The Digital University

Katerina Hoare

Pick up a copy of The Financial Review or The Australian, and you’ll notice that both newspapers focus heavily on the digital strategies of top Australian companies. Read anything about the digital economy and you’ll be presented with statistics about how 40% of today’s F500 companies on the S&P 500 will no longer exist in 10 years (Diamandis, 2016).

With such a harsh statistic, the message to the market is clear: Adapt to the digital world or perish. Everyone knows about Kodak’s failure to embrace the digital camera and adapt to the new digital market. As a result, Kodak filed for bankruptcy in January 2012.

The final impact? These days, big companies understand the need for a digital strategy: the market knows it and investors understand it.

But what are the implications for universities and the higher education sector of failing to adapt to the market and invest in their own digital strategy? What are they missing out on? How can they avoid having their own “Kodak moment?” Let’s investigate.

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The most common misconception of the “digital university” is that it is simply a university that offers online learning and courses. But it is much more than that. A true digital university is one that embraces the digital age from back to front, inside out, and beginning to end. A digital university is one in which lecturers teach students about the latest digital trends whilst using that very technology to deliver the most up-to-date insights. It is one in which PhD students openly seek out digital technology to support new, unknown, and untested ideas and innovations. It is a university in which students play with the latest technology and imagine working in the most digital workplaces, where meetings are held between holograms and everyone’s working from the couch at home wearing their comfiest pyjamas.

So why isn’t the traditional “back office” doing the same? Why isn’t today’s campus environment currently offering a digitized experience?

According to PwC, many universities are in fact developing specific digital strategies in reaction to the massive shift towards using new technology, “yet [they] lack the vision, capability or commitment to implement them effectively.” 

Sounds like a bit of a Kodak moment, doesn’t it? Kodak was aware of the threat posed by the digital camera, but instead chose to repeatedly focus on its picture chemical business. Wave after wave of CEOs “would bemoan his predecessor’s failure to transform the organization to digital, declare his own intention to do so, and proceed to fail at the transition as well” (Mui, 2012).

We understand that digital transformation is complex, difficult, and entrenched within the politics and relationships of the university. Difficulties in clearly articulating the business benefits of transformation are not always clear-cut. Kodak knew that it had to transform their business to digital but it failed to grasp the “why” before tackling the “how.” The “how” is usually the easy path. Entire service organisations filled with buzzing consultants act to help you achieve the “how.”

But the “why?” That’s more difficult, though certainly not unachievable. Retail is one industry that has weathered many storms on the road to digital transformation. Retailers have embraced the digital age, in which tweets are more effective than letters or catalogs in the mail. They have learned to service their customers, treat them well, communicate with them in the way they prefer, and ultimately make them happy.

Retail organisations have done this by going digital. Marketing algorithms help retailers leverage data to alert customers to products they may be interested in based on past search history, purchases, and buying behaviour. Retail organisations know that social media is the primary communication channel for many; that’s why Instagram is now a viable advertising channel, as is Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. But how could a university better service the student and itself by going digital?

There are many answers to this question, but here are a few key ones.

  1. Student and learning analytics—focus on student success: Identify students at risk of failing not only a particular subject but also any assessment piece or task within the subject, based on interactions with required learning materials that need to be accessed in order to complete the assessment. Think in terms of assessment/marking criteria forms, assessment instructions, even how many times students access or download required lecture slides/readings, rather than relying solely on “static” characteristics such as socio-economic background and ATAR score.
  2. Forecasting—focus on course planning: Forecast the number of lecturers/tutors required for courses before students have even officially enrolled. You can then hire the appropriate number of tutors ahead of the stampede of first-years who enroll because they heard from a mate of a mate that Sociology 101 is really easy and the lecturer is related to XYZ sports star.
  3. The “business”—focus on finance: Calculate and influence the cost per subject/per course and the overall fiscal position of the university, as a business, by leveraging real-time data from HR, procurement, and even council land rates.
  4. The core—focus on student admission and retention: Use insight driven by analytics to identify and target students in order to increase conversion rates of the most desirable undergraduate, post-graduate, and PhD students. Provide the digital university experience to your students that they expect through a channel of communication that blends into their already seamlessly integrated iOS10 iPhone calendar and life.

In today’s digital age, where the voice of the customer is more prevalent than ever, turning your students into advocates for your university is one of the most powerful marketing tools available. In Australia and throughout the world, competition for students is increasing, and with the push towards more tertiary educated people a shared trend, competition for students is only going to get tougher.

Universities that are not adapting to this new digital era will be left behind. Whether you want to be a digital leader or simply stay relevant in the digital age, the time to act is now.

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About Katerina Hoare

Recent University graduate, passionate about leveraging SAP technology to improve the student experience and helping Universities Run Better