Digital transformation challenges in education

March 17, 2021 •

6 min reading

Digital transformation challenges in education: 5 pitfalls to avoid

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After the torrid last 12 months, the education world is on the precipice. It’s time to throw away the old syllabus, rethink the 10-year plans, and embrace the opportunity of change. Digital education is no longer an exciting future, a nice to have, a goal. It is expected by students and essential for success. But in this era of extraordinarily rapid change, how do education providers know the best route to an effective digital transformation program?

With few tried and tested playbooks to follow, almost every education provider is looking to peers, at home and around the world, for ideas, best practice and digital transformation pitfalls to avoid. We are all experimenting and trying new things for the first time, to understand how we can deliver the best service for students, faculty and the future of our institutions.

At EHL, we are extremely proud of the digital transformation journey we have taken so far. Our commitment to digital education began long before 2020, but the sudden pressures of Covid-19 and homeschooling accelerated our progress phenomenally, just as they have for many others. There is more work ahead, but we have already delivered a major transformation – and come across plenty of digital transformation challenges, setbacks, and inspirational moments along the way.

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For education providers planning their own digital education transformation, here’s our top five mistakes to avoid:

Five potential digital transformation pitfalls to avoid for the education sector

  1. Digital education means digital first. Mistake. Education is still education. Ahead of all other considerations, digital education must still nurture talent, challenge students’ thinking, explain new concepts, spark independent ideas. Our role is to educate first. The technology we use to support that must always be the secondary consideration. It is easy to imagine that digital education means starting from scratch, but education providers must use their greatest asset – their education experience – as the foundation for any transformation program. The key principles of effective education remain the same, on and offline.
  2. Digital transformation can be delivered quickly. Mistake. Almost every education provider, including us, has remarked on how fast education changed in 2020. But we must not be fooled into thinking a true digital education can happen overnight. Off-the-shelf solutions can be a helpful starting point, enabling a rapid switch from physical to online offerings. But we must never forget that behind the technology and data, there are real people with individual needs. It is easy to video a lecture and upload it quickly to the internet. But online lectures, seminars and exams do not constitute a digital education. The experience must be much more all-encompassing, with content specifically developed to generate interactivity and engagement in a virtual format. It cannot be done quickly, and it cannot be done cheaply, but investing in an immersive digital environment is time and money well spent.
  3. We can do it by ourselves. Mistake. We are educators, not technology companies. We may be outstanding in our field, but it is a mistake to assume that we alone can translate that knowledge and expertise seamlessly into the digital world. I have already said that I believe education is the first and most important starting point for digital education, but we need technology experts to translate our vision and ideas into integrated digital formats. Look around for the best possible partners – especially startups – who can understand your vision, and who are innovative, brave and skilled enough to try cutting-edge techniques and novel ideas.
  4. In today’s world, digital transformation is without risk. Mistake. While few would disagree that digital transformation is essential for education providers to safeguard their futures, that does not mean a digital transformation program is risk-free. It is widely reported that 70% of transformation projects across all sectors fail. Why should education be substantially different? Delivering a successful digital transformation requires substantial investment, but the potential failure points are numerous. Weak content or insufficient support may mean students do not embrace the digital learning environment. Poor training may leave faculty struggling to create appropriate digital lessons. Novel technology solutions may not perform as expected or may not integrate effectively together. Digital education is an exciting project with huge upside potential, but the journey may not be straightforward, and we must anticipate potential failure points and be prepared to adapt our offerings in line with feedback.
  5. Digital education allows for unprecedented scale. Mistake. There is of course huge potential for digital education to open up new opportunities and allow education providers to reach more students than ever before. But it is important to tread cautiously and carefully before embracing large scale initiatives. As we have seen, digital transformation brings inherent risks, so it is important to test new ideas before chasing volume. Trial new capabilities, seek feedback from students, enhance the ideas and optimize the technology, test again. Only then is digital education ready to be scaled. It is also important to remember that while there may be no physical barriers to expanding student numbers, there are other limiters. Our institutions each have narrow target audiences who have the necessary skills, qualifications, interests, time and financial means to participate in our education courses. While digital may make unprecedented scaling possible, we must keep in mind what is realistic without diluting the value of our courses, our qualifications and our reputations.
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Measuring success

Digital education is a major project. There are potential challenges and pitfalls, but there is also an exciting opportunity to deliver a better education experience for students around the world. Before we see returns in terms of operational efficiencies and financial savings, the first impacts will be felt by people. So how do we know if a project has been a success? We recommend looking out for a few key signs:

  • Interest: Are students talking about new offerings? Are inquiries up? Are you receiving thoughtful questions? Is there a sense of excitement among students and faculty?
  • Appreciation: Are you receiving positive feedback? Do students complete the course or does attendance drop off? Do course “graduates” return for further courses? Are they willing to pay for formal certifications?
  • Value: Is industry taking note of new offerings? Are they requesting related qualifications, talents or skills? Is graduate recruitment increasing in target sectors?

If you are seeing positive responses to all three of these attributes, you’ve created a winning education offering!

In today’s interconnected world, every education institution is part of a global community of educators. As we all strive for digital education, we are all innovating, piloting new ideas, and taking the first steps in new directions. This is so exciting because we as an industry are learning from one another, for the benefit of all students.

There are certainly mistakes to avoid, and best practices to learn, and I am sure the whole industry will benefit and improve as we all try, test and improve our digital education capabilities. At EHL, we are helping education providers along their digital transformation journey. I hope our own experiences will help other education providers to avoid potential pitfalls and create the best possible virtual learning worlds for their students.

Written by

Former COO & Deputy CEO, EHL Group.

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