference?

min read


A digital upgrade is just a part of your institution's larger digital transformation journey.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic changed the learning landscape, many higher education institutions were changing how they used and viewed technology, including online student support services, virtual classrooms and lectures, and other digital engagement channels. New trends have forced colleges and universities to review their technology infrastructures and build robust, well-planned roadmaps that ensure student and institutional success both now and in the future. These trends have pushed many institutions into the sometimes-confusing world of digital transformation. What goes into digital transformation, and how do institutions know they are on the right path?

In a recent Jenzabar study that was conducted in collaboration with University Business, more than half of the nearly 700 higher education leaders surveyed said that their institutions were engaged in some form of digital transformation before the pandemic. Additionally, 97 percent of respondents said their institutions had begun some level of digital transformation after the pandemic started.Footnote1

While it is interesting to see how the pandemic has been a catalyst for change in higher education, it's important to note a few key points. For example, a technology upgrade does not necessarily equate to digital transformation. Although the two concepts are related, they should not be treated as equal. They are separate projects with different outcomes.

Upgrade vs. Transformation

Digital transformation consists of fundamentally changing how an organization does business; it can't be boiled down to simply upgrading a few legacy systems or replacing single-purpose solutions. Digital transformation is meant to break down silos, change cultures, enhance workflows, and make organizations more responsive—in addition to replacing legacy systems.

A digital upgrade, on the other hand, generally consists of patching existing systems or purchasing a new platform to address technology challenges. For institutions, a digital upgrade can include buying an online whiteboard tool to improve hybrid learning. In general, digital upgrades free up staff time, reduce downtime for systems, and improve end users' experiences.

Typically, digital upgrades are important for institutions, as they can help reduce operational costs—something that is becoming increasingly important as institutions are forced to deal with tighter budgets and fewer revenue-generating options. Still, digital updates will not substantially alter how an institution operates. While an upgrade may make a college or university more efficient, the underlying processes will not be reinvented. Although a digital upgrade will inevitably introduce some growing pains for institutional staff, the process is significantly less disruptive than digital transformation.

Digital transformation will dramatically and fundamentally change an institution and can impact every department and constituent across campus. For a comparable example, think about the health care industry and the rise of telehealth services during the pandemic. These services have fundamentally changed how health care is being delivered and consumed. The education landscape is currently going through the same type of transformation because COVID-19 has placed similar strains across many higher education institutions.

Digital transformation requires viewing the entire institution through a holistic lens and ensuring stakeholders buy into a new, strategic vision about how technology will drive their campus forward.Footnote2

Moving Ahead with Digital Transformation

An institution must consider myriad variables and obstacles when deciding between making a digital upgrade or launching a full-scale digital transformation. Among the many concerns are cost and what an organization can realistically afford. For digital transformation to succeed, institutions must commit infrastructure and personnel resources to the cause. Stakeholders and transformation leaders should build out their initiatives with a clear budget in mind as well as clearly outlined outcomes.

Additionally, institutions must weigh their current needs against their long-term vision. Campus leaders must also be aligned on the immediate task at hand. A successful digital transformation requires a unified perspective; departmental and administrative leaders must be aware of what is needed of their teams and how they can contribute to change.

If implementing digital transformation seems like a big task, that's because it is. There's also no clear answer on whether an institution should pursue digital transformation or a shorter-term upgrade. The former will likely lead to more substantial and noticeable results, but it may simply be out of reach for some institutions. Other institutions are trying to remedy this issue and manage the transition from a pre-pandemic time to a post-pandemic reality by upgrading and patching legacy systems. While this approach may work for some organizations, simply putting a bandage on current challenges will not be enough for the long-term, post-pandemic survival of every campus.

The big takeaway to keep in mind is that digital transformation is a journey, not a destination. An entire institution may benefit from digital transformation, but that doesn't mean it should go all-in right away. It's often best to start in one area, identify progress and best practices, and then expand the reach of digital transformation across your campus. This strategy requires planning from campus leaders and getting buy-in from stakeholders. Like any proactive endeavor that leads to future gains, digital transformation is more about helping people understand and learn how to properly use new technology than it is about deploying the technology itself. Building and executing a digital strategy in education requires a high degree of stakeholder engagement, a clear vision, and an agile environment to ensure timely decisions can be made.

Usher In a New Era

The pandemic pressured higher education institutions to review and make changes to their technology footprints in order to survive. New realities meant moving large amounts of IT infrastructure to the cloud and adopting creative new policies that support widespread modern expectations. While digital upgrades have been plentiful from 2020 to today, these upgrades may only highlight the start of something bigger and more impactful.

As the world bounces back from the pandemic, colleges and universities must recognize how the modern world and today's learners have changed. Now is the time for a disruptive transformation that ushers in the adoption of new tools, cultural changes, alterations in business practices, and more. Institutions should move forward and digitally transform to ensure their long-term viability and success.

For more information about the results of our digital transformation survey of higher education institutions, download our report here.


  1. "Higher Ed Survey: State of the SIS Amid the Pandemic," Jenzabar (blog), Jenzabar (website), April, 28, 2021. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Jenzabar, "The New Digital Campus: A Modern Approach to Higher Education," Jenzabar (blog), Jenzabar (website), March 10, 2021. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.

Jeff Elliot is the Director of Product Management at Jenzabar.

© 2021 Jenzabar.