Digital transformation in higher education — the road ahead

  • 4 Min Read

I’ve often told the story of how D2L got started — 20 years ago this year — when I was an engineering student at the University of Waterloo.

In those days, professors were still using acetate sheets on overhead projectors in lectures, and the concept of moving courses online was seen as radical and disruptive. But in the early days of online learning, digitization wasn’t a transformative or revolutionary development, even though certain professors may have thought it was.

The pioneering years of LMS development were really just about taking paper or analog processes and putting them on a digital medium. So, instead of sliding an assignment under a door, you could send it electronically. Instead of reading about your classes on a cork board in the faculty hallway, you could look the information up online. Most LMS creators were simply taking what already existed and transposing it from one medium to the other because — at the time — that’s what was in demand, and what the rules allowed.

So, thanks to a number of factors, much of what has been counted in the last few decades as “digital transformation” in education really isn’t transformative at all — and we have a lot further to go. This is why D2L has been steadily working away for two decades to build momentum around the true digital transformations by helping to influence policy and work with clients on better models. All of this was recently brought home to me by a pioneering expert and a powerful voice in digital transformation, Dr. Susan Grajek.

Dr. Grajek is Vice President for Communities and Research for EDUCAUSE. Previously, she spent over 25 years at Yale University in a variety of IT management and leadership positions at the University and the School of Medicine, which encompassed academic computing, IT support, communications, assessment, strategic planning, and relationship management. She’s an expert in Data, Emerging Technologies, Student Success and Digital Transformation.

I asked her about where we find ourselves right now in terms of Digital Transformation (or “DX” as she prefers to call it) and she pointed out the work that lies ahead for higher education.

“This is a huge part of EDUCAUSE’s mission as we push forward,” Dr. Grajek says. “We’ve had two turns of transformation so far — the digitization of data such as from paper to electronic content, and the digitization of process such as the ability to access services online. DX for EDUCAUSE means using data and technology to transform the way an educational institution runs, to transform educational models and to enable new strategic directions.”

The future of DX in higher education, says Gajek, is much bigger and bolder than what’s been achieved so far. “I think we’re going to see new kinds of learning, new credentials, new academic disciplines and a new position of higher education in the marketplace and in the economy.”

Along the way, she says, there are a number of issues that will continue to come to the forefront and need to be solved by digital innovators. Among these is the security and privacy of student data — which is a major topic of conversation in the halls of academe today — but also the limits of how we use data, in terms of the way that we can be blind to the way that our own biases, patterns of thought, opinions and interest shape us.

“There’s a great quote by Malcolm Gladwell,” she says. “We should ‘approach strangers with caution and humility,’ which isn’t to say that our students are ‘strangers’ to us — but we do need to acknowledge that — even with the ‘best’ data — we don’t always know our students fully or know what they need.”

“Student success used to be measured in metrics that were actually about institutional success,” says Dr. Grajek. “Things like retention, persistence and completion were more about institutional ROI than learning. These days we understand that if you want to improve student success — particularly what some of my colleagues refer to as the ‘last mile’ where student success becomes individual and difficult to manage — you need to be looking at personal factors like their physical and mental health, too.”

In that sense, student success may come down to something that I’ve been saying for a while now — that technology ought to be used to make education more human. And how we do that will be the ultimate in digital transformation.

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