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Digital Transformation in Education: The Complete Guide

Education is undergoing a widespread digital transformation in schools, universities and businesses across the world. Here’s all you need to know.

Moody Al-Shakarchi Profile Picture

Digital transformation is the word on every educator’s lips these days. Against a backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technology has changed the way schools and institutions connect with their learners. To understand how digital transformation is progressing in education around the world, D2L conducted a survey of more than 4,000 higher education (HE) participants in 11 markets including the UK, Benelux and South Africa. It reveals positive attitudes toward education technology, with most survey respondents believing that institutions need to digitally transform to enable future growth.  

With this in mind, in this blog we explore digital transformation in education in its entirety, including how technology can help institutions and learners reach their goals through interactive virtual learning environments and more. We also consider the aims of digital transformation and provide the steps to creating a digital transformation strategy.  

What is Digital Transformation? 

Digital transformation has been a buzzword for years, particularly in industry where companies execute transformation strategies to become more efficient, meet customers’ needs and save costs.  

Inevitably, there are a range of definitions. Gartner proposes that digital transformation refers, “to anything from IT modernisation (for example, cloud computing), to digital optimisation, to the invention of new digital business models.” It goes on to assert that, “the term is widely used in public-sector organisations to refer to modest initiatives such as putting services online or legacy modernisation.”  

IBM meanwhile, puts forward that digital transformation, “takes a customer-driven, digital-first approach to all aspects of a business, from its business models to customer experiences to processes and operations.” 

Education has a unique set of stakeholders, principally students, staff, parents and guardians, government and regulatory bodies. However, it has in common with the world of business the need to operate efficiently, manage costs and perform well against targets and objectives.  

Through digital transformation, HE institutions can address the needs of students and faculty and create a more connected learning environment. A digital transformation is not simply about implementing digital technologies but changing pedagogical and organisational approaches to take advantage of these technologies.  

In 2019, the UK government published its strategy for education providers and the technology industry with an aim to, “develop and embed technology in a way that cuts workload, fosters efficiencies, removes barriers to education and ultimately drives improvements in educational outcomes.” 

It is clear that a digital transformation in education aims to deliver good student learning outcomes, a positive and supportive working environment for staff, and more through the judicious use of technology.  

Technology can be used in many ways to help institutions and learners reach their goals. Let’s examine four areas: recruitment and administration, learning and assessment, interaction, and measurement.

1) Recruitment and administration

Educational institutions, particularly in HE, must reach and appeal to future students and parents/guardians. They need to be visible on the platforms these audiences use and that means a website and social media presence as well as a printed brochure and open days/events.  

Ideally, visitors to their sites should be able to take the next step without switching channels. That means digital forms of expressing an interest, booking an appointment or submitting an application, not picking up a phone to make a call or filling out a paper-based form.  

Fulfilling these, and other, expectations require end-to-end processes transformed to work digitally.  

Similarly, administration of the establishment’s activities, many of which may have involved manual and paper-based processes in the past, can be transformed through technology. Notifying and updating students and parents/guardians by text message or email instead of a phone call or letter is one example. 

2) Learning and assessment

Education technology (EdTech) provides interactive learning spaces in the form of virtual learning environments (VLEs), also known as learning management systems (LMSs). More than just digital content repositories, these modern online platforms provide student pathways to access and consume resources and demonstrate learning.  

Tutors and course administrators can optimise the learning environment by adopting a pedagogical approach that blends online with in-person teaching. That way, the online platform provides a space where learning happens, whether the student is in the classroom, at home or accessing from any other place. For some, digital tools enable a ‘flipped’ classroom approach in which students watch a lecture or read notes outside the classroom, then come to class to discuss, debate and apply their new knowledge.  

The learning platform also provides tutors with time-saving and enhanced ways of assessing and grading student work online. Video and voice recorded feedback, together with annotations that pinpoint exactly where feedback applies, can provide a high level of detail for students without adding to teacher workload. Tagging other course content in feedback also helps students connect topics and think laterally in their learning. 

3) Interaction

In the same way that digital provides speed, convenience and audience-focus in recruitment and administration, it can also be ideal throughout the learning process.  

Online discussion boards and live video interactions enable real-time communication wherever students and tutors are. Online, students can collaborate and share, learning from each other and best practice.  

Find out how Radboud University made full use of digital tools for high levels of student interaction > 

4) Measurement

Data plays a central role in monitoring student progress and learner outcomes. The insight gained can be used to make informed decisions and to identify students potentially at risk of not meeting targets or dropping out. Teaching staff can then take an appropriate course of action, ensuring early intervention to get students back on track.  

Aims of Digital Transformation in Education  

Digital transformation in education can deliver many benefits to meet short, medium and long-term aims. It can help institutions operate efficiently and cost-effectively, meet students’ expectations of a modern learning experience and develop digital literacy among teachers, administrators and learners.  

Whilst not an exhaustive list, the aims of digital transformation include to: 

1) Enhance the student experience

Through engaging ways to learn, replete with multimedia, interactive features and gamified tools that check understanding. Personalised and self-directed learning is made possible through a learning environment that tailors content and delivery according to the individual.  

2) Attract and recruit

Today’s students are digital natives. They will have an expectation of a learning experience that has parallels with the way they routinely search for and consume information and interact. That means enabling technology to bridge the EdTech reality gap 

3) Provide value for money

Education providers are under constant pressure to deliver strong results while adhering to shrinking budgets. EdTech can help contain costs by reducing reliance on printed materials, sharing online material instead of distributing hard copies, and automating some administrative activities. As HE institutions compete for students, digital capabilities are likely to become an increasingly important factor in student choices.  

4) Make higher education accessible

Technology can help deliver accessible content, with text-to-speech and other features supporting students of all abilities as they engage with learning material. It can also help expand the availability of education to reach students in remote areas where travel to places of learning may be limited.  

5) Support continuing professional development 

For educators, factoring ongoing learning into an already packed schedule can be a challenge. The online VLE puts scheduling in teaching staffs’ hands, providing a convenient way for them to tap into learning whenever and wherever it suits them, from a range of devices including mobile. 

6) Encourage lifelong learning

For lifelong learning to succeed, there must be opportunities for working adults to access study through formal courses as well as at work and elsewhere. On-demand, online learning creates a mindset and infrastructure for learning to continue beyond schooling. 

7) Enable flexibility

Online provides a flexible way of accessing learning for fully online courses and as part of a blended delivery of virtual and in-person tuition.  

8) Develop digital literacy

Students and educators need digital literacy in today’s technology-enabled world. Without these skills, they risk getting left behind in education, at work and even in their personal lives. 

Milestones in Digital Education  

A number of trends mark the milestones in the evolution of digital education over the years. These include:  

1) Screens in the classroom

Tablets, laptops and other digital devices provide access to online resources and tools for completing assignments. 

2) Cloud-based applications

Cloud-based applications enable students and teachers to connect to resources and interact from anywhere. 

3) Video conferences

As video conferencing makes real-time class delivery possible online, it came to the fore during the pandemic.  

4) Learning platforms

Feature-rich, online learning environments support personalised learning, interaction, collaboration, assessment and feedback. 

5) Virtual reality (VR)

VR has a host of applications for online learning, whether in the classroom or studying remotely. It can bring many practical subjects, such as healthcare and engineering, to life. 

6) Data-driven learning

As digital becomes more integral to learning delivery, so more data is generated on how, when and where students learn. Analysis can reveal trends on performance, students’ responses, and more. Data helps inform decision-making to support students as they learn, and to continually improve courses over time.  

D2L’s HE survey reveals positive attitudes toward education technology with most respondents believing that institutions need to digitally transform to enable future growth (92 per cent in South Africa, 85 per cent in UK, and 62 per cent in Benelux). Also, that: 

  • A blended learning model offers educational benefits above and beyond solely face-to-face (83 per cent in South Africa, 70 per cent in UK, and 64 per cent in Benelux) 
  • Technological developments enhance the quality of higher education (89 per cent in South Africa, 81 per cent in UK, and 63 per cent in Benelux). 

How to Create a Digital Transformation Strategy 

Adjusting to any new way of doing something takes time. A digital transformation is a significant change, one that must be clearly thought out and managed. There is likely to be some resistance, and this will need to be sensitively handled to avoid alienating people.  

Clearly communicating the benefits of a digital transformation, including the scope it provides for automating repetitive tasks and freeing up tutors and administrators for more student time, can help ‘sell’ the concept. It’s also important to commit to training and support upfront, and to follow through on those commitments. 

With that in mind, here is our step-by-step guide to creating a digital transformation strategy:  

1) Assess needs

Understand the needs of all digital users both inside and outside the institution. This is likely to encompass students, teaching staff, administrators, leaders, parents/guardians and potentially external organisations too.  

2) Define project scope and goals

The scope of the programme should be clearly defined and understood, with a process for amending or adding to it. It is likely a phased implementation will be required; clear goals and objectives are essential and will provide a benchmark for measuring success.  

3) Plan

The plan clearly outlines what will be delivered, by whom and when. This provides structure for delivering the strategy and a means of keeping the programme on track.  

4) Communicate

Clear and effective communication is essential in all change programmes. It is important to keep all stakeholders informed and to provide two-way communication channels. Early adopters make great ambassadors and can help bring those less confident with technology on board. 

5) Collaborate

Once an implementation is underway, technology adopters should be encouraged to learn from each other. Many questions can be answered, and concerns addressed, when peers collaborate.  

6) Learn and refine

The programme doesn’t end when technology has been introduced. There will be learning to take on board and things to change as more experience is gained.  

Far and wide, other educational institutions are also undergoing digital transformations so there are plenty of examples to be inspired by. When the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences/Hogeschool van Amsterdam (AUAS/HvA) implemented D2L Brightspace, it ruled out approaching the programme as a technical implementation early on. It recognised that the vision would need to be accepted and the strategy bought into. It created a training programme that focused on meeting educational needs from the tutor and student perspective. You can read all about the success of the approach in this blog 

When the University of Huddersfield in the UK started working with D2L, the team launched a small-scale implementation to test functionality and usability, and also make any changes in advance of rolling it out across the whole University. It decided to invite academics to take part in retreats, supported by D2L, as part of the change management process. In advance of each retreat, attendees were asked to submit details of what they wanted to use the VLE for, to make the sessions as useful as possible. The case study, that details the story, reveals how they got on.  

Final thoughts 

A digital transformation opens up many opportunities to deliver effective, rewarding learning. Flexible, engaging technology-enabled learning environments that suit the needs of students and educators can bring the benefits of digital inside and out of the classroom.  

To ensure the full benefits of a transformation are delivered across the institution, a robust approach must be taken to the transition. For more tips and guidance on adopting a VLE, take a look at our white paper. For more on how digital transformation in education is being embraced around the world, register to receive the survey report 

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Table of Contents

  1. What is Digital Transformation? 
  2. Aims of Digital Transformation in Education  
  3. Milestones in Digital Education  
  4. How to Create a Digital Transformation Strategy 
  5. Final thoughts