If higher education is to thrive, digital will be a big part of the answer.
We see this already.
Data analytics are beginning to drive decision making. Digital delivery, whether hybrid or fully online, is allowing institutions to serve existing students better while also reaching new markets — without building new classrooms and labs. Digital courseware, interactives, virtual labs, and simulations are allowing a growing number of faculty members to personalize instruction and make it more interactive. Mobile computing is making support services more accessible, allowing instructors to integrate remote learning experiences into their courses, and giving students opportunities to create digital projects: podcasts, course websites, digital stories, and apps.
Expenditures on higher education’s digital transformation are more likely to pay off than spending on facilities, equipment, and hardware.
The barriers to this transformation are great. Expertise, including expertise in instructional design and technology development, is in short supply. Start up costs are high. Legacy technologies abound, and, as a result, consolidating data across multiple silos is a task worthy of Sisyphus.
Vendors prey on institutions with promises to good to be true. Enterprise software requires extreme customization. Online program managers demand onerous contracts. Analytics require irretrievable historical data.
But the biggest challenge involves mindset. If higher education is to truly seize the opportunities offered by digital transformation, it must become more willing to think outside our incumbent boxes.
The digital economy does not conform to a traditional nine to five weekday schedule, and higher education, too, needs to operate outside its traditional academic structures and schedules: fixed start dates, fifteen week semesters, 3-credit hour courses, and 9-5 office hours.
Thinking outside these boxes isn’t easy. But we already see promising alternatives to business as usual especially at community colleges and fully online institutions: Programs with multiple start dates, six week courses, intensive boot camps.
A special challenge is providing services outside normal business hours. But this isn’t impossible. We already provide access to library and instructional resources 24/7.
Many students are online virtually all hours of the day and night. We need to make sure they have digital tools that will allow them to communicate with classmates, or reach out for academic help, at times most convenient to them.
Many faculty might be willing to teach at unconventional hours, if they can do so online from home.
But digital transformation will mean little if it isn’t accompanied by innovations in pedagogy.
Medical education provides a useful model. Med students, who are less and less willing to attend standard lecture classes, want an education that is more experiential, often taking place outside traditional classrooms: in clinical, laboratory, and community settings. Their education is increasingly technology mediated, involving virtual cadavers and surgical simulations, virtual rounds and even virtual interactions with computer simulated patients.
To be sure, we must make sure that higher education’s digital transformation doesn’t come at the expense of the essence of a high quality educational experience: rich relationships with instructors and classmates, substantive feedback from a genuine expert, and a sense of membership and active participation in an academic community.
We’ve learned what doesn't work in a digital environment: Passive spectatorship, lack of structure and scaffolding, the absence of genuine interaction and personalized feedback, and services tailored for full-time residential students.
We’ve seen horrors perpetrated in the names of access and affordability: Online programs that substitute “coaches” and “mentors” for faculty, courses that consist of little more than crude roadmaps to various Internet resources, and classes that offer training or instruction, but little in the way of substantive discussion, debate, and critical thinking in collaboration with colleagues.
In other words, if higher education’s digital transformation is to mark a genuine advance, it needs to leverage technologies to enhance the elements that make a higher education higher: communication, collaboration, constructive feedback, and active engagement in a shared experience of inquiry, analysis, interpretation, and problem solving.
Steven Mintz, who directed the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning from 2012 through 2017, is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.