SalesforceHow a people-first digital transformation can shape the future of higher education

How a people-first digital transformation can shape the future of higher education

Managing student expectations can help universities maximise the impact of their shift to digital services

As higher education looks to a future beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, universities are taking stock of their digital transformations and workshopping new strategies for the years to come.

Having pivoted to online learning, institutions are now looking at how their digital services can support in-person learning environments as campuses reopen and how digital tools can support the student experience.

At a roundtable hosted by Times Higher Education in partnership with, industry leaders gathered to discuss some of the lessons learned over the past 15 months. The panellists discussed the challenges and opportunities they have experienced when designing new modes of teaching and learning, and how placing students, alumni and staff at the centre of digital-transformation strategies can enhance the student experience.

The panel noted that a tension remained between students’ expectations of in-person and digital learning. Student feedback reported that the campus experience was still a priority for prospective students, and ultimately universities were institutions that had strong links to the local community. While students value the sense of community gained from being on campus, their expectations have evolved, with more looking for choice in how they learn.

Louise Olney, head of online student experience at the Open University, said the industry was at a pivotal moment when it came to applying digital strategy; now was the time for universities to work with their students to define their digital expectations.

From the conversations she has had with students and focus-group feedback, Olney said there was no one expectation with regards to teaching and learning, but students desired choice over how teaching was delivered, especially with many reluctant to return to large lecture theatres post-Covid.

“A lot of it is social anxiety,” Olney said. “If you don’t want to sit in a large lecture theatre, online is very appealing. There is an expectation that you should be allowed to learn how you want to learn.”

Furthermore, there were questions over whether lecture-theatre formats offered an optimum learning experience. What the last year has taught, according to Dan Ridley-Ellis, head of the Centre for Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University, is that teaching could be more efficient when delivered online. “We have been able to build more community with online than we would have with face to face,” he noted.

Many of the panellists agreed, finding that blended learning environments better prepared students for lab-based and tutorial settings, allowing them to gain more from the sessions. Jo-Anne Murray, professor of educational innovation at the University of Glasgow, said there was less “fear of online” now.

Students and faculty alike could see how it worked in practice, with the latter expressing surprise at how effectively digital platforms could enhance student engagement.

The panel talked about the ways in which the alumni space was changing. Education was becoming more unbundled as it catered to the demand for lifelong learning.

Jane Armstrong, senior director of higher education industry solutions and strategy for EMEA at, said this was where a lot of innovation could be found. “Some universities have set up this education marketplace for micro-credentialling,” she said. “To be able to take these short courses on demand, for the alumni to continue to be reskilled and upskilled, is even more paramount now in the post-Covid era.”

Underpinning all aspects of digital transformation was data strategy. The panel spoke of the importance of sound data practices; deploying AI-driven solutions to offer a 360-degree picture of the student should be a priority for all universities. On campus or off, enhancing data insights would be a crucial step in remodelling the student experience in the years to come.

The panel:

  • Jane Armstrong, senior director of higher education industry solutions and strategy EMEA,
  • Mark Ferrar, chief information officer, Newcastle University
  • David Grundy, director of digital education, Newcastle University
  • Andy Holladay, business change manager, University of York
  • Alistair Lawrence, special projects editor, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Jeremy Lucas, senior business analyst, University of York
  • Neil Morris, deputy vice-chancellor of digital transformation, University of Leeds
  • Jo-Anne Murray, professor of educational innovation, University of Glasgow
  • Louise Olney, head of online student experience, the Open University
  • Dan Ridley-Ellis, head of the Centre for Wood Science and Technology, Edinburgh Napier University
  • Juan Villamil, CIO, Imperial College

Watch the roundtable on demand above or on the THE Connect YouTube channel.

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