Mapping Higher Ed’s Digital Transformations

The EvoLLLution | Mapping Higher Ed’s Digital Transformations
To stay relevant, higher education needs to adapt to the shift towards digital transformation and a lifelong learning model.

Technological advancement and innovation is fundamentally changing every industry and higher education is not immune. The NCM Horizon Report tracks these shifts, and contextualizes them for the postsecondary space. It serves to outline the key innovative and technological trends and developments changing the way colleges and universities can do business and serve learners. In this interview, Susan Grajek reflects on some of the main findings of this year’s report, and shares her insights on the opportunities and challenges around technology adoption and use in higher education.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some the most surprising findings from this year’s Horizon Report?

Susan Grajek (SG):There are some interesting trends and challenges identified in this year’s Horizon Report. For example, rethinking how institutions work is still a long-term challenge, as it was in 2016. This year, that challenge emphasizes the need for institutions to be student-centric. That might seem obvious until you reflect on many of our practices that haven’t kept up with student’s needs, preferences and habits. I was talking to a university president today about how higher education needs to respond to the way learners and information resources are changing. As she put it, students now walk around with the entire library in their pocket on their smart device. If we want to be student-centric institutions, we have to rethink the practice of teaching and the role of the faculty.

The third section of the Horizon Report talks about key trends that are accelerating technology adoption. It was interesting to see modularized and disaggregated degrees as a new item on that list. This is a reflection of the shift towards lifelong learning and developing a set of ongoing, continually renewing credentials learners can apply to that lifelong learning journey. Being able to apply them requires much more flexibility than what has been available to us with current credentials. We’re now looking beyond a traditional two-year or four-year degree because what people are searching for are bite-sized degrees with the ability to earn them over time and across several institutions.

When we take a step back from the individual items on the report to an overarching message, another key finding is the concept of digital transformation. Digital transformation entails moving beyond mere technology adoption and digitization of information to layering additional value opportunities and incorporating the ability to exchange and manipulate data. New technology-related value opportunities include robotics, analytics, AI, machine learning and XR. They are all coming together to enable higher education to redefine our value and re-create our business models.

Evo: How central of a role must the CIO and the IT organization play in transforming colleges and universities into these student-centric organizations?

SG:The CIO and the IT organization do play a central role in understanding what technology can do. It’s important for them to not only understand technology, but also have a clear understanding of the higher education space. The CIO and IT professionals need to effectively partner and collaborate with institutional leaders. The most effective CIOs understand that, although their goal may be to make strategic contributions, the only way that they can become credible partners and players is by first demonstrating that they can excel at execution and operations.

Evo: What do IT teams need to do to ensure that student data is safeguarded?

SG:One of the things that IT teams will tell you is they are more concerned with helping the stakeholders safeguard student data than with further hardening the systems—not that we can ignore the systems, of course. A lot of people do not realize they have highly confidential information in their email folder, on their smart phones or on their laptops. If you don’t understand where the data is stored, it’s hard to protect it. It’s about the people and the data much more than the systems that hold information.

IT teams need to have a holistic, risk-based security strategy. They also need to put a plan in place for responding to potential data breaches, in order to be able to secure the breach and notify people very quickly.

Security initiatives are starting to apply new analytics and automated technologies to proactively detect potential threats and remediate them. Good security is also about having good governance and policies in place for how data is used and shared. Technologies such as student success systems and student advising systems use data to help institutions help students. Granted, good analytics depends on the amount of data available, but we have a lot more data now than we ever did before. I am confident in our information security community and in our institutions.

Evo: What IT considerations need to be taken into account to scale these flexible credentialing models and make them more plausible and manageable from a staff and operations perspective?

SG:IT first needs to thoroughly understand the requirements and the business case for these stackable, disaggregated, and modularized credentials. For example, credentials need to be interoperable across institutions and across great spans of time. IT teams need to consider what types of technologies are needed to support these flexible credentialing models, and what will it take to scale them. Additionally, it’s critical to consider how the technology will stay evergreen and updated.

Blockchain is certainly a technology that comes to mind when we think about these credentials. MIT offers students the opportunity to earn a digital diploma through BlockCerts, which is based on Bitcoin’s blockchain technology. This allows students to gain autonomy over their own records. Of course, the issue with this is that blockchain is still emerging and evolving.

Another consideration is portability of credentials—not only across institutions but across organizations that do not yet exist. New organizations are popping up all the time and are aspiring to be able to issue credentials of their own. Standards need to be put into place in order to ensure operability and portability.

Federated identity and access management is another piece of the puzzle along with security and privacy. There are a lot of IT considerations that are being thought through right now and it’s an exciting part of higher education and technology.

Evo: As we shift into a lifelong learning model, something we hear more and more about is the idea of a 60-Year Curriculum. How do institutions have to evolve, both culturally and technologically, to adapt to that shift?

SG: We are already seeing institutional leaders recognizing the need to adapt to that shift, and many are considering it a golden opportunity. In the United States, the traditional sources of students—whether international or the 18-22 year-olds—are shrinking. Institutions are scrambling to develop new markets, and for many, those new markets are lifelong learners. Many institutions see their alumni as not just former students, but as future students.

Institutions are also developing partnerships with employers. They are starting to find new ways to serve their own neighborhoods and communities. To move beyond a traditional degree is a really exciting part of the future of higher education.

To do so, institutions have to develop a culture of innovation and agility—and I’m using the term “culture” very intentionally. It’s not only about the dissemination of knowledge, but it’s also about the discovery and development of that knowledge. They need to develop innovation capabilities institution-wide to respond to new challenges and opportunities in an agile way. A big part of that is learning how to make decisions and move quickly, experimenting a lot, and learning from, rather than punishing, failure.

If higher education is to advance and remain relevant – and I believe that it will – this is going to be the biggest thing that we need to tackle. Technology can help because it is filled with people who like to experiment and move quickly.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To download your copy of the 2019 Horizon Report, please click here. 

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Key Takeaways

  • As more personal data is being collected from students, institutions and IT teams need a strategic plan to respond to potential data threats quickly and effectively.
  • Institutions need to develop a culture of innovation and agility to advance technology adoption and respond to industry changes in an efficient manner.
  • IT teams need to be involved in the strategic transformation of their institutions to ensure digital possibilities are appropriately explored and adopted.