Deans leading higher education institutions should treat the pandemic as a catalyst and build on the capabilities developed in the past year by continuing the digital transformation of their teaching and learning practices. If your institution is stuck between the certainties of a successful past and the unrealised opportunities of the future, getting unstuck is easier than it might appear – here’s how.
In the immediate wake of the pandemic, higher education received great praise. Nearly overnight, entire courses were shifted online. Industry observers marvelled at the speed and determination shown by institutions in making this transition. And most viewed it as a promising sign; the long-advocated adoption of teaching and learning models that leverage the possibilities a digital world had to offer had finally begun.
Yet, in the months thereafter, victory proved bittersweet. More and more universities have been triumphantly welcoming students back to their campuses, celebrating their filled classrooms as a “return to normal”. It seems that the spark provided by the pandemic has gone out. What, then, is the lasting effect of having embraced online learning, beyond the short-term salvaging of scheduled programmes?
Perhaps the most important consequence of the recent crisis is the acceptance of online education – if not amongst faculty, certainly amongst students. Gone is the belief that studying online is merely a second-best alternative to doing so in class. Just as employees are demanding hybrid work, learners that experienced digital delivery expect a blended learning experience, i.e., one that makes use of the opportunities of both face-to-face and online teaching.
Progressive deans understand that while the pandemic pushed them online, “remote teaching via Zoom” is not the end game. Their less decisive colleagues, however, are torn between a comfortable past and an uncertain future. Stuck in the middle, they seem unable to build on the capabilities they developed. It is as if their institution’s digital transformation has been halted, and they prefer reverting to what they know best – campuses and classrooms.
Risk aversion could be to blame; namely, the fear of the significance of the undertaking, and the challenges that act as barriers. But if the past two years have shown us anything, it is that universities must invest in digital. The risk of missed opportunities is too great. Mostly because students will remember this moment as an inflection point between the “time before,” when analog, on-campus learning was the default, and the “time after,” when a digitally enhanced education became the norm.
For those deans on the fence, there is good news: embarking on the road towards digital transformation is far simpler than they might think. The steps to doing so will sound familiar to the seasoned executive: commit to a clear vision, diagnose the as-is, and engage in experimentation. However, the trick to achieving results is not “what” you do, but “how” you do it; as you move through the phases, you must adapt your actions to the unique context of a higher education institution. Here’s a way to do so.
Commit to a clear ambition
The starting point for any digital transformation is to define the change you want, captured in an aspirational vision, so you can identify the resources and capabilities needed to achieve it. For a higher education leader, agreeing on this future state with stakeholders that include faculty, staff and students, depends on three steps.
- Link narrative to teaching and learning: Universities are about teaching and learning. Hence, “the why” behind a new way of doing things should be about how students will learn, and how faculty will teach, at some point in the future. Make sure that the story you tell about your institution’s transformation is focused on a “future-state learning experience”. And that it is clear, tangible, easy to communicate, and exciting, such that it mobilises action and prioritises work.
- Set up stewardship: Change projects need champions. In the case of a university, as the institution’s leader you can provide guidance and make the tough decisions. But you also need the support of a team that has “skin in the game” and will be held accountable for the results of the change effort. This can be an individual, or better yet a coordinating unit, tasked with mentoring and advising the managers responsible for implementing the various change initiatives.
- Provide role modelling: It is critical for leaders to be acting and communicating in ways that are aligned with the desired change. In a university, this means recognising the important role of influencers and opinion makers other than the dean, such as the head of faculty, the head of IT or the head of programmes. These individuals ultimately may exert more informal power than yourself. As dean, you must win their support.
Diagnose the as-is
Once the ambition is clear, it is time to take stock of the resources and capabilities that are needed to enable the change you want. In the context of teaching and learning, shifting to a model that leverages the opportunities of digital is driven by four key levers.
- Revisit design and delivery methodology: A digitally enhanced learning experience implies new teaching strategies to meet learners’ needs, whether they are remote or in person. What methodologies are possible, and indeed required? Which of these are part of your institution’s current instructional approach? Which might you consider?
- Audit technology stack: Think of the learner journey, and the different touchpoints between the individual and your institution – from enrolment through to graduation. What technologies facilitate each of the touchpoints? Which have you adopted, and which are you still missing? And what is their level of integration, to enable data collection for insights that can underpin better decision-making, experiences, and outcomes?
- Take stock of learning assets: Seamlessly mixing face-to-face and digital components entails pulling together varied elements from a portfolio of alternatives, ranging from video lectures through to simulations. What resources, from materials through to activities, should be included in your design? Which of these are you currently using? Which will need to be developed, or procured via partnerships?
- Assess expertise: Organising around students and their learning journeys requires different skills than traditional, in-person teaching and learning. Are your staff aware of how the learning experience can be enhanced by digital? And do other key contributors, from tutors to faculty, have the capabilities to facilitate its delivery?
Engage in experimentation
For digital transformation initiatives to scale, they need to be in the spotlight and clearly supported from the top. But to get started, a better approach is to engage in “stealth mode” (inspired by the work of Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, The Case for Stealth Innovation, Harvard Business Review, 2013); in essence, experiment under the radar.
This is particularly useful in an academic context, where different stakeholder groups – faculty, students, and staff, typically hold conflicting perspectives regarding the need for change. Stealth innovation involves navigating three challenges.
- Secure on-the-ground sponsorship: Your backing as leader is essential, but not enough; sponsors lower in the hierarchy must also emerge. These are typically individual faculty members or staff in management roles, who can steward specific initiatives. Ideally, approach those who know and trust you; they are not only easier to access, but also value your work and will be willing to listen. And rather than selling your idea to them, start by asking for their advice, if they shape it with you, they will be more open to helping.
- Ensure a balanced portfolio: Inevitably, you will be torn between the need to improve current practices (as suggested by your as-is diagnosis), and the desire to engage in bold, novel ventures. To pursue both goals, you must strategically mix projects of different types. Some will build school-wide capabilities, while others will test new product hypotheses. While the latter should be set up in greenfield, the former must involve current business – if you wish to drive broad adoption of new practices.
- Be creative with funding: Even as the institution´s leader, finding the cash you need can be difficult, especially when the project is not yet a visible priority to all decision makers. It may be easier to look for money outside your institution, than from existing budgets. The boom of OPMs, who front the capital needed by universities to set up and run online programmes, is a clear example of this. Be aware that any partnership will require you to exchange something in return, and the terms of that exchange can vary greatly (and so, too, their implications).
The end game of your institution’s digital transformation process is adopting, at scale, a new approach to teaching and learning, one that incorporates digital tools to improve engagement, accessibility, and outcomes. Yet, for good reasons, your colleagues will be hesitant to engage in significant change overnight. As dean, set yourself the more attainable short-term goal of feeding the curiosity sparked by the crisis, and avoiding a return to an ‘in-person is best’ position. To this end, use your ambition to provide the general direction, and a diagnosis to guide experimentation. It is not the results of these experiments that are important, but rather how they help you clarify your goals, and gain the commitment you need to pursue them.
Further information: Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, The Case for Stealth Innovation, Harvard Business Review, 2013
- Getting unstuck: How to put your university’s transformation back on track - January 16, 2023
- Steps on the way to omni-learning - November 6, 2017
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