Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Digitization of Higher Education: Charting the Course

EDUCAUSE has defined an initial eight digital capabilities for higher education and developed corresponding maturity and technology deployment assessments. This article describes those capabilities and provides advice for attaining them. 


Technology's value to organizations and individuals increasingly extends beyond productivity to the enhancement of learning, collaborating, and decision making. Organizations thus find it increasingly important to develop and apply digital capabilities in order to survive, let alone thrive. It no longer suffices to think of technology as merely an arms race, in which the winners keep getting faster and cheaper. The fast and cheap of automation and storage form the base of a pyramid rapidly gaining additional layers, with social and mobile new layers that have emerged in just the past decade. Cloud and analytics are newer still, and the Internet of Things layer is still being built.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities struggle to fund wireless access, standardize and upgrade classroom technologies, and decide what to do about aging enterprise applications. IT funding in higher education remains a zero-sum game, but with growing evidence that such an approach is like paying a fixed amount on a credit card or a payday loan: a sure strategy for digital insolvency. And indeed, education as a sector ranks 14th of 22 sectors in the McKinsey Global Institute Industry Digitization index, "a comprehensive picture of where and how companies are building digital assets, expanding digital usage, and creating a more digital workforce."1
Perhaps more sobering is growing evidence of a digital divide that applies not just to industries or individuals but to institutions. About one in three colleges and universities is a self-described early adopter of technology, one in four is a late adopter, and the rest (39 percent) are mainstream adopters. Early adopters are moving rapidly to incorporate trends such as the Internet of Things, personalized learning, and agility into their IT strategy.2 They are also deploying new technologies more rapidly, putting more effort into over half of the approximately 80 emerging technologies EDUCAUSE tracks than self-described mainstream adopters. Mainstream adopters, in turn, devote more effort than those identifying as late adopters. Extrapolating based on their stated plans, the early adopters will move further ahead of the pack, and the late adopters will straggle further behind.3
This is more than just bandwidth optimization or settling for feature phones when others have smartphones. Technology is integral to achieving many of higher education's highest priorities and challenges, whether they entail:
  • automation to streamline costs;
  • standards to facilitate outsourcing, shared services, and partnerships;
  • student success technologies and applications to provide academic maps, planning and advising, early alerts, and progress tracking;
  • analytics to measure and improve learning, student success, institutional efficiency, and other data-informed priorities;
  • technologies and supporting services to help faculty use technology to improve existing courses or develop effective online courses;
  • technologies and supporting services to help faculty conduct research and scholarship in digital environments and with colleagues across the world;
  • applying technology to achieve a competitive edge in pedagogy, student outcomes and experiences, and research and scholarship; or
  • safeguarding institutional resources and reducing risk.
Technology is expensive and essential. Colleges and universities can't afford to dedicate resources and time on poorly conceived or inconsequential technology investments, or on inventing local solutions to widespread needs.

Digital Capabilities for Higher Education

Digital success extends beyond technology adoption and beyond the IT organization. It encompasses the entire institutional leadership and community, and rests on a set of digital capabilities. Digital capabilities are the application of technology to the core functions of an enterprise: They are the "how" of an organization, rather than the "what," which would be specific technologies and services. Digital capabilities can be defined for institutional missions, IT management, and foundational IT functions. Each capability area examines multiple dimensions of progress, not just technical ones, such as:
  • A sufficient and sustainable funding model
  • A sufficient and sustainable staffing model
  • Active support from institutional leadership
  • Active support from the faculty
  • Engagement of the entire institutional community
  • Adequate training for the institutional community
  • Alignment with institutional strategy
  • Dedicated leadership of the area
  • Support for policies that are appropriate and clear
Capabilities have been an aspect of technology and business management for many years.Although higher education has perhaps over-adapted core technologies to our culture and under-adapted our culture to fit standard business practices, we are nonetheless a specialized "industry" with correspondingly specialized needs. Our core missions of research and education distinguish us from industries focused on finance, commerce, or manufacturing. Our reliance on a highly creative and diverse workforce (faculty) who not only teach and create but also help manage and lead engenders a very different decision-making structure than, say, a hospital or bank. Our complex ecosystem of "customers" is highly distinctive: Faculty, students, alumni, donors, and the local community are all constituents, but with highly dissimilar needs. Higher education's digital capabilities will differ somewhat or considerably from other industries' or from generic capabilities. Higher education needs its own set of capabilities, informed by existing capabilities and adapted to this industry.
Our industry is large, with over 4,000 institutions in the United States alone, and highly collaborative. EDUCAUSE members have put that scale and collegiality to good use by collectively identifying key components for digital success. EDUCAUSE has been conducting research since 2012 to identify, define, and measure a core set of digital capabilities — the how — and their corresponding technologies and services — the what — for higher education.
  • EDUCAUSE maturity indices measure digital capabilities. They enable institutions to determine where they are and where they aspire to be.
  • Deployment indices measure stages of deployment for specific technologies and services, which can be a measure of whether capabilities are being put to use via technologies and services.
The EDUCAUSE Core Data Service, with participation exceeding 800 institutions, is the annual data collection mechanism for our maturity and deployment indices. Our goal is to help colleges and universities efficiently use technology to achieve strategic institutional priorities and to support and optimize ongoing operations.
This article describes the EDUCAUSE maturity and deployment model, the current status of maturity and deployment for the eight areas we have developed so far, and implications:
  • Is higher education more capable in some areas than others?
  • How are capability areas related? Is effective leadership in one area, for example, related to some overall leadership capacity? Or does higher education's highly distributed decision making and organizational structure result in little translation across capabilities?
  • Are capability maturity and technology deployment related? In other words, is higher maturity associated with deployment of more technologies?
  • Are we making progress — is maturity increasing?

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