Digital transformation in Higher Education

This article reflects on current practices and directions for digital transformation through a framework that supports the strategic responses and structural changes that higher education institutions could implement to enhance digital teaching and learning.

Higher education is in the era of digital transformation (Dx). Learning technologies and digital platforms are no longer an afterthought; they are critical for teaching and learning. The COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for Dx, forcing colleges, universities, instructors, and students to shift online rapidly. Some instructors and students were prepared for the shift; those who were unprepared had to catch up quickly.1 This article reflects on current practices and directions for Dx through a framework that supports the strategic responses and structural changes that higher education institutions could implement to enhance digital teaching and learning.
Defining Digital Transformation

As experts in learning design, instruction, and educational technology, we define Dx for digital learning in the higher education context as leveraging digital technologies to enable major educational improvements, enhance learner and instructor experiences, and create new instructional models through policies, planning, partnerships, and support. Our definition builds on existing research and Gregory Vial’s 2019 definition of Dx. It also aligns with the EDUCAUSE definition of Dx: “a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution’s operations, strategic directions, and value proposition.”2

Dx is driven by and built on digital technologies. It changes the educational landscape significantly. Keeping up with Dx helps higher education institutions operate effectively, stay competitive in an increasingly digital world, and prepare learners for the digital workplace.
Building a Dx Framework for Digital Learning in Higher Education

We have witnessed Dx in higher education institutions through our work as university professors and educational technology researchers. In this article, we propose a framework focused on integrating digital technologies to cause Dx in higher education settings. According to Vial, structural changes in four areas are critical for Dx: organizational structure, organizational culture, leadership, employee roles, and skills.3 Our Dx framework for digital learning in higher education discusses seven aspects within each of those four areas: digital learning technologies, instructional modality, personnel and support services, organizational policies and planning, instructor development, learner development, and partnerships (see figure 1). Some colleges and universities might already be in the middle of Dx, and others might just be getting started.

Digital Learning Technologies. Dx is grounded in digital technologies, which play a crucial role in digital teaching and learning.4 Digital technologies can be used in various instructional modalities to engage learners. Instructors can use these technologies to build engaging digital teaching and learning solutions. However, effective digital teaching and learning in higher education settings require significant increases in infrastructure to support these technologies. Some commonly used digital teaching and learning technologies are described below.

Learning management systems (LMS). An LMS is used to house all course materials, modules, and activities. The instructor can send announcements, engage in discussions, develop and grade assignments, and maintain an online grade book in the LMS.
Synchronous technologies. Synchronous technologies are used to conduct real-time online meetings. Synchronous technologies include various functionalities, such as audio and video, text/chat, screen sharing, polls, whiteboards, and breakout rooms for small group discussions. These functionalities can help instructors maintain interactivity in online classrooms.5
Multimedia applications. Multimedia can engage learners and includes audio, video, and other interactive elements.6 Multimedia software can be used to record microlectures, demonstrations, orientations, etc. Some multimedia software is open access. More robust applications must be purchased. Some multimedia applications can also be embedded within the LMS for easy access and use.
Collaborative applications. Web-based or cloud-based word processing, presentation, social participation, and whiteboard applications allow students to collaborate online with their peers and instructors.
Cloud-based technologies. Colleges and universities rely on various cloud-based applications. Some faculty use cloud-based applications to store files so they can access them from anywhere in the world and aren’t restricted to their office computers.
Emerging technologies. Artificial intelligence (AI), extended reality (XR), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), analytics, and other emerging technologies can enable more innovative and engaging teaching methods and learning experiences.7 This is not an exhaustive list of the technologies that can be used for digital teaching and learning. Technology leaders need to evaluate the outcomes of each technology and consider its quality and cost before purchasing it for their campuses. Technology leaders should also examine their technology infrastructure to ensure it is adequate for digital teaching and learning.

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