Boosting a university's value: a digital transformation case study

February 16, 2021 •

8 min reading

Boosting a university's value: a digital transformation case study

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The education sector has been a laggard of digital transformation, but Covid-19 turned many organizations’ long-term wish lists into essential needs overnight. In a whirlwind of a year, EHL has seen a huge acceleration of its digitalization. We were more fortunate than many education institutions, in having several digital transformation projects already planned out. Our challenge was to realize multi-year projects within weeks.

In this article, I will share our digital transformation case study. Was the journey uncertain? Untested? At times, daunting? Certainly. Was it a success? Without a doubt. Faculty, students, management, contractors and many others took countless obstacles in their stride, found solutions, adapted to change, and shifted EHL firmly into the digital age. While our digitalization process continues, we are now working with education institutions around the world to share ideas, learning and insights from our own journey, to make theirs easier. Digital education is the future and we want to see all students benefit – at EHL and beyond.

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Hurtling into the unknown

2020 was the year the world entered into the unknown, and the education sector was no exception. But amidst exceptional hardship, many positives have also been realized. At EHL, the sudden incentive to accelerate our digital transformation plans has delivered powerful and lasting change, that has enhanced our value to students. The experience shifted not only our short-term but also our long-term planning in a new, more digital, direction, as we saw the opportunities that digitalization opens up for our students, our staff and for our goal of creating the next generation of hospitality leaders. Our acceleration was triggered by Covid-19, but it was EHL’s pioneering values that allowed us to seize the opportunity to go further and embrace permanent change, not just temporary solutions.

Creating long-term solutions, fast

As Covid-19 took hold, many education institutions around the world were forced to close at short notice, and had to rearrange lessons and exams online to allow students to continue their studies. Rather than create a temporary fix, we completely transformed our learning and examination set-up. Within six weeks of the school closing, we had delivered over 7,000 hours of online lessons and hosted 2,440 virtual campus visits. Within 12 weeks, we had administered 12,000 online exams to 1,545 students in 90 countries.

Let’s look at the changes we’ve introduced so far and what lies ahead.

Online exams you can trust

Exams were one of the most urgent considerations at the start of the crisis, as we suddenly needed to shift from an entirely physical to an entirely digital approach, whilst ensuring the standards and integrity of our qualifications were not compromised. Before Covid, exams were completed either on campus-based PCs or on paper, requiring some 100,000 sheets of paper per session. Seventy external exam invigilators and academic assistants were needed to monitor exams. It was time for change. We sought permission from the Swiss education regulator to host online exams and they decided EHL could pioneer the format for all higher education institutions in the region. To deter cheating, we invested in anti-fraud proctoring software which can record a student’s activities during the test time via their computer’s microphone, webcam and display, in compliance with GDPR rules and regulations.

We provided clear instructions and a hotline to reassure students about the new process and tackle any issues. While students often had questions on their first online exam, thereafter the process was straightforward and welcomed. The switch to online had a fast and significant organizational impact. Online exams could be administered by just 10 members of staff, with a few more to review proctoring reports. Plagiarism software could check quickly for issues. Word count limiters and open-book testing made exams more user-friendly for students. After just one successful season, it is already clear there is no looking back. The process saves time, is more environmentally friendly and is easier to administer and participate in than traditional formats.  

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From real-world to immersive VR: learning technologies implemented at EHL

From the outset, we knew that it would be challenging to retain students’ attention online. For some time, EHL has been exploring new ways to make educational content more engaging and realistic for students. We wanted to allow them to experience first-hand the situations they could face in their future careers, test their reactions and solutions, and see what happens next. We launched our first virtual reality (VR) housekeeping course in February 2019, challenging teams of students to hone their housekeeping skills and work together to respond to tricky circumstances.

The feedback was extremely positive, with students excited by the technology and more responsive to the principles being taught. Building on that experience, we are now investing in a more immersive VR experience, which allows students to interact with one another’s avatar within the experience. This is truly the cutting edge of VR in education. We are exploring a collaboration with one of the global leaders in this technology, Dreamscape, which has recently launched “The Dreamscape Learn” initiative to make this possible. By using such innovative technology, we will be able to challenge students with complex, adaptive, problem-solving tasks that would never be possible in a traditional classroom setting. As an industry, we must not be afraid to try the newest technological breakthroughs that can make education more fun and memorable.

Overcoming digital transformation challenges

We are extremely proud of what we have achieved in these short months and excited for our ambitious plans ahead. But of course, it wasn’t all straightforward, we had to overcome many hurdles which I am sure other organizations have also faced.

Our journey online did not begin in 2020. We had recognized the need for more flexible learning solutions much earlier and introduced our first massive open online course (MOOC) in 2016 but found the remote set-up frustrating. From this early experience, we knew that basic remote learning was not the same as an effective digital education. This insight proved highly valuable when it came to propelling our digital education into center stage during Covid-19. This time, we were clear from the outset that our digital solutions must be rounded and enhance the quality of our education to students – through bespoke content, not simple online lectures; through gamification and interactivity to keep students motivated; and through interactive chat forums where students could share ideas effectively.

Perhaps the greatest challenge was technology skills. Our team at EHL comprises talented educators and researchers. We were certainly open to technology before this year, but we are not technology experts. We understood that we could not do this alone, but we wanted as much control as possible over the process. With a strong management team, we led the vision for the transformation, but brought in tech experts to handle the development, integration and implementation of the technological solutions. We also needed to be clear about where EHL retained the intellectual property for innovative solutions and where we could draw on existing solutions, or share our acquired expertise.

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Privacy and data security were major concerns. Installing security measures was important but relatively straightforward. The greater challenge lay in the ethical debate around personal privacy – a topic which triggers strong but widely varying opinions, individual to each of us. The exam proctoring we have already discussed is perhaps the best example – we are using biometric markers and monitoring equipment to assess potential cheating during examinations. Ultimately, we decided that remote monitoring of this kind is no different than being closely watched by human proctors in a physical exam hall, as long as records are not retained unnecessarily after the exam period. It was a priority for us to carefully explain this process to our students, reinforcing why monitoring is important to uphold the quality of our – and their – qualifications.

The digital future for EHL

The pace of change this year has been extraordinary and hugely exciting. We have seen the great success of the digital innovations we have introduced so far, and realized that huge untapped potential still exists. As a result, our priorities for EHL’s future investments have shifted dramatically. EHL already has physical campuses in Lausanne and Passugg in Switzerland and in Singapore (opening this winter for short courses, ahead of the first bachelor intake in fall 2021) and we had anticipated that our international footprint would continue to grow. Now, we are pivoting to prioritize a virtual campus, instead of bricks and mortar. This would offer all the benefits of a truly digital education to students anywhere in the world.

The value of digital transformation

Our digital transformation journey so far has brought huge value to our institution. Our students are benefiting from highly engaging content and are practicing important tech skills every day that will benefit them in future careers. As an education provider, we have been able to exceed our students’ expectations, ensuring EHL remains an exciting and desirable education setting, and we are opening doors to more international students and faculty.

As an organization, we have been able to simplify processes, boost productivity and pave the way for long-term savings, and we are making it possible to scale up our offering to more students. We could not have done this alone. Collaborating with tech experts was essential to realize our vision. Empowering our faculty was one of our best decisions. We provided some training, but – most importantly – freedom, to experiment with new approaches, which unleashed their extraordinary creativity.

At EHL, we are always striving to retain our position as number one for hospitality education. Our whole industry is changing, and I am sure our experiences of digital transformation will be familiar to many other institutions and we are working to help other education providers upgrade their digital offerings. This is an exciting transition for the whole education industry, that is bringing great change and great benefits for students, faculty and management alike.

Written by

Former COO & Deputy CEO, EHL Group.

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