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Digital evolution of universities: challenges and opportunities

Many sectors and organisations are noticing that the digital society is generating extraordinarily disruptive and ever accelerating innovations. Generally speaking, the more traditional sectors are responding to this situation by trying to digitise their business.


To digitise something means to do the same thing as you were doing already, but in a digital medium. This is what happened, for example, with the arrival of the CD (compact disc); the product of traditional cassette tapes was simply digitised.


However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this strategy is inadequate. The solution that in the end proves to be necessary involves a profound business transformation. This is what the press, banks, commerce, various areas of industrial production and marketing are all going through. And so too is education in general, and universities in particular. Transformation is what Spotify brought to the music industry. The product changed; we no longer pay for a CD or cassette tape, but instead subscribe to a music service. The value chain is new; now an artist can start distributing their creative output directly. Indeed an artist can produce whatever their decentralised network of owners asks them to produce.


There are three milestones to the digital transformation, which began to take off in the 1970s but had its roots much earlier, in the theories of mathematicians and logicians such as Turing, Gödel and Church: (1) the arrival of the computer in homes and businesses on a massive scale (beginning with the Apple II in 1977 and the IBM PC in 1981); (2) the interconnection between computers through a network of networks known as the internet (the first graphical web browser that enabled this appeared in 1993); (3) mobile devices and applications to streamline communications (the iPhone and the Android system appeared in 2007 and 2008). The fundamental difference between this latest revolution and all others lies in the speed of change.


Understanding the digital transformation and evolution of universities

How are universities dealing with this new era? Are we at the mobile phone stage? What does digital transformation mean for us? Are we embracing rapid change at full speed? As you can see, we have more questions than answers. Let's go through it point by point.


First, a distinction must be drawn between digital transformation and digital evolution. Transformation is something that applies to universities that have been around for decades. We built our institutions and their processes at a time when digital technologies did not exist. Now we have to transform ourselves. This is like the Spotify metaphor mentioned above. However, evolution goes one step further. Once we have transformed, what happens next?


Data security and the challenges faced by universities

One of the inexorable results of the digital transformation is the emergence of massive volumes of data (the symbolic representation on a computer that describes what we observe) and the inherent risks to the security of an ecosystem, which can now be easier to penetrate because everything is in digital format. Are universities ready for this? A recent Gartner report showed how universities are underinvesting in digital technologies. On average, this investment amounted to 4% of the university's overall budget. If we compare this to any private company (which generally has a recurring investment of approximately 7%), it is clear that we have to question whether we are making good use of data, or protecting our perimeter well.


Feasibility and value proposition of online courses in higher education

The second issue concerns the application of these funds. Out of this 4% of the budget, approximately 80% is being used to cover the ongoing expenses of “business as usual”. That is, to cover ongoing expenses just to keep our universities in operation. It seems logical to conclude that if we are only allocating 20% to the transformation, to investment specifically in new activities, the innovation that the digital era can bring is not being well captured by us, the universities.


And this leads me to think that, no matter how much we talk about offering micro-credentials, porting the learning experience to the metaverse or enabling learning analytics projects to better understand our learners' processes, I just don't know how feasible an approach this will be. By the inexorable laws of mathematics, 20% of an already small budget is objectively not that much.


Not to mention online courses. Are we prepared for their arrival? At this point, it is important to understand what online training is today and why we are clearly talking about a value proposition for society that is different from the traditional lecture room. If we understand university education as a life experience that develops the individual, how can we recreate that in online environments? This prompts the underlying thought that maybe online training is more focused on the issue of a degree than on the actual creation of learning experiences. If we don't have the resources to create, for example, a metaverse out of our university, how can we offer that experience to the remote learner? Not to mention that many universities have it in their DNA to be inclusive and non-intrusive. This means focusing on the person (the student) above any other issue.


Finally, it is important to talk about the necessary skills. We know that the necessary digital skills are not always sufficient to take advantage of remote education of this kind. Not even for on-site, indeed, given that many of the cybersecurity problems we have stem from small oversights by someone in our institutions. How to develop the individual in an inclusive way without widening the digital divide is another massive challenge.


All of the above reminds us that digital is not necessarily an absolute must. We have to think about how to introduce technologies, taking care of the person and understanding what they can bring to us. But with this in mind, it is also clear that resources will be needed to make transformational changes.