2nd September 2020

Are universities doing digital right?

deeson blog higher ed digital strategy

Digital strategy in Higher Education should focus on the product and the user experience

The Higher Education sector has had a difficult time of late. Years of funding cuts have put pressure on institutions as they try to meet increasing student expectations, and balance research, teaching and pastoral needs. And all this before the covid-19 crisis threw the world into chaos.

In a move that seemed unlikely at the start of the pandemic, most universities are getting ready to welcome students back to campus in September. Yet questions remain over how HE institutions will deliver a valuable university experience in extraordinary circumstances. This is particularly important given that the situation could change at any time.

So how can universities become more agile, adaptable and resilient? By creating a solid digital strategy.

What's the problem?

Universities are currently faced with a range of particular challenges. But the nature of the Higher Education sector as being risk-averse and slow to embrace change does not lend itself to rapidly finding solutions, especially when it comes to digital.

The current disruption to normal operations gives universities an opportunity to explore the experience they offer – if they can adopt the right mindset. For example, if teaching migrates online, should this be exactly the same as before, but digitised? Or is there greater educational value to be found in other formats, perhaps which allow for greater collaboration?

Instead of using digital tools to simply facilitate existing processes, such as submitting work, accessing resources, and course admin, they could support students' learning in a way that the traditional lecture and seminar model can't. Digital solutions have the potential to enhance the academic experience, rather than just enable it.

The same can be said regarding inclusivity, both in appealing to harder to reach demographics, and supporting students with more diverse needs such as disabilities, and carers or work responsibilities. Digital-first approaches allow universities to reach a broader audience, as well as catering better to existing students.

Digital strategy, digital product

When considering their digital strategy, one of the most important things universities can do is think of themselves as a digital product. This probably involves a shift away from past approaches, which tend to isolate individual aspects of university operations.

To put this into context: rather than understanding themselves as a set of departments - marketing, admissions, teaching, alumni – universities should consider the overall user experience. Where students are concerned, this is their end to end relationship with the institution as they make their initial application, right through to life on campus and their ties to the university after graduation.

Putting the user experience first enables digital products such as websites, teaching portals, and online student services to be built around end to end user needs.

Achieve an outcome

Say you want to improve your digital experience. A traditional approach identifies that the website doesn't quite work in the way you want it to, or just generally needs a refresh. So you bring in an external team, and begin a six month period of research, design and building. At the end, you release a shiny new website, but at what cost? You haven't advanced your internal capabilities, and if your priorities change during the course of the project (for example with the arrival of covid-19...) there is no easy way to change tack.

traditional delivery slide - deeson

A far better approach is to build a product team that delivers outcomes. This approach is much more sequential, tackling a series of projects on a step by step basis. It is also far more agile, allowing you to quickly pivot your plan should the need arise so that you are always delivering value.

This motto “don't deliver a project, achieve an outcome” is core to the way we work with universities at Deeson. Thinking of digital as a product team rather than a project helps HE institutions advance their digital maturity and the capabilities of their own teams, by removing dependency on external parties. It also removes barriers to change within the organisation.

If covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we don't know what is around the corner. Universities that are able to update their digital strategies to move quickly, put their user needs first, and pivot their priorities where necessary, will be best placed to deal with what's ahead.