The world was rapidly moving to digital long before the pandemic. All kinds of companies in every sector have been embracing digital technologies like the cloud, big data, mobile, and broadband internet to deliver new and better experiences to employees and customers. And for years, the educational sector has been using the web and purpose-built learning platforms to offer distance learning and virtual classrooms. But the pandemic upended everything – and accelerated digital adoption.
Today, the ideas of social distancing, remote working, and virtual teams are now part and parcel for every kind of office environment – and for every kind of educational institution, from elementary and high schools to colleges and training programs or skills development for workers, it’s safe to say that technology is integral to the challenges of teaching and learning.
A quick glance at what’s going in schools and educational institutions around the world demonstrates the extent to which the “new normal” has already become the “normal”:
- Blended experiences: More and more schools are blending digital/virtual experiences with more traditional physical experiences.
- Online instruction: Instruction via Zoom (or other video conferencing platform) has become a standard, whether it’s serving students from a single school who have had to start learning from home or through a massive, open online course that reaches around the world. The idea of anywhere, anytime learning is now part of the fabric of contemporary life – and will clearly be part of the future landscape of education.
- Bite-sized learning: Digital and remote learning are not only changing where people learn, they are changing the forms and formats of instruction. For many learners, including students and those already in the workforce, accelerated, short duration, self-paced courses and bite-sized learning have proven popular and effective and will continue to do so.
- Workplace skills development: Today’s extremely agile and competitive world demands lifelong learning for professionals and workers of every stripe. Digital learning is proving both ideal and essential for this challenge.
- Administering educational enterprises: And, of course, digital is already an integral part of the ongoing management and administration of educational institutions.
In short, technology is a fundamental part of the educational landscape. Educational institutions have done an amazing job at responding to the pandemic with technology to enable them to fulfill their underlying missions. But as the world continues to wrestle with an uncertain environment and plan for the longer-term, educational enterprises should be thinking about some important questions:
- Is the existing IT infrastructure truly scalable to handle a more permanent shift to the digital needs of education going forward?
- What additional benefits of technology have not been realized? Improving student outcomes, for example, and documenting those improvements? More customized, more intelligent learning strategies so that all learners have a personalized experience that reflects their needs, interests, and learning styles?
The need for education has never been greater – or broader: lifelong learning will be the norm for most people. But it will take technology and, most important, intelligent, thoughtful approaches to technology, to deliver on that need. Technology will be front and center in enabling the future of education; technology will be the key for turning new opportunities into results.
Strategies for Digital Transformation
During the past decade, commercial enterprises have aggressively pursued digital transformation: applying digital technology to find new ways of working, new ways generating value and driving growth, and new ways of creating powerful, differentiated experiences for customers and employees. It’s time for educational institutions to do something similar: to lean into digital transformation to so they can operate more efficiently and teach more effectively.
As part of that challenge – and a great starting point for forward-thinking educational institutions – it’s important to reimagine the student experience from the largest perspective. Students are not customers, but they do undergo a customer experience journey that begins when they are prospective students and continues through enrollment to matriculation to graduation (or moving onto another institution) and even beyond, as alumni.
When institutions think of this broad customer/student journey, they start to understand different touchpoints in that journey and how digital technologies can enhance the holistic student experience and lead to better outcomes for all concerned. Here are just a few examples of the possibilities of a more digital, journey-based approach to the educational experience:
- An intelligent digital system could answer virtually any question from a prospective student, from fees and funding to housing, on-campus jobs, and even course selection.
- A fully online and automated admissions process could make it easy to apply and track the status of an application for students and increase efficiency and transparency for the institution. (With artificial intelligence, the system could even auto-assess parts of the application.)
- Enabling access to digital books and learning materials from the very first day of school could improve a student’s ability to learn.
- A more automated, intelligent learning system could enable faster, better tracking of each student – good for the student and good for the teacher. AI can be used to make assessments of homework and tests, and even automatically suggest remedial or enrichment lessons directly to the student.
Ultimately, a digital approach could enable a much more personalized experience for each student. Some students are visual learners; others get learn more from reading, or listening, or doing. Some can learn well in a self-paced environment, while others do learn better through a more structured, collaborative approach. Imagine an institution that could provide each student with a tailored approach to the same curriculum or subject matter, an approach that meshed perfectly with that student’s learning style – and imagine how that could radically improve outcomes.
Student Personas & Enhanced Experiences
Digital transformation is about reimagination, about asking the question, “How could we do this differently or better by applying today’s technologies?” Reimagination and personalization require a thorough understanding of student personas.
In an enterprise/commercial setting, this is a form of market research, but in the educational world, it’s not trying to figure out what the “customer” (i.e., the student) will buy. Instead, it’s trying to figure out what the student needs to succeed: a teaching approach that suits their learning style, as mentioned above. Reimagining the student experience through a digital lens could enable teachers to address pain points that hinder learning, such as what happens when some students don’t have the same foundational knowledge for a given course or they need additional resources to succeed. Digital transformation can also enable a personalized testing approach that accurately, fairly, and easily measures progress. In learning as in everything else, one size does not fit all – education will get more and more personalized and should generate better and better results.
After gaining a solid understanding of personas and pain points, it’s time to reimagine as much of the learning process as possible. Generally, a design thinking approach is used for this part of digital transformation. Design thinking offers a simple, powerful way to rethink how any organization approaches the customer experience – in this case, the student experience – by starting with what students (i.e., their personas) want and need and structuring offerings accordingly.
When an institution can really cater to and serve students at a more granular level, efficiency and effectiveness go up. For example, for international students, choosing a school or college in another country is a very difficult decision. An artificial intelligence-powered chatbot could converse with students in their own language to help them understand their choices and answer their questions. An AI system could also be ideal for helping all students navigate career choices and opportunities and suggest courses or programs to match.
When educational institutions really understand student personas and the different journeys students make, they can start evaluating emerging technologies and how they can improve the student experience. Data analytics coupled with artificial intelligence, for example, can be used to predict student behavior – typically long before a learning problem becomes visible – and suggest preemptive actions. AI can also identify skill gaps, early in the process, and automatically offer a tutorial, for example, or prompt an educator to intervene with a chat. Early intervention can help avoid bad outcomes and help ensure good ones.
These are just a few examples of how digital transformation can improve the student experience and generate benefits to learners, teachers, and institutions. Significantly, improving student outcomes has even broader utility than helping students achieve their academic goals (which, of course, is the goal for any education provider). Improving outcomes also builds a more engaged and enduring (even lifelong) connection between students and the institutions that serve them.
It’s important to note that there is no “one size fits all” digital transformation for schools or other educational institutions. Digital transformation must mesh with an institution’s existing culture and approach; the digital framework for managing student experiences should be flexible and customizable so that it can evolve as quickly as student needs and desires do.
Digital transformation has already transformed many industries and continues to enable new participants to enter sectors as disruptors and to lead established players to disrupt themselves. Banking and financial services. Retailing and consumer products. Media and content. Healthcare. All these industries are wrestling with digital transformation. The education sector is in the throes of change too, and this is leading schools, universities, and training enterprises to take a critical look at their infrastructure, processes, and future possibilities.
It is too easy to say this is “just” a technology challenge. Transformation is not achieved by simply moving to a cloud-based infrastructure and enabling high-quality Zoom video capabilities. Instead, institutions that want to radically improve their ability to create good outcomes and enable them to take advantage of new opportunities must take a holistic approach – one that dives into their unique strengths, challenges, culture, and goals – and must couple that understanding with experience in digital technologies and their application to education. This can lead to profound transformation.
About the Authors
Sreekumar Veluthakkal, Senior Partner – Retail, Services and Transportation
As a part of Wipro consumer practice, Sree leads retail, services and transportation (RSAT) consulting globally and is responsible for delivering business value to clients, driving innovation and creating domain-led solution offerings. With more than 25 years of business, entrepreneurial and technology experience, he has worked with marquee businesses across the globe, helping them with their transformation mandates, customer experience design, optimizing business processes, process automation and risk-mitigated business plans.
Pankaj Dhamane, Senior Consultant
As a senior consultant at Wipro, Pankaj has extensive experience with strategy, consulting, technology and operations in education industry.