The digital campus

An online future for the UK higher education sector. By Precedent head of strategic research Adrian Porter

Predictions about the future of universities with the underlying message ‘adapt, or die’ are all too common in the HE press, and while this may seem somewhat alarmist, the threats are tangible, already at the door and principally come from the ever-changing digital landscape.

In a recent Ernst & Young report on the Australian HE market, titled ‘University of the future – A thousand-year-old industry on the cusp of profound change’ the opening statement maintains that ‘over the next 10–15 years, the current public university model in Australia will prove unviable in all but a few cases’. The same report refers to an unnamed university vice-chancellor as saying; ‘Our major competitor in 10 years time will be Google… if we’re still alive.’

The fact that the report has an Australian focus is interesting since the geographical isolation of Australia and the expansion of quality HE provision into its traditional recruitment base in the Asia-Pacific region largely from China has left the Australian HE market concerned for its future. However, if the VC above is correct, the physical location of the Australian universities and all of the world’s universities, will have little bearing on their future viability – it will be the quality of their digital provision which will dictate success.

We see three threats which are compounded by the contemporary digital environment:

  • Knowledge: the ubiquitous availability of knowledge and methods of accessing it through digital technologies makes the possibility of duplication and dissemination available to any individual, or group, not just established institutions.
  • Reach: the global nature of the internet means that worldwide reputations can be nurtured and enhanced quickly. Similarly, individual relationships can be built, serviced and maintained without reference to geography.
  • Relevance:the availability of online learning and, in particular, the entry to the market of less traditional players offering ‘vocationally focused’ qualifications, or just free courses with real-life appeal, often in collaboration with industry and sector experts makes a traditional university education less attractive to the fast-moving digital native.

How are universities responding?

The response to these threats is patchy and slow to say the least. This is a view shared by Sir Michael Barber, chief education adviser to Pearson and former Downing Street adviser, who said: ‘The models of higher education that marched triumphantly across the globe in the second half of the 20th century require radical and urgent transformation. My fear is that the nature of change is incremental and the pace of change too slow.’

Sir Michael was commenting on the latest trend in the UK and US for universities to partner with online learning platforms to offer MOOCs. In the UK we have FutureLearn, a partnership between 23 universities, the OU, the British Museum, British Library and British Council, and in the US, Harvard, MIT and Google are partnering with EdX to offer what EdX’s president has described as ‘The YouTube for MOOCs.’

Transformation not reaction

Of course, the provision of MOOCs is an answer to some of the threats of the digital age but it is really only a reaction to circumstances, which for most universities will result in an evermore fragmented and diluted digital proposition to its community and potential confusion regarding the strategic direction of the university’s academic offer.

In reality, MOOCs are just another channel, another website or another set of social platforms added to what for most universities is an already confused, organically grown collection of digital properties acting in response to the perceived needs of similarly disparate departments and faculties.

In short, MOOCs can play a part in any university’s future but they are only a part of what should be a transformational agenda consolidating and rationalising its digital provision and encouraging lifelong engagement with its communities.

What is needed?

Senior university management needs to recognise that the global digital landscape is driving everyone towards becoming a lifelong learner and that this represents the biggest opportunity the sector has seen since its inception. So while a new business school costing many millions of pounds may represent a fantastic physical legacy for an outgoing vice-chancellor, the transformation of a university’s digital estates will cost far less and will deliver sustainably into the future to all of its community, not just the business faculty.

Similarly, many thousands more people have left any particular university than are at it on any given day. All of these ‘leavers’ – students, academics or members of staff – are potentially the best assets the university has and, whereas current efforts to maintain relationships with them revolve around disjointed journeys on which individuals are passed between the internal administrative departments of a university and their associated digital properties, a transformational digital vision along with the required investment has the potential to maintain, enhance and develop these relationships over a lifetime in a community of mutual value outside of the physical campus. 

How might it look?

Precedent has been working with universities for the past 25 years helping them to define their communication strategies, and it is a consolidation of the thinking contained in over 100 university communication projects along with the rapid improvement of the underlying technologies that support a sophisticated digital presence, which has led us to develop the Digital Campus – a conceptual online entity, which puts digital at the heart of the university experience and community for life.

The Digital Campus is a single online environment open to all that offers a single customer view; personalised to individuals’ current interests and relationship with the university.

It is a reciprocally rewarding digital space that all community members rely on to support their lifelong learning and personal development. Ultimately it is a community and ecosystem that transcends traditional university boundaries.

The digital campus:

  • Offers a ‘digital home for life’ which evolves to meet a member’s interests and needs within a consistent digital environment.
  • Is a sustainable platform via which universities can innovate and react to market conditions.
  • Acknowledges members’ needs and internal departmental objectives, delivering to them in an intuitive holistic journey using the most appropriate channel, or technology.
  • Acknowledges that members’ information requirements may vary on any given day only delivers relevant information, and in doing so forestalls home page content ‘discussions’ between competing internal departments.
  • Offers a mixture of practical, inspirational, promotional and essential notifications and alerts – an invaluable social and personal development tool.
  • Offers members opportunities to further their careers, or those of other members.
  • Helps its members to connect, but more importantly it maintains and enhances those connections over time.
  • Promotes, supports and encourages lifelong learning.
  • Is not just about students and potential students as it supports the requirements of each member of the university community.

How is it delivered?

While any number of elements will have to be in place to deliver a Digital Campus, in our experience the project will not stand a chance of becoming reality without the following essential enablers.

  • Senior sponsorship and centralised investment.
  • It is essential that leadership for the project is driven from the very highest levels of the university and that significant investment is allocated both to building and maintaining the future digital presence. 
  • Cross departmental digital executive.

Whilst the exact form of governance and management for a university’s digital presence can take many forms, to deliver holistic customer journeys a digital executive is required to reach across departmental boundaries. Similar to the student experience executive this person is in charge of the digital experience of the whole university community.

  • Technological platform and roadmap

It is a rare or perhaps non-existent university that has the opportunity to completely overhaul its technology platforms in a single act. This does not preclude having a roadmap for technological evolution that accommodates existing systems, and recognises how new systems should build towards a more integrated, interoperable model that supports the single customer view.

Has anyone done this yet?

The Digital Campus is a new concept requiring a university with a transformational approach to their business systems and the way that they service and engage with their community. To achieve its vision would require a commitment spanning at least three years.

In the companion report to the Digital Campus – Daring to be Digital (Insights from organisations on the road to digital transformation) there is a series of interviews with some of our clients who have all completed projects that are in one way or another transformational.
One such interview describes the partnership we have with Monash University in Melbourne, where we have strategised and visualised the digitally transformed end state that the University is working towards. It is a colossal undertaking that the University is totally committed to, but its underlying principle is to put the user at the centre of a truly holistic digital experience. It is impossible to say how the University’s digital estate will ultimately evolve, but it is already clear that the thinking behind the Digital Campus will be very close to the surface.