Digital transformation that sticks: Focus on people, not technology

Go to any popular educational conference, blog site or social media feed and you’ll see certain words and phrases again and again: ‘digital disruption’, ‘new models’, ‘technology-enhanced’, and of course, ‘digital transformation’. Whilst there is a great deal of quality discussion and debate in these areas, over time these words can lose meaning and come to represent many different things.

In this short interview with Maria Spies we explore what ‘digital transformation’ means on the ground. In her role as GM, Navitas Learning & Teaching Services and also in her work with Navitas Ventures, Maria briefly unpacks the approach to digital transformation, including its crucial impact on our teachers and students.

Q: Why digital transformation, and why now? 

A: According to recent research undertaken by Navitas Ventures with university leaders, edtech entrepreneurs and students, transformation in higher education is now essential for survival and is already underway, with every university leader we interviewed indicating they are at least part way through their digital journey. At least half of the respondents expect the traditional university model to be disrupted by 2025.

Within Navitas, Learning & Teaching Services have already been working for some time with leaders at various colleges and businesses on holistic transformation initiatives, with tangible results starting to come through. Change is here at a global level, industry-wide, and is already impacting what happens in many of our classrooms and online spaces.

Q: Sustainable digital transformation is difficult to achieve, especially in face to face teaching environments. What are the key challenges you’ve observed in your work?

A: The biggest challenge is the complexity involved in large-scale change in any education institution, with so many moving parts. It simply does not work to tackle only one aspect, adding a new tool into the mix or tinkering with just one part of the whole system. Change has to be holistic rather than atomistic, pedagogy-led rather than technology-led, and above all has to focus on the student and their experience, which must be seamless both in and out of the classroom.

Change has to be holistic rather than atomistic, pedagogy-led rather than technology-led, and above all has to focus on the student and their experience

Q: So beyond these guiding principles, what are the key elements to tackle in any digital transformation?

A: When you first look at what’s needed in a digital transformation project, there are dozens of interlinking components – it gets very complex, very quickly. Establishing priorities and an overarching framework to make sense of the complexity is an important initial step. The model we use takes all those components and pulls them into four key areas: technology; teaching capability; leadership & organisation; and, curriculum. Having this structure right from the beginning helps us develop a clear vision, and also to develop ways to measure the impact of changes.

Q: Can you briefly outline what’s involved in each of those four elements of digital transformation?

A: Of course, the technology itself is an important aspect. Learning Management Systems, software, classroom technology, campus infrastructure – it all has to be in place and also take into account the student experience and staff needs in terms of interfaces and support.

Capability development is also crucial – teaching staff must be supported to make the connections between their current practice and technology-enhanced approaches. Professional development activities can be individual, peer-led, formal and informal, and go well beyond understanding the digital nuts and bolts. True integration means developing appropriate instructional strategies, feedback and assessment strategies, for example, where technology becomes a tool and facilitator of the process.

Capability development is also crucial – teaching staff must be supported to make the connections between their current practice and technology-enhanced approaches

The third element , ‘organisational’, is the hinge that brings the other pieces together and incorporates aspects such as business processes, policies, reward/recognition and staff roles and responsibilities. To drive effective transformation, great project management and change management is needed along with local leadership to take ownership, and we draw on the principles and common language of the NaviChange model in these projects. This puts sound structures in place that are collaborative, consultative, communicative and maintain the central involvement and leadership of academic and business leaders throughout the whole process.

Finally, the curriculum, or ‘product’. Digital transformation of curriculum is not simply a matter of throwing content online, but requires clear thinking about content, delivery, learning design and the principles that underpin approaches to teaching and learning. We always take a pedagogy-led approach to curriculum transformation, but also focus on practical issues about, for example, student access and logins, whether the design will scale, consideration of learner timezone differences and the like. Given that most digital transformations fail in execution, it’s super important to ensure the overarching design will actually work when implemented.

Q: How long does a digital transformation project take?

A: Every project is different, but with larger-scale initiatives, several years may be needed to effectively transform at an institutional-wide level. It takes time when success rests on working with people – both to keep the student experience front-of-mind, and to build leadership structures and staff capability that will make change sustainable. The only way is to work together with everyone involved – college leaders, academic managers, student services teams, IT, teaching staff and anyone who has a stake in student success and outcomes.

Q: With all the efforts involved in digital transformation, how do you measure success?

A: Again, each project will have specific objectives and therefore somewhat unique measures of success, however in the long run, all projects want to achieve better student outcomes – measures such as improvements in pass rates and completion, retention, student feedback, tracer data etc. are all part of this picture. For some projects growth in student numbers is also a key measure of success. Along the way, we’re also looking for indicators such as improvements in LMS usage and interaction, increased student engagement, improved instructional practices, teacher confidence and perceptions.

Q: Finally, can you share any recent examples of digital transformations at Navitas colleges?

A: Learning & Teaching Services have worked with a number of colleges on their digital projects using this framework. SIBT, for example, wanted to achieve a more blended and engaging learning design. Margot McNeill (L&T) and Karen McRae (SIBT) recently shared their story and results, and you can see that here. Across 60 or so teaching staff, SIBT completely transformed between 2014-16, much to the delight of the teachers who have said that the active learning approach is rewarding and fun. Overall, impact measures for that project have shown that between 2014 – 2016, pass rates went up by an average of 7% and student satisfaction by 6%.

pass rates went up by an average of 7% and student satisfaction by 6%.

In another area, La Trobe Colleges are developing a ‘flipped’ model for their programs based on the strategy of their partner university, and Deakin College is implementing a Digital Learning Strategy from 2016-2018 with its 100 teaching staff. We build in ways to measure impact so that we can adjust as we go, and already Deakin has seen improvements in student outcomes such as pass rates.

Sign up for more updates on transformation projects via the Learning and Teaching website. To read more about digital transformation in higher education and future trends, check out the Navitas Ventures report launched in August, or a summary of the report in Maria’s recent article.