Smart use of technology in higher education is a moving target. From encouraging faculty to embrace the learning management system to putting student records in the blockchain, college administrators tasked with digital transformation face several challenges.
Add to that rising tuition costs, flagging state funding and the changing makeup of the student body, and the joint imperatives of boosting ROI and improving student outcomes have colleges turning to digital solutions for help.
But technology alone isn't the answer, said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, during a talk at the annual Educause conference last week in Denver.
"What cuts to the heart of all of those innovations is one central innovation, which is a focus on a commitment to analytics and data-driven decision-making," Mitchell said. "Having data and using it are often two distinct worlds [on campus]."
Here are three key elements of effective digital transformation in higher education that we gleaned from ed tech experts at Educause.
Data governance is cohesive
As the use of performance-based funding increases, colleges will need more and better data on student outcomes, said Merri Beth Lavagnino, director of strategic planning and enterprise risk at Indiana University, during a panel discussion on digital transformation.
That starts with keeping better track of the data collected. Yet units within a university can be reluctant to share. "You have to change the nature of the dialogue [to one] where ground rule No. 1 is that it's the institution's data," said John Campbell, fellow panelist and vice provost at West Virginia University. "It's not something you lock up in a closet and treat it like it's yours."
Campbell recommends thinking about data like a pyramid, with the entire institution responsible for keeping the base layer accurate, usable and consistent. If that's not a focus, he said, "everything beyond that will be incrementally more difficult."
Joel Hartman, vice president and chief information officer at the University of Central Florida and a participant on the same panel, agreed. An institution becomes data-enabled when leaders, particularly senior executives, can depend on the information collected to make accurate and useful decisions, he said.
University leadership is helping set the course
Part of getting buy-in is making sure the nature of the digital transformation jives with administrators' strategic objectives. "Side conversations" between IT and other university leadership, Hartman said, can help identify what kind of information is needed, and the data delivered will help complete the latter's vision of the institution's trajectory — even if their role isn't technology-centric.
"Once you’ve had that change, it turns from a push stream to a pull stream," where leadership asks for specific kinds of data, he said.
There's an advantage to having a range of stakeholders involved in the decision-making, Educause President and CEO John O'Brien told Education Dive. "I continue to think the answer is having the conversation about technology innovation be at the top and involve everyone," he said. As priorities shift, institution leaders can have confidence in a deep bench, making them less likely to chase after the next new thing or overreact to an issue. "If everybody's in the know, you don't have to suddenly scramble and say, 'what happened?' You have people in your cabinet who can tell you what happened."
Mitchell agrees. "IT and institutional relations (IR) professionals must play meaningful roles in strategic thinking at the department, school and institutional levels, and they should, in my opinion, sit in the president's cabinet."
"You have to change the nature of the dialogue [to one] where ground rule No. 1 is that it's the institution's data. It's not something you lock up in a closet and treat it like it's yours."
Vice provost, West Virginia University
Broad ownership of digital transformation also improves accountability. CIOs, for example, have the "unique opportunity" to see across an enterprise and connect the dots, said Loretta Early, CIO at The George Washington University, during the digital transformation panel.
After all, Early said, she and other CIOs are not there solely to support innovation but also to serve as a connector and advisor, helping maximize the return for dollars spent on tech. "What is our role in helping our university grow, mitigate risk and optimize cost?" she asked. "That's the conversation we can have with our campus partners."
Of course, leadership isn't off the hook. "The real danger on campus is for a president or provost to throw [a tech issue] back to IT and say, 'Oh no, you fix this.'" Mitchell said. "A real digital transformation is everybody's business."
Faculty is on board — or getting there
Resistance to digital transformation runs a wide spectrum, Mitchell said. On the "perfectly rational and reasonable" end, he noted, stakeholders such as faculty members want to be assured they will have the tools and other means to succeed personally and professionally using the new technology and that the institution will be better for it, too.
"The more regularly we can get faculty engaged to solve problems they feel today, the more we can begin to build momentum" for solving problems they might not have a solution for yet, he said. "If faculty feel like something is being foisted on them, we're probably starting from a losing side of transformation."
Mitchell highlights competency-based education, which is a still-new approach to using knowledge and skills attained rather than time passed as a measure for guiding students through curriculum. "There will be a broad stream of institutions that will experiment, try and learn and then will be able to present to the skeptics as evidence," he said.
Starting small, WVU's Campbell said, lets tech stakeholders focus on answering specific questions. "Start on things you can actually take action on and build from there," he said.
While a solid data governance strategy and administrator and faculty involvement are critical, they aren't the only elements to effective digital transformation. During his talk, Mitchell shared a six-part "rubric" for analytics-forward digital transformation in higher education:
- It is question-driven.
- It supports both strategy and tactics but is focused on the former.
- It is experimental and iterative.
- It is a part of decision-making at every level.
- It is "everybody's business," and the institution invests in training to build the requisite skills and support.
- It acknowledges the potential for bias and is focused "on improving outcomes and pathways for low-income, first-generation and students of color."