Going digital

Charley Rogers investigates the current digital trends in HE, and how universities are harnessing the power of tech to improve the student experience

The digital landscape is nothing if not characterised by constant flux, and innovative technologies and concepts are consistently changing the way we think about and interact with the world.

One sector that is thoroughly feeling the overwhelming change brought on by tech is that of higher education. A phenomenon that not only spreads across countries and cultures, but also across disciplines and age groups, pioneering digital innovation is no longer exclusively for a subset of young and trendy techies.

In fact, tech is not just for tech-related subjects in general anymore. From university Instagram accounts to bespoke printing in art, the use of digital tools has gone mainstream, and there is no sign of stemming its tide.

 Social Media

A large part of tech usage in higher education is outside the classroom. Although the use of digital tools is most often thought of as a student working on a computer, or a lecturer using a digital presentation, the symbiotic nature of tech is such that it is now part of almost every element of a university.

Marketing to students has become an increasing focus for universities over the past 5+ years, mainly due to the incredible worldwide competition for the best and brightest candidates, and soaring tuition fees, meaning expectations of university life and payoff have massively increased. And marketing to modern students means embracing digital culture. A recent survey of young people found that the average millennial checks their phone 150 times a day (kbcb.com). It is no surprise then, that if you want your message to reach a large group of prospective students, mobile tech is the way to go.

This trend has not gone unnoticed by Staffordshire University, who have this year used Snapchat as part of their Clearing recruitment. Having had great success previously with live tours and student takeovers on the platform, the admissions team decided to introduce offers in principle, too.

Throughout July and August, the University offered support and guiding around Clearing, including Facebook Live Q&As and Snapchat stories with their Clearing Ambassador, Jacob. Speaking of the campaign, Social Media Co-Ordinator Laura Allen said, “We had an influx of followers on Snapchat during the Clearing campaign, and this number continues to rise. We had great engagement and received lots of enquiries confirming that prospective students are more inclined to voice concerns and ask questions through social media.”

The ongoing plan at Staffordshire is to review what worked well and what can be improved for the 2018/19 academic year. The University is prioritising improving its communications, and Allen notes that this is “just one of the steps on [our] very exciting adventure with social media.”


But it’s not all about the tools you use. Promoting a creative and entrepreneurial atmosphere through the use of tech has recently been at the forefront of developments in UK HE. Harnessing digital technology in order to create an embracing of experimentation and growth is essential to both the function of a successful university, and the creation of a well-rounded future workforce. Creativity and resilience are essential for a work-ready graduate pool, and universities need to ensure that students are not only gaining specific knowledge, but that they are developing the soft skills they will need to be successful in the workplace.

NMC’s Horizon Report on Higher Education from this year states that, “In a study to better understand how to graduate more entrepreneurial thinkers, faculty members from the University of Malaysia investigated the relationship between a university’s environment and its effect on student behaviour. Using a four-dimensional framework, the report concludes that students’ innovation-friendly behaviours, such as curiosity and creativity, stem from the establishment of positive internal and external factors such as teamwork, support, and motivation.”

So how can universities harness the power of tech to encourage this creative mindset? For the University of Loughborough, updating printing facilities to allow for students to produce design work directly onto a multitude of bespoke substrates including wallpaper, cloth and plastic, was a game-changer. Glyn McPheator from Loughborough’s School of Art, English and Drama says, “We encourage our students to develop their creative ideas with much emphasis being given to research and experimentation. The new printing equipment provides students with the platform to produce their work to a standard that is comparable with that used within professional industry, and we are therefore confident that this exposure will be of great benefit to them both during their studies, and moving forwards.”

 Personalisation and Strategy

The rejection of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of education has seen a huge commitment from universities in recent years, and this approach has also moved into the way the institutions use tech to communicate with their students. Speaking about the effective planning and usage of social media in communication, Danielle Maloney, Account Executive at Campuslife’s Browzer team, said, “There’s a massive misconception that we should be on every social media platform to ‘keep up’ with or reach students, but unless you have a social media guru who has time to monitor and dedicate time to all these platforms, it’s best to work on getting one or two platforms right.”

In order for universities to play to their strengths, identifying the most popular medium for communication in each area, and building a strategy to account for this information is essential. Keeping up with the ‘digital native’ generation plays a large part in a successful communication strategy, and often students have a deeper knowledge of how marketing works without even knowing it. Maloney comments, “We recently asked students about their social media usage and found that most students are content strategists without even realising it. They know what days, times, types of content, and which platforms will get the most engagement, and strategise around this. Everyone’s competing for their content to be seen, so it’s important to adopt similar strategies or your content will get lost in the endless competing streams of information.”

As well as the growing focus on marketing strategy, universities are moving towards more personalised learning experiences for their students through tools such as virtual learning environments (VLEs). For example, CoSector (formerly ULCC) at the University of London, believe that VLEs can go a long way in addressing the fact that many students have reported dissatisfaction with assessments and feedback. However, it’s not just about having a VLE in place, but rather ensuring that the pedagogical practices and lecturer training in place are of a high standard, and are consistent across each institution. Thomas Worthington, Technical Lead of the Bloom VLE team at CoSector comments, “Universities should use their VLEs to improve engagement with students, and make sure their students are receiving enough support during their time at university to become comfortable with the platform itself.”

‘Marketing to modern students means embracing digital culture: a recent survey of young people found that the average millennial checks their phone 150 times a day.’

 Big data

Numbers don’t lie, and analytics are essential for reflecting on student experience, and improving provisions across the board. If you don’t know what’s working and what’s not, targeted improvements are going to be almost impossible. There are various ways in which universities can harness the power of big data, and the phenomenon is an international one.

The NMC Horizon report on Higher Education from 2017 noted that, “At the University of Hong Kong, learning analytics is used to gather direct evidence of learner gains, recommend teacher actions, and inform curriculum development through a better understanding of the relationship between learning design, online learning behaviours, and student grades,” meaning that both the future success of students, and the efficacy of online learning environments can be measured and adjusted from a quantitative and objective standpoint.

Here in the UK, researchers from the VLE provider Canvas predicted at the beginning of 2017 that big data would be a huge trend for the year, and it seems they were correct. Having been encouraged in the business world for years, analytics hold the key to finding out what’s working and what needs improvement, say Canvas. However, this too requires efficient and knowledgeable usage. Sam Blyth, Director of Schools and Further Education at Canvas says, “While the concept of big data spells automation for many, the Canvas research team sees teaching staff as holding the key to data success. It will be the teachers who emerge as the real heroes by using data wisely to intervene or encourage, and to transform teaching and learning.”

 The last word

The overwhelming message from current digital trends in HE seems to be that although edtech tools are becoming more and more indispensable in providing a tailored and efficient university experience for students, and a constructive environment for staff, it is the knowledge and usage of these tools that really holds all the power. Just as a pen laid on a table cannot write, a VLE or collection of data cannot be of use if not used correctly. At the end of the day, tech in knowledgeable hands is a powerful thing, and one from which universities can reap infinite benefits.


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