In the late 1960s, the phenomenon we now know so well as the internet was officially born in universities – Stanford and UCLA to be precise. Fast forward to 2020 and educational institutions, universities in particular, are trying hard to catch up with the changes wrought in society and economy by the internet and allied digital technologies.

The education sector in the 21st century faces a conundrum in “digital transformation”. On the one hand, adopting innovative technologies and modes of communication brings with it many advantages – efficiency, improved learning, increased accessibility to new students across the globe, and so on.

But it also carries considerable challenges both in terms of cost and disruption to long-standing paradigms and conventions. For instance, most institutions still emphasise in-person communication, be it for classroom learning or academic research interactions. While online communication has become a part of the equation, it existed as an augment to traditional models in areas like student support, admissions, online research libraries, and other administrative tasks.

That status quo has been put to a severe test by the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and lockdowns have caused severe disruptions to the academic calendar. Many educators even consider 2020 to be a “lost year” for millions of students around the globe. Digital transformation has assumed a much more significant role in this context – for many institutions, particularly those of higher learning like universities, it could be a lifeline to survival and future sustainability.

Flexible approaches to learning have many benefits

Even before the pandemic, the traditional classroom model of learning came under threat from digital disruption. Students these days have access to a plethora of digital learning content from other sources online – both free and paid. Universities and colleges were already facing a growing need to adopt more flexible learning pathways to remain relevant.

Consumers these days are accustomed to content and services on-demand, using digital delivery streams. It would not be superfluous or fallacious to expect educational institutions to deliver something similar. With a new generation of students accustomed to online sources of learning, providing them digital learning modules would undoubtedly result in better engagement.

Besides, the traditional classroom-focused model suffers from an excessive focus on what a student needs to know. But it does not take into account how individual cognition works in different ways – some may thrive on book learning, while others need more audio-visual content to retain engagement. Many modern EdTech startups are already showing the way, using interactive video and other digital content to deliver more personalised learning experiences.

Using a more flexible, modular approach that offers students multiple pathways will make education more inclusive. Talking about inclusion, remote learning also brings a new level of flexibility to students who no longer have to attend classes on-premises. Learners who have other competing demands on their time – like part-time jobs in the case of students from low-income backgrounds, for instance, would also benefit from on-demand lessons.

Real privacy concerns need to be addressed

There are several ways in which concerns regarding individual privacy can crop up in a digitally transformed educational setting. Exams are a key problem area, particularly in the backdrop of the pandemic. Strict lockdowns and stay at home orders would make it impossible for universities to hold exams on-campus.

While digital lessons are fine, online exams carry significant questions regarding integrity and fairness. How do you prevent some students from using unfair means? EdTech has come up with several possible solutions. One involves using special software or browser plugins that prevent the user from accessing another website or copying and pasting content for the duration of the exam.

Others suggest using a remote invigilator, who can access live video of the student and his/her screenshots, to monitor for any kind of cheating. Facial recognition could play a role in ensuring that the real student is participating in the exam, and not some proxy. The use of these online technologies needs to deal with some real concerns regarding student privacy.

Asking students to install intrusive software on their computers is sure to raise some resistance. Increased transparency regarding how the data collected by the software is used can help make it more acceptable. Universities need to ensure that any data collected stays with them, and not third-parties which can lead to misuse and privacy violations.

Modern technology also has serious issues in how it addresses minorities – for instance, video surveillance software and AI have been shown to have trouble in correctly identifying individuals who have darker, non-Caucasian skin tones. Motion capture software used to identify potential cheating can raise false flags when dealing with physically disabled individuals.

In fairness, there is not much that educational institutions can do in this regard. The onus on increasing inclusivity falls to tech providers. But universities can create a demand for that, by opting not to use software solutions that have this kind of inherent bias.

A hybrid model might be essential for overseas students

Ever since the advent of radio and TV, distance learning has been a paradigm within the education sector. Countless universities around the world are exclusively based on the "open" or distance model. But these were largely catered to lifelong learners and individuals who were pursuing a career.

The additional pressures imposed by COVID may force mainstream educational institutions to consider adopting this model as part of their offerings. Many premier universities in the US and UK welcome overseas students. Travel restrictions have simply wiped this market off the board in 2020. Universities can easily support international students using digital learning.

It would mean adopting a hybrid model, even after the pandemic – provide regular classes to those who are interested in/able to attend them while offering digital classes with full certification for international students. While many students yearn for a foreign education experience, there are many for whom it is all about that prestigious degree.

The hybrid approach would cater to both these demographics effectively. And from a purely economic viewpoint, it would also benefit the institution by increasing its student body without compromising on teaching standards.

Classrooms might get smaller and stay that way

Like all public spaces, universities carry a deserted look during COVID. With the pandemic expected to persist even after the vaccine for several years, having smaller, less crowded learning spaces might be a desirable outcome of digital transformation.

If more students opt for a flexible, remote learning experience, this could become the norm, even after the virus threat is removed. There will always be students who prefer the social aspect of learning on campus but the hybrid model could potentially result in smaller learning spaces in future campuses.

AI will play an increasing role on multiple fronts

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already playing a key role in diverse sectors like finance, engineering, and manufacturing. There is no reason why it cannot do the same in education as well. Chatbots that specialise in customer support can be used to provide student support – answering administrative queries related to classes, admissions, fees, and other similar topics. This will free up the time of student advisors who can focus on more advanced issues.

Several universities across the world have already rolled out AI chatbots for student services. But beyond that, AI holds a lot of potential in the education sector. If universities can access data associated with an individual's learning and study patterns, it could be used in conjunction with AI to deliver highly personalised and efficient learning modules as discussed earlier.

AI automation in academic management can also improve efficiency and reduce costs, just like in business organisations. For universities that are facing reduced funding across the board, this could be vital for long-term sustainability.

Life-long learners and working professionals will benefit

The traditional four-year degree format followed by most universities does not accommodate individuals who cannot afford the time. Millions instead become life-long learners – people who self-educate without institutional help, often due to career constraints or other personal reasons.

Universities have generally struggled to accommodate such individuals. Past attempts include weekend classes, extra credits for military service history, and so on – but their benefits have been minimal at best. Flexible online courses offer a better alternative, especially if they move beyond the four-year paradigm.

These days, employers in many industries face a labour shortage in specialised positions. Universities could address this by offering short courses and specialised certifications that offer far more practical value than a degree. There are other possibilities as well.

Institutions could work in tandem with corporate entities and industry organisations to create online and digital courses that are closely linked with the workplace. It could help create office projects that help a student further his/her career while also earning academic credits. With online technologies, this is much easier now than it was a few decades ago.

Digital transformation is impossible without teachers

A lot of the discourse on digital transformation is focused on its impact on the students. But teachers are an equally significant part of the equation. While digital transformation holds some clear benefits for them, the challenges they face are enormous and require adequate attention. Lack of technical know-how is a major concern.

In many university departments, the staff are resistant to change - not because they do not like it, but it is more often due to a lack of awareness or familiarity with newer software and innovations in EdTech. This might be more of a problem among older educators, and those that are not involved in fields that use technology. Universities need to focus on providing increased support and training for their educators if they are to have any hope of successfully implementing digital transformation.

University of London has been delivering distance learning initiatives for over 150 years and having leveraged the Liferay portal, they’ve seen “more and more students engaging with us in a meaningful way online”. Read the case study on University of London to find out how Liferay’s solutions can help increase student engagement in the education industry.

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