Higher-ed leaders offer a look at how their institutions are managing their digital transformation and moving into the future

Peeling back the layers of digital transformation

Higher-ed leaders offer a look at how their institutions are managing their digital transformation and moving into the future

The term “digital transformation” itself may be debated among higher-ed leaders, but there’s no refusing that changes in culture, workforce, and technology are critical in ushering forth new teaching, learning, and operational models at institutions across the globe–no matter what the concept is called.

During a session from the most recent EDUCAUSE conference, higher-ed leaders sought to pull back the curtain on some of the more abstract aspects of digital transformation and illuminate how their own institutions are evolving.

EDUCAUSE has long been behind efforts to help institutions determine if they are ready for digital transformation. The organization defines digital transformation in the following manner: “In the context of sweeping social, economic, technological, and demographic changes, 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.”

“In 2017, EDUCAUSE convened an expert panel on next-generation digital environments,” said Dave Weil, CIO, Ithaca College. “We knew there was something happening in higher education, but we didn’t know exactly what it was. We thought it would be something we could touch.”

Through various conversations, the concept of digital transformation emerged.

“The name is secondary to what’s at the core of the EDUCAUSE model of digital transformation, which is that we have these things out there that are changing in our world and those are feeding into a process,” Weil said. “They create opportunities for change. What I feel is probably the most important aspect of this is that in order to have a transformative effect you need shifts in culture, workforce, technology.”

Inside these shifts:

Culture: How things are approached and thought about as an organization

Workforce: Thinking about roles, jobs, training, and different functions that are needed to support higher ed’s transformation

Technology: This is the easy part, Weil said, but only implementing new technology without cultural and workforce shifts will not lead to transformational change

“At UCSD, we don’t necessarily use the term digital transformation—we speak about our core missions,” said Vince Kellen, CIO, University of California San Diego. “We think in terms of how we enhance and extend our core missions and continue our competitiveness and our distinctiveness. The orientation to change, digital or otherwise, is a significant cultural shift. Most of higher ed has a culture focused on status quo and preservation versus exploration or change.”

Part of embracing digital transformation involves acknowledging that it is a change model, the panelists agreed.

“At the end of the day, digital transformation is a change model. If we view it through that, like any change model, it has components we can use, dissect, and focus on,” Weil said.

“Higher ed is really undergoing significant changes,” said Heather McCullough, Director of Learning and Technology in the University of North Carolina System Office. “The culture of our organizations is changing because we’re seeing different groups working together to be responsive to what our students are asking us to provide for them, for us to be responsive in providing teaching and learning and education in an increasingly hybrid and online world. Culture is a big part of it.”

Culture, workforce, and technology in action

“At UNCS, we have 17 campuses. Affordability is a strong strategic goal of ours. We’ve been doing a lot of work around supporting OERs and open pedagogy. This has led to faculty training institutes guiding faculty in using and adopting OERs. We’re also leveraging platforms that let us publish and put content in OER repositories. That’s adoption of new technologies there. The culture and workforce pieces are also related to the changing business model around how textbooks and course materials are purchased for students. As I think about this massive initiative, it has all 3 of those pieces. Sometimes the changes happen on different timelines, it’s not all in perfect synchronicity, [but] I’m aware that we are moving the needle forward using these tools.

When Ithaca College replaced its LMS, the college’s leaders treated the project as a digital transformation effort.

“We really looked at it as an opportunity to rethink how we teach, how our students consume and access information, how faculty leverage that technology to change how they do things in and out of the classroom, and the pedagogy involved in that. That’s a culture change right there,” Weil said. “To do that, we had to look at the workforce—do we have the right people? We moved staff around to support it. It was a change model—we leveraged digital transformation to help our institution rethink how it was providing education.”

Identifying digital transformation

So, how can higher-ed leaders know if their institution is in the midst of a digital transformation?

“Faculty complaints,” Kellen said. “Change is hard. If there aren’t enough complaints, you’re probably not transforming. The question is how do you react to that and what do you do next?”

Digital transformation is a deliberate process guided by leaders who are committed to institutional change, and who see it through despite challenges, McCullough said.

“Another characteristic I see quite often in digital transformation is the collaborative nature of it—the use of teams that span areas of experience. For me, that’s another indicator that we have digital transformation going on,” she said. “You have the library working with IT, or IT working with faculty and a center for teaching and learning. If you have groups from across the organization, it’s likely to be a broader-spanning digital transformation.”

“There’s no shortage of huge challenges our higher-ed institutions are facing these days: student mental health, cybersecurity, the demographic cliff that’s coming,” Weil said. “We have a role to help our institutions address these challenges. I think this [digital transformation] model, regardless of what we call it, serves as a tool we can use. How do we know when we are successful? It can be measured by our resiliency, our ability to look at outcomes—is mental health improving on campus, are more students graduating? I think it’s a business process—look at the outcomes.

“It’s not just an IT thing,” he added. “This is something that involves the whole institution.”

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Laura Ascione

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