With campus life halted and digital learning taking centre-stage, the coronavirus pandemic has been an unexpected driver of rapid change.
Bringing together senior IT executives in Higher Education, WHISHWORKS and MuleSoft recently hosted a round table themed ‘Digitising student experiences – Challenges & opportunities for Universities in the UK’. The discussion focused on the impact points created by the emerging digital economy, and what can universities do in order to remain competitive and possibly, be one step ahead.
Many valuable points were raised by the participants as they drew on their extensive experience and recent developments. With 2021 upon us and the “new normal” of remote everything still in full effect, decisions around digital strategy and how best to serve their students have taken centre stage.
Act now and act fast
Many universities had already begun thinking about their digital transformation strategy; in fact, many had 5-year plans ready to go or underway. What COVID-19 did was change the timeline. Projects that were meant to be delivered within a year’s time needed to be ready to effect tomorrow.
Everyone at the round table had a digital learning platform in place for some time now, so switching all students to digital was fairly straightforward. The main challenges were in trying to change the entire operational mechanism that supports students, employees, research etc in a way that can support remote, digital processes.
Although this meant hard work and long hours to quickly enable a secure, digitalised way of operation across key university functions, many participants acknowledged one key benefit. The changes imposed due to the pandemic shocked a resistant culture into action and new digital ways of working.
Transformation requires cultural change
All participants stated that with digital transformation plans already in place or in progress, the main barrier has always been the more traditional culture of universities and the long-established, siloed ways of working across the different departments.
They all agreed that the extended lock down has helped to familiarise the more resistant minds with a more agile, digitally-enabled way of working, and to gain a first-hand understanding of the benefits of digital transformation.
By getting their foot in the door with a standardised data democratisation solution, they hope they will gain greater acceptance for more comprehensive digital transformation strategies across departments. Whether this acceptance will remain when we go back to business-as-usual it remains to be seen.
Student experience isn’t just about learning
It can be easy to claim that the problems presented by closed down campuses can be solved by digital remote learning, but there are several things that still need to be taken into account:
- Not every student will have the means to learn digitally…
According to a survey run by the Office for Students, 18 percent of those surveyed found their learning impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop or tablet – 4 percent said they were ‘severely’ impacted. This “digital poverty” should be considered when universities are developing their digital transformation strategies.
Some universities have taken this into account, by offering low-interest rate loans to students who couldn’t receive financial aid from a bank to purchase a laptop. Others have loaned laptops to the students for the academic year – ensuring digital poverty does not prevent students from accessing their education.
- Not everything about the university experience can happen online…
An important point raised at the round table was this: the university experience is made up of more than just lectures and essays – it is a rite of passage for many young people in the UK. There are things such as meeting friends in the library, getting coffee in the student union, taking part in team sports, walking around campus, having face to face time with your professors; that can’t be replicated in a zoom call.
To disregard such a huge part of the university experience would be wrong. It is wise to remember that no matter how much technology can evolve to meet the needs of remote studies, there will always be a strong need for physical presence on campus.
They all agreed that what was needed was flexibility, a blended experience of digital learning and on-campus community.
Having the right tools in place can help accelerate transformation
During the roundtable we also had the opportunity to hear how some universities had already in place tools to help them quickly enable remote and digital for students, faculty and staff. Leading among these tools was Anypoint Platform and APIs.
Anypoint Platform is a complete solution for API-led connectivity that helps organisations build application networks of apps, data, and devices, both on-premises and in the cloud. API-led connectivity is the approach MuleSoft takes to systems integration, using APIs to ensure governance, flexibility, reusability and scalability.
For one university, it was this last point that was key to their solution. With a number of colleges and research institutes, they have both a centralised IT operation, but also separate IT capabilities within each college and institute. Their main goal was to move away from this siloed approach and the need to develop individual point-to-point integrations for each college and each system. What they needed was governed data democratization.
With Anypoint Platform they were able to get the right architecture and start moving towards a modern integration culture that fosters governance, speed and agility, whilst supporting cloud adoption. Starting with small wins and iterating, has gradually started changing the attitude to digital transformation among key stakeholders. Now they see an acceleration in demand, with more people wanting easier access to systems and data.
As they move to more cloud-centred solutions, being able to easily and securely connect, analyse and move data will be key. They explained that they were still very much in the infancy of their journey, but they hoped that, now they had set up the platform and with expert support, they could continue to build upon the early successes.
What made this roundtable valuable was gaining the bird’s eye view of the shifts that are underway in workforce, culture, and technology in higher education today, and how those shifts affect the digital transformation plans of Universities. The one thing they all agreed upon was that the pandemic has become an unexpected driver for change and they are keen to take advantage of it to accelerate their projects and change the student experience for the better.
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