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Evenly Distributing the Future: Digital Transformation in Higher Education Teaching and Pedagogy

The EvoLLLution | Evenly Distributing the Future: Digital Transformation in Higher Education Teaching and Pedagogy
Now is the chance for institutions to re-design their online spaces to be more intentional, geared towards human interaction, and based on user data.  

Since March, there has been extensive debate, and I would argue confusion, about the efficacy of online learning. As many institutions whose histories are built on brick-and-mortar classrooms struggle with how to learn, teach, and enroll in an environment that limits interpersonal contact, these conversations about whether online learning is as effective as in-person learning have been ubiquitous. They sometimes get muddled when the uninitiated mistake the Zoom-ification of an in-person lesson plan for high-quality online learning whose architecture consists of strong pedagogy, infrastructure, user experience, and learner-intentioned data. 

With clear foresight, American colleges and universities should have been investing in and training faculty for this infrastructure since St. Patrick’s Day. Instead, some institutions have attempted to bring learners and faculty back for in-person learning, only to close their physical spaces within days of the syllabi being handed out. Though some progress has been made, in many cases, higher education is back to where we were in March: emergency digital delivery. 

“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” –William Gibson

Even though online education has existed for over a generation, there are institutions at which it has not been widely adopted beyond a small number of committed departments or faculty. Many of these are selective institutions. Particularly of late, there have been a few cases of institutions with well-known national brands kick-starting their online needs by purchasing or revenue-sharing with established online institutions. 

Meantime, there are other colleges and universities with decades of experience and outcomes teaching, learning, and assessing in online classrooms. These institutions know that digital transformation, or DX, involves more than moving an auditorium lecture to a browser. It requires a series of meaningful changes that positively affect the lives of faculty, staff, students, and families. Like any change, it takes time, capital, people and cultural work, but now is the time to begin these investments. 

Many great DX resources exist for university CIO/CTOs. Here, I would like to focus on what DX can look like for teaching and pedagogy. These are not meant to be quick fixes for faculty scrambling to set up online classrooms; rather, they are longer-term priorities upon which to center when moving a classroom online. They intend to take us beyond emergency digital delivery. 


Digital transformation should never erode your classroom’s human element. While DX must affect critical areas of your institution–such as strategic direction, value proposition, or business model (Educause, 2020)–it should never get between the learner and the educator more than COVID-related safety precautions necessitate. This human element can and should take the form of regular opportunities for learners to engage in rich academic discussion. It can also take the form of personalized assignment feedback and general encouragement. This human element, however, is not always synonymous with student engagement. That is where designing the asynchronous learning experience can supplement.


Online learning design has an aesthetic element unlike in-person learning, in which the faculty typically make the semester’s first impression; in online learning, it is typically the design of the classroom within the learning management systems that sets the tone upon the learners’ first login. Faculty are always the most important factor in learner success irrespective of modality, but quality online design is what separates emergency digital delivery from a great online learning experience.


DX allows faculty access to a bevy of learner-intentioned data that is unavailable in traditional classrooms or with emergency digital delivery. While these data could be overwhelming, setting a manageable number of research questions connected to success in your class may be a helpful first step in making sense of it. How are students pacing? Who is logging in when? Who missed the live classroom? Who is completing the formative assessments? How does this type of pacing correlate to student success in my class? Answering these questions with data from your LMS may contribute to future student engagement and success 


This one is admittedly aspirational for some institutions, but worth noting since emergency digital delivery can leave students without broadband (or even just occasional network instability) at a disadvantage. 

Competency-based education (CBE) prioritizes learning and assessment over time. In other words, students are required to demonstrate proficiency in all the skills or knowledge areas on the course syllabus, but there are no assignment deadlines, and students typically receive multiple opportunities to submit assessments. This essential CBE design eliminates the need for many exceptions and extensions, particularly for students who may have missed a deadline due to bad wifi. This approach can be particularly equitable for adult learners trying balance their education with their careers and family – especially those who may have children learning online alongside them for the next several months. 

CBE is sometimes viewed as a subset of online learning, but it is more than that. CBE is its own learning and teaching experience. Certainly, a meaningful number of institutions offering CBE also have their programs fully online. Rasmussen College, for example,  which has been offering CBE programs since 2016, is just now planning its first on-ground CBE program. According to AIR’s most recent (2019) National Survey of Postsecondary CBE report, 37% of CBE programs are fully online, 37% are predominantly or fully on-ground, and 26% percent are blended. 

The CBE community has a pronounced commitment to quality. The Competency-based education network and its institutional members spent years constructing, in my estimation[1], the most important document of our movement: The Quality Framework for Competency-Based Education Programs.

The world is becoming more atemporal. Perhaps our learning should, too.


Digital transformation is not just about infrastructure, hardware, software, and business models. The heart of higher education–that which separates one institution’s mission from the next and makes all higher education sectors necessary in serving disparate learner needs–is curricula and how faculty teach it. Much has been asked of faculty this summer, particularly at institutions that have pivoted away from in-person learning. A pedagogical digital transformation will not happen overnight, but with a commitment to the human element, online learning design, learner-centered data, and time-fluid competencies, American higher education can quickly adapt to a future crisis without losing students or quality.

[1] Full disclosure. I serve on the C-BEN Board of Directors.

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