How digital transformation is impacting UK universities
More than half the UK’s young people now go to university, as opposed to only 15% in 1980.
That means that there are over 2.6 million students studying at universities around the country, and they’re being taught by almost half a million staff.
The university sector contributes over £95 billion to UK GDP annually, and supports more than 815,000 jobs across the country.
In recent years it’s seen a remarkable digital transformation – here, we look at what it has achieved, and what’s to come in the future.
Digital transformation in higher education
When we talk about digital transformation (DT) in education we refer to using technology to enhance effectiveness, improve efficiency and increase accessibility in the learning experience and its delivery.
Universities have become adept at using DT to enable continued learning throughout the pandemic, when the process was accelerated through necessity, but there’s so much more to it than that.
Students now require their education to equip them with more than the knowledge that their course provides, and digital skills, a necessity in their future careers, are essential. DT, through its utilisation of technological shifts, also enables institutions to realign their operations, focus their strategic directions, coordinate their workforces, remain competitive and enhance their value propositions.
There are numerous examples of DT currently being used in universities to improve teaching and learning:
Learning management systems – virtual repositories of course materials, activities and modules which enables students and their tutors to communicate information and discuss aspects of their course
Synchronous technologies – online ‘meeting’ systems, such as Teams, which enable students to learn virtually and interactively
Multimedia applications – audio, video and other interactive features which enable lectures and demonstrations to be recorded and disseminated
Collaborative applications – web- or cloud-based applications which allow collaboration between students and tutors
Cloud-based technologies – used for information storage which can be accessed anywhere
Emerging technologies – the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), Extended Reality (XR) and Virtual Reality (VR) which make use of innovation to enhance the learning experience and engage with students.
All of these DTs contribute towards attracting and retaining students, supporting tutors, enabling higher standards of attainment, enhancing engagement and delivering on the learning experience.
Other key areas where DT can make a huge difference include:
Admissions management – saving both application and processing time
Performance evaluation – online submission and grading of assessments
Examples of digital transformation in UK universities
Staffordshire University’s Beacon
Students at Staffordshire University began using Beacon, a ‘digital coach app’, in 2019 to allow them to interact through text or voice conversations.
Beacon acts as a support for them throughout their university career, providing additional help if and when they need it, through Chatbot technology.
Beacon personalises information based on students’ timetables, reminding them about lectures they should be attending, allows them to contact their tutors, and provides answers about facilities available on campus, as well as support and other services.
The Open University’s Virtual Inclusion
Students at the Open University are able to download an App named Virtual Inclusion which uses VR to enable them to experience life as a young person from a socially excluded community, in order to promote values of social inclusion and tolerance and include it in their own lives.
The app uses video 360 to produce an immersive experience.
The National Centre for Universities and Business’ konfer
National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) has developed konfer, a digital collaboration tool which provides access to research and opportunities, both in the UK and around the world.
It also supports AI ‘smart matching’, which connects universities to businesses and organisations to develop partnerships for research and innovation.
Digital transformation challenges in UK universities
Despite the many successful examples of DT in universities, there are still challenges to be overcome. These include outdated systems and elearning portals, as well as issues such as lack of Wi-Fi, which can impact remote learning.
Some universities still have no digitisation strategy in place. This can stem from a lack of vision amongst leaders who fail to completely understand the digital literacy of their students, and that of their competitors (in what is now a commercial marketplace).
Other concerns include a DT-resistant ‘culture’ among leaders, and a lack of trust in its potential and necessity. This may be caused by a hesitancy due to lack of confidence in their own digital skills.
In addition, research performed by EDUCAUSE, a publication for the higher education IT community, found that only 13% of universities are engaged with digital transformation currently, 32% are developing their strategy, 38% are exploring it, and 17% have invested no time in it.
This piecemeal approach to digital transformation, at a time when universities are already under pressure from budget constraints as well as a seemingly isolationist policy towards the income and benefits that foreign students bring, does not augur well for a coherent, consistent approach to DT within the higher education sector.
However, recovery post-pandemic is now well underway, and, given time, it’s hoped that all universities make the transition to digital as easy and as seamless for their students and staff as possible
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