IDC Market Spotlight

Digital Transformation in UK Higher Education

London (UK), July 2018 - The very nature of higher education is changing, with students and employers expecting institutions to provide an experience that equips students with the right skills to succeed in today's job market. IDC sees digital technologies as a catalyst for change in higher education, impacting all areas, from teaching through to the underlying business processes.

But many institutions are still resistant to digital transformation (DX). IDC's recent European Vertical Markets survey of education institutions found that while 25% of institutions were undertaking or about to start on DX, 75% had no clear plans for DX or understood the impact it would have on their organisation.

Staying relevant as the core consumer audience for higher education services changes requires institutions to develop a clear vision of what the student cohort will look like in the future and how they will want to consume higher education services. This will enable institutions to develop unique positions and demonstrable value-add for students. IDC has looked at those institutions that have already started down this path and identified renewal of legacy virtual learning environment (VLE) systems as a key catalyst for the beginning of DX.

This IDC Market Spotlight examines how implementing or refreshing a VLE can enable institutions to adapt to provide a compelling experience that not only matches students' expectations but also those of faculty members and employers, while reinforcing the differentiated value that each institution promises.

The Power of Technology to Drive Successful Outcomes
Disruption to the higher education sector has historically been driven by governments' desire to expand access to this academic level, but in the future, the sources of disruption will come from new areas. These include the growing cost of tuition; declining public sector funding; the rise of alternative channels to access learning; questions over the ability of traditional teaching methods to deliver employable students; and the rise of non-traditional students who will demand more competency-based education in line with demands from employers.

Institutional Challenges versus Increased Student Expectations

Institutions recognise the role technology can play in helping to plot a course through the changing landscape. However, institutions continue to devote a significant part of their resources to simply maintaining the status quo with their administration and enterprise systems.
There are considerable challenges behind the sector's reluctance to adopt innovative technologies, including a lack of available resources (time, staff, skills, and financial) to investigate, procure, and implement new approaches and solutions. Be this as it may, the ongoing battle to maintain customised legacy systems and the patchwork of integrations that come with this endeavour - at a time when budgets remain constrained and institution are looking to IT to support wider organisational change - is not sustainable.

Using technology to support pedagogical approaches in the classroom is a tried and tested approach, and when the approach, training, and support are aligned, the benefits realised often outweigh the barriers. Increasingly, however, teaching and learning take place outside the classroom. Students may be older and have a career or other commitments that mean they need different access to learning and want to consume learning via a modular approach. In turn, this means they will want to have different interactions that require various kinds of support, more flexible timetabling, and access to faculty members outside of traditional hours.

Institutions are reaching a point where they must rethink long-term practices on the delivery of courses and the interactions they have with students. While adoption of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has yet to make the breakthrough many predicted, institutions are investigating innovative teaching techniques combining digital technologies. Students expect to be taught and learn in ways that are better suited to their personal preferences and at a pace of their choosing. IDC research indicates that improving the student experience is one of the top business priorities for institutions in 2018.

Personalisation of Education is the Future

Developing the right digital environment is increasingly important. Although new students are likely to be equipped with smartphones and tablets, and use apps rather than services, institutions should not assume they will understand how to navigate their way around support systems or services. Rather than considering how to digitise systems within silos or physical spaces, institutions need to focus on improving the feel and experience of the most common touch points for students, such as the VLE.

IDC believes that institutions need to evolve their VLE platforms, which have traditionally been built around course content and stages in the academic year. They should instead focus on how students and faculty want to interact - the way they want to collaborate and share content and communicate.

This requires a different approach to content creation and curation: where module resources are housed, the use of different folder structures, and where assessments are located. While there might be a sensible rationale for each teaching module to do things in a slightly different way, it is important to locate the student experience at the centre.

Aligning Technology with Pedagogy and Student Outcomes

IDC finds that many institutions acknowledge that VLEs play an increasingly important part in helping to navigate change. It is no surprise, therefore, to find ever more institutions across Europe investing in either new VLE solutions or enhancements to the existing VLE estate. IDC's recent European Vertical Markets survey found that 46% of higher education institutions across Europe plan to invest in either enhancements and upgrades or a new solution over the next twelve months.

The findings indicate an industry-wide belief in VLEs’ ability to address the business priorities of institutions and improve the delivery of educational services. VLEs are no longer passive systems; they are increasingly becoming platforms for engagement that allow institutions to adopt automation and self-service capabilities that can improve the productivity of faculty, staff, and service levels for students.

The challenge of balancing faculty needs with those of students requires VLEs to have flexible and responsive characteristics that address several issues:

  • Course creation and authoring tools - Ease of being able to create courses is a prerequisite in supporting a range of content consumption options. Course creation needs to be easy and tools need to be intuitive to support differing levels of abilities. The VLE should support the end-to-end delivery of learning, from course creation through to submission of course work.
  • Logical learning paths - The VLE should support learning paths that can be tailored to ensure students' progress in a logical manner, only being able to proceed to the next stage when they have mastered the basics.
  • Options for consuming content - Students have different learning styles,

and the VLE should enable faculty members to create content that can be consumed in diverse ways depending on the student's choices. Often this will require the combination of a range of content types to support blended learning options, helping to make course content more effective.

  • Interactions - Arguments against greater adoption of technology in education often stem from the fear of the weakening of links between students and lecturers and peer-to-peer support networks. It is important that the VLE supports collaboration and increases the opportunity for one-on-one engagements. Ideally the VLE should also integrate with other platforms used for interactions.
  • Assessment options. The VLE should be flexible enough to allow for the incorporation of tests at strategic points to gauge students' level of understanding as well providing opportunities to refine course content.

A key characteristic of modern VLEs is that they balance these features to meet the needs of students while facilitating the ease of use of faculty staff.

Cloud Migration, a Catalyst for VLE Transformation

It is increasingly difficult for institutions to ignore the shift to cloud that is occurring, especially in areas that require highly scalable architecture that provides acceptable levels of quality of service, security, and pricing structures. A key characteristic of modern VLEs is that they balance these features to meet the needs of students, while facilitating the ease of use of faculty staff.

Success or failure can very much depend on a range of factors such as structure and state of the underlying IT infrastructure, capabilities of existing IT resources, orientation of business priorities, and the ability to justify the business case.

Managing people's expectations and cultural change is often the hardest part of change. Change usually involves three aspects: people, processes, and culture.

While emphasis is often put on getting processes right, institutions can overlook the impact change has on people and the culture. Planned change, such as the implementation of a new VLE, can be structured in such a way to minimise the impact.