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There Are No Shortcuts to a Digital Transformation

It’s critical for institutions to define a plan to evaluate and implement this change to ensure that it’s effective rather than burdensome to students, staff and faculty.

You have spent the last several years advocating for a deliberate and aggressive digital roadmap at your institution.  The impacts of COVID-19 and the onslaught of new technical capabilities such as ubiquitous data, unlimited connection, and massive processing have opened a (albeit bumpy) shortcut, bypassing additional years of advocacy and negotiation, to arrive at a turning point where digital dependency is now an institutional necessity.  You arrived earlier than expected! However, the unexpected shortcut also left you wondering what to do now that you are here. And you are not quite sure where “here” really is…

Institutions experiencing the new vista of digital dependence are consequently finding that “going remote” means more than simply transitioning traditional courses to online delivery.  Indeed, arriving by shortcut has its challenges.  A fully digital destination is made up of a deep and coordinated culture and workforce, aligned with deliberate technology shifts that enable new educational opportunities and operating models.  Unfortunately, the COVID-19 shortcut can actually shortchange an institution’s ability to arrive at a more robust digital destination.  The shortcut leaves out the twists and turns that, over time, provide the roadmap and building blocks for an intentional, high-quality digital environment.  

If you are finding yourself in this situation, celebrate your accomplishments in the face of daunting challenges.  You achieved at least one important objective—proving the value of digital infrastructure and an e-learning ecosystem within your institution.  However, going forward will require you to back up a bit and possibly re-route to design for the diverse, digital learner and lead a digital transformation.  That means acknowledging that you have much more work to do to ensure that your institution continues to adapt and innovate in a new environment.  For example, you should make sure you are aligning technology investments with academic mission, goals, and brand. Higher education technology portfolios focusing on core academic services are complex and require annual investment that increases operational expenses while promoting data integration. 

No doubt COVID-19 has shown the value of previously distinct digital platforms: student information systems, learning management systems, assessment and online proctoring systems, digital library access, curriculum and credential management systems, content management systems, enterprise resource systems, third-party educational content systems, video and web conferencing systems, video captioning systems, digital hardware and software, customer relationship management systems, and online tutoring services, to name a few.  Road markers associated with these platforms and systems include annual contract negotiations, implementation processes and project management, operational upgrades, staff training and user adoption, and broader technical integration.  

Map Strategy 

If a digital transformation is your destination, then having a clear digital design map (strategy) is key and requires core foundational practices.  Digital innovation needs to come from upper leadership and requires developing a culture wherein ideas are assets, experimentation is valued, and decisions are data-informed.  

Innovation Support

Institutions that have leveraged executive support for innovation and shifted to a discovery focus found success amidst the pandemic, as have universities that have treated ideas as assets.  Ideas fuel growth, and creating a culture that values and respects new ideas creates opportunity mindsets that inspire change. For example, simplifying the admission process and migrating to online advising were ideas that promoted access for Utah State University, helping us to meet our land-grant access mission.  


Complimentary, developing a culture to be able to move first and experiment is vital. An organization open to agility and experimentation will be able to fail fast and make decisions.  This creates a nimble organization that can pivot and meet the diverse student population’s educational needs.  

Be Data-Driven

The final key is to practice being data-driven. All the technical systems interrelate or complement each other, and how you can leverage the data contributes to enhanced digital maturity.  For example, a comprehensive student data analytics strategy depends on access to multiple systems (student information system, learning management system) that, together, provide statistical insights that lead to actionable data, l—for example, academic innovations like competency-based education (CBE).  Integrated and viable CBE programs are built within student information systems, leveraging robust assessment tools, learning and content management systems, and in some cases, third-party educational content solutions. 

Like any good GPS, there are clear starting and destination points, and there are always hazards to watch out for along the way.  A shortcut may bypass a one or two, but it is usually better to address hazards head-on, to build confidence, and to fail fast to overcome them effectively.  For example, supporting robust digital systems that provide access to valuable data can also expose an institution to misuse and data breach.  An institution should take the time to develop a comprehensive data governance policy that guides users while protecting the institution and those it serves.  Another hazard is ignoring the reality of “implementation fatigue.” Designing and sharing a plan creates transparency and can prevent student, faculty and staff from feeling overwhelmed by new digital tools that are meant to assist and support them but that they perceive as burdensome, never-ending, and just more tools to learn and add complexity to their responsibilities. 

Your conditional digital destination can be redesigned into an intentional digital transformation plan that creates an environment in which your institution can more effectively adapt to the post-COVID new normal by assessing and benchmarking your current digital state, ensuring executive sponsorship for innovation, building a culture of ideas as assets, valuing experiments, and practicing being data-driven. 


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