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Navigating the future of higher education: A digital-first approach

by Hugh James

4-minute read

Scottish Web Folk Event In Dundee In November 2023

The landscape of higher education is undergoing a seismic shift driven by digital innovation, changing student expectations, and systemic working behavioural changes in a post-pandemic world.

The landscape of higher education is undergoing a seismic shift driven by digital innovation, changing student expectations, and systemic working behavioural changes in a post-pandemic world. 

In November, I spoke alongside the Scottish Web Folk conference about how universities can create positive learning and life experiences in a digital-first world.

What role do universities play in the digital age?

Universities are the original creators and disseminators of knowledge; the people, buildings, resources and processes have made this historically very expensive. Digital is disrupting the status quo and knowledge acquisition is increasingly more accessible and affordable. Why would someone seeking knowledge pay £10,000 a year (plus living costs) to go to university when knowledge can be obtained for free on YouTube or at significantly lower cost and with greater flexibility with an online degree provider? 

Thinking back to my personal circumstances, I went to university in the early days when tuition fees were cheaper. However, I’m not ashamed to say my reasons for attending were more for the life experience than for obtaining the degree. Before I made my way unsupported in the adult working world, I saw it as a stepping stone, a bubble-wrapped halfway house. I know I’m not alone in this thinking, but recent evidence suggests reality is far from perception - 51% of Gen Z feel the education system hasn’t prepared them properly for work

Institutions must now contemplate their purpose when knowledge is no longer confined within campus walls. It’s a huge challenge, and solving it would require the university business model to be redesigned. This can’t be done in isolation, but digital teams can be the bridge supporting the transition.

Embracing Attention New Centralised Digital Paradigm

Embracing a digital-first student experience

So what are the key themes we’d recommend digital teams in Universities think about, and what does this mean for the future student experience?

  • Define and Deliver Unique Experiences: The focus should shift from being gateways of knowledge to curators of holistic student experiences. This involves assembling content for personalised learning, fostering real-world collaboration, and leveraging technology to enhance the student journey.
  • Have a strategy for emerging technology: The obvious one is AI and Machine Learning; you don’t need to go all in yet but begin to think about the strategy. Research by UNESCO indicates only 10% of universities have formal guidance on AI. Microsoft anticipates personalised learning experiences, VR/AR/generative enhanced content and learning optimisation/analytics all becoming the norm. Start capturing content (recording lectures) now to be ready to train that AI for the future.
  • Respond to the Conscious Student: Modern students are increasingly aware of global issues like climate change. More students select their university based on a clear stance to tackling climate change than their quality of nightlife. Universities must align their operations and teachings with sustainable practices and digital solutions that minimise carbon footprints.
  • Integrate Physical and Digital Journeys: Gen Z has never known a world without the internet. They’re digitally native and expect digital to be intertwined with day-to-day life. The future of education lies in a blend of in-person and online experiences. Universities should strive to create a connected ecosystem where physical and digital interactions complement each other, providing a seamless and engaging educational journey.
  • Be Challenging, Agile and Adaptable: Agility is key in adapting. Digital teams hold the keys to transcending and uniting the traditionally siloed institutional model. You can be the catalyst, uniting all corners of the university around a common goal/problem but advocate for students. Respond swiftly to emerging trends and technologies and embrace flexibility to enhance student experiences.

Bridging gaps, enhancing learning

As we navigate this digital-first era, universities must reinvent themselves. They must become more than just places of learning – by embracing digital, they can create enriched, sustainable, and engaging experiences for a new generation of learners. This won’t happen overnight and will be tough, but delivering change through the lens of the problem you’re trying to solve will improve your chances of success. 

manifesto offers problem-framing workshops and design sprints to deliver human-centric digital solutions rapidly. These synergise well with the traditional university ecosystem, bringing together representatives from across the institution to focus on a common shared challenge. Universities, by their very nature, are complex and operate slowly. Digital can bridge the gaps until the business model has caught up enabling you to discover, test, learn and improve at pace. Digital can bridge the gaps until the business model has caught up.