Universities need a digital strategy to exploit potential of IT, say experts

Out-Law Analysis | 14 Apr 2016 | 10:23 am | 3 min. read

FOCUS: Universities need to create and implement a digital strategy to help exploit the potential of IT and meet the demands of students.

The rapid arrival and evolution of technology means that this is a time of huge opportunity and challenge for the higher education sector. Exciting possibilities exist in teaching, learning and administration, and universities are in a position to restructure front and back office functions to take advantage of these.

However, there remains untapped potential and substantial scope for improvement in the exploitation of IT. In particular, many universities appear reluctant to apply technology to back offices to integrate and improve administration and student support. There is a lack of commitment to IT investment for the purpose of improved efficiency.

A shift in perception is required so that technology is viewed not as a costly bolt-on, but instead as a crucial element of not only the university’s education and organisational functions but also of its strategic plans. Digital innovation may be an additional cost just now, but it can deliver productivity and growth in the long run.

The case for embracing technology is plain. The sector is under increased pressure – a challenging financial climate, combined with increased international competition, means that sustained improvement in teaching and research are vital in order to keep UK institutions relevant and competitive. Innovation and technology can shape, and reinforce, a student’s perception of an institution by demonstrating dedication to progress.

In the face of rising expectations and demands from students, integrated and streamlined IT systems can also ensure that the administrative process is smoother and more cost-efficient. This can also enhance student experiences, enable greater attainment and improve retention rates.

It is crucial that institutions face up to the challenge posed by new technologies by identifying and addressing the most pertinent issues to them.

One area where technological change is gaining attention in the sector is in relation to learner analytics. Similar in theme to big data, this focuses on the ability of universities to collect and analyse data. Student information systems allow universities to collect increasingly large volumes of data about students, including in relation to performance. Used correctly, this new information can better equip universities to make data-driven decisions and improve practices. For example, it makes possible real-time interventions for struggling students.

The important point for institutions is to plan how to assess and leverage the new expanse of data. A failure to plan and prepare appropriate resources to maximise this potential will inhibit the power of the investment.

The interconnection of IT systems is also important so that students can access a consistent platform whether making pre-application enquiries or seeking post-graduation career guidance. While institutions use a combination of systems for different services, IT and data process need to be understood and better aligned. Universities should be able to offer a holistic and intuitive digital environment that also evolves to meet changing student requirements. A priority could be making available one place which holds all of a student’s data.

Perhaps the most fundamental development in higher education is anywhere learning. The potential for expanding access to teaching is likely to transform the sector as institutions increasingly embrace the use of virtual learning environments (VLEs), virtual labs and lecture capture solutions. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) already allow universities to connect to different types of students through online teaching. These technologies shift the onus on universities from physical classroom space to IT capability, particularly cloud functionality. Undoubtedly, any interest in this mode of learning will drive institutions to adopt technology to keep pace.

Higher education bodies are also showing a significant interest in shared service centres. They allow operational functions across multiple similar organisations to be assimilated in a single structure, allowing the participants to improve efficiencies and cut costs. Shared services have the potential to play a critical role in improving the quality of available IT while also lowering the associated overhead.

Expectations of universities’ ability to provide advanced IT are rising – students expect access to first class technological solutions as part of their university experience. Institutions that fail to exploit the opportunities offered by technology will surely be left behind.

While integrating new technology into any organisation can be a daunting prospect and is never without risk, there are exciting prospects and substantial returns available to universities that match calculated investment in technology with a clear digital strategy and commitment to progress.

Chris Martin and Joanne Stewart are experts in IT contracts in the higher education sector at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com