Why piecemeal digitalisation is risky for universities 

A recent global survey of academics by Times Higher Education found that both attendance and in-class participation remain at a far lower level compared with before the pandemic, with 76% of respondents attesting to it.

Five emerging careers after pursuing a PGDM degree.
Five emerging careers after pursuing a PGDM degree.

By Charanjeet Soni

The university campus as we have known so far is ripe for disruption today. Triggered by the pandemic, the emergency pivot toward online learning has forced universities around the world to explore digitalisation across both education delivery as well as administrative workflows. Further, the reluctance of students to return to campuses, having grown used to and comfortable with online and remote learning, has also exposed the growing irrelevance of physical campuses that are costly and difficult to maintain. 

A recent global survey of academics by Times Higher Education found that both attendance and in-class participation remain at a far lower level compared with before the pandemic, with 76% of respondents attesting to it. Separately, continuing advances in digital access – through ubiquity of high-speed Internet and cheaper computing devices are forcing universities to rethink their entire operational models.  

As digital native Gen Z students get ready for university education, their expectations have also evolved. Today’s students increasingly expect similar levels of seamless digital experiences in their studies as they get from banks, social networking apps or entertainment providers like Netflix. This also explains why the demand for online education is exploding. Between 2012 and 2019, the number of hybrid and distance-only students at traditional universities increased by 36%. However, the covid pandemic rapidly accelerated this growth by an additional 92%. 

Fortunately, the policy makers around the world are paying heed. In India, the Universities Grants Commission (UGC) has approved 38 reputed universities to provide fully online degree programs. These reputed universities include reputed universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Mysore university, and OP Jindal Global University among others. 

In Australia, the government’s ‘Strategy for International Education 2021-2030’ document notes how the education sector has quickly pivoted to wide-scale, quality online delivery at the time of pandemic, and calls upon education providers to capitalise on these learnings.

Despite this, the full-scale digitalisation of university campuses around the world can only be described as snail-paced. In 2021, only 13% of higher education institutes (HEIs) were actively undergoing a digital transformation. These efforts are also disjointed. Many universities procure new technology platforms via their IT departments, without first understanding the wider role that digital can play across the institution. The overwhelming desire still seems to plan and execute a digital strategy, rather than create a holistic business strategy that is truly aligned with rapid environmental changes around them – both digital and non-digital.

In our view, the universities must be prepared to reorient their business and operational models to thrive or stay relevant in the years to come. A complete digitalisation of the university can provide the foundation for these new models. Today’s students expect connected, seamless, and immersive digital experiences throughout their journey – from pre-enrolment enquiries and admission process to participating in alumni networks after earning their qualifications. Mapping campus digitisation initiatives to a student’s entire journey therefore ought to be the fundamental consideration.

Further, given the growing interest in online education, universities ought to reorient their models, or create different delivery models at varying price points to reach a higher number of students. One such model can be letting students undergo one or two semesters online and remotely as part of their degree programs. In Australia, online courses are also being seen as a pathway option for foreign students to transition to regular courses after completing the first semesters online. 

An important consideration here is to ensure that students studying online are offered the same learning and social experiences as students on the campus get. Online delivery of education also is fraught with issues like lack of classroom interactivity and poor student engagement, leading to low completion rates. As the Australian government’s strategy document notes, successful online education requires a shift in the entire student experience, and that innovative pedagogy must be interwoven with innovative technology.

During his recent visit to India, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced that the Australian and Indian governments have completed the Australia-India Education Qualification Recognition Mechanism. It will allow Australian education providers to offer innovative and easily accessible education to Indian students.

Ultimately, it must bear emphasis that technology is just one of the building blocks in a university’s evolution. Digitalisation efforts that are disconnected from students’ expectations from their education provider or in general fails to address the already-known gaps as in the case of online education will not only fall short, but will also create dissonance for students and educators alike. 

The author is the CEO of Edfibre. Views are personal.

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First published on: 11-03-2023 at 13:30 IST
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