Beyond COVID-19: Best practice for how UK’s tertiary education sector should approach digital transformation

A catalyst for accelerated digital transformation

COVID-19 has served as a catalyst for accelerated digital transformation across tertiary education in the UK.

Like in most other countries, school and university doors have been closed since March 2020 to prevent the spread of the disease, impacting thousands of learners, and resulting in a £2.6 billion hit for the sector. Most tertiary educational institutions and schools have begun to deliver lessons online, with pre-emptive business plans in place in case of further disruption in the coming months.

While circumstances made it essential to pivot to online learning provision quickly, the time has come for colleges and universities to establish comprehensive, unified digital infrastructures to support their stakeholders, including faculty, staff, administrators and students. Overall, software for education to support faculty, students, and staff often involves 10 per cent of the annual operating budget of a university optimising and integrating the digital infrastructure can enable significant efficiencies.

IT systems do not mean digital transformation is successful

Universities typically have dozens of online systems: for example, in-person teaching aids, facilities to submit work online, email communications and collaboration platforms, financial, payments, HR, applications and admissions systems, and more. These systems or education software typically cover five key areas: administrative, assessment, teaching, research and professional development, and collaboration. Many of these legacy systems have grown organically over the years, and typically operate in silos. With different generations of technology existing side by side, data often needs to be manually transferred from one to another. 

Most colleges and universities have come to accept this status quo as a ‘fact of life’ – a situation that cannot be changed because it might lead to upheaval, disruption or high costs. At first, purchasing several independent tools may seem cheaper and more effective than acquiring an entire, unified IT solution. As a consequence, educational institutions often face situations where different applications do not cooperate with each other at all, which has numerous negative consequences: inefficient data management, lost time, and increased costs being just three of them.

For true digital transformation, colleges and universities need a unified IT solution that integrates all the diverse parts of the IT organisation into a single omnichannel bundle. This means they’re able to talk to each other and act as a coordinated unit.

Key benefits of digital transformation

True digital transformation delivers a number of key benefits to a tertiary institution, including significant advantages from the outset on stakeholder time and productivity. Less time is spent on ‘manual data synchronisation’, and activities are both more inclusive and more efficient.

  1. Time savings, improved productivity
    Staff, faculty and students no longer need to spend time on manual and repetitive tasks, leading to lower productivity and compromising the time they have to tackle true value-adding duties. Activities such as data input can be done by end users, and once data is received, it can be used whenever needed.
  2. Security and error reduction
    Storing data in a central, secure repository not only augments security and resistance to breaches, but also eliminates the errors and losses that creep in when data is transitioned manually between several systems.
  3. Improved agility and futureproofing
    Digital transformation renders tertiary education institutions better able to address the needs of digital-native student bodies, attract more overseas students and offer more distanced learning options as they move into the future.
  4. Better decision making
    One of the core benefits of digital transformation is the enhanced visibility it provides into business performance. Centrally stored and well-organised real-time data is the foundation of high-quality analytics. Consequently, leaders can make well-informed, accurate decisions faster.

A step-by-step approach to digital transformation

Implementing digital transformation – contrary to some misperceptions – need not be an onerous rip and replace task. By adopting a systematic approach, colleges and universities can evolve their existing education management systems to move to true digital operations. Here is a simple step-by-step process:

Step 1: Discovery: Identify the pain points and usage parameters
Understanding the challenges and processes that users face is the best starting point, allowing the creation of a system that is intuitive and helps projects move as they should. Discovery workshops are a great tool to identify underlying issues, establish the protocols and authentications needed to access different types of sensitive information, delegate authority that enables users to perform tasks like fine payments and data entry on their own, create approvals processes, and more. 

Step 2: Functional analysis: Data/ system mapping
This stage looks at how an integrated, evolved system would work, how it would interact with different data repositories and existing solutions, and where the gaps are. At this stage, existing systems must be analysed and the availability of system connectors (e.g. APIs) must be considered and connectors developed if none are available. This allows existing systems to be seamlessly integrated through open connectors, obviating the need for a rip-and-replace project. Encryption techniques must be agreed for sensitive information stored in databases.

Step 3: Development
At this stage the new system/ solution needs to be developed, based on the information collected in the mapping phase, in order to address the requirements that have been identified in the discovery stage. Quality and user acceptance testing are an essential part of this process and sufficient time should be built into the project timeline to allow this to happen. 

Step 4: Go live 

Step 5: Continuous support and system maintenance
Often overlooked, maintenance helps the system stay fit for purpose and prevents errors and inefficiencies from becoming systemic.

In short, digital transformation means far more than enabling universities to pivot to online lessons for COVID-19 – the same principles apply for schools and school management systems. It means that stakeholders spend less time overcoming the inefficiencies of computer systems or searching for information. Instead, they can spend more time productively, helping customers and furthering your business reach, profits and growth.

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