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Essay: How prepared is higher education for Digital Innovation?

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  • Subject area(s): Education essays
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  • Published: 20 February 2022*
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  • Words: 1,578 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 7 (approx)
  • Tags: Online learning essays

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In today’s economic environment, whether one subscribes to capitalism, socialism or anywhere in between, Higher Education (HE) is often seen as the great equalizer. It is for many a clear pathway for upward social mobility, often blocked by issues of affordability, equity and accessibility. By addressing barriers around elevated cost of education, relevance of taught material in an everchanging world and the ability to respond to growing demand, HE has the opportunity to move from a privilege for the few to a right for the many.

Digital Innovation has already begun to provide real solutions to ensure this unfulfilled potential becomes the norm, but as internet access becomes more affordable and widespread, and Digital Innovation becomes more common place, there is still room for the HE Industry to leverage on disruptive technologies and in the process revolutionise the way we teach and learn.

However, there are a series of concerns that need to be addressed for this transformation to successfully take place. Although the disruptive technologies already exist, the environment, processes and cultural norms are far from ready to embrace this new era. As HE is an industry that depends on, and influences multiple stakeholders, any successful move would require an across the board agreement or an extraordinary risk for the brave frontrunner.

In order to understand how prepared HE is for Digital Innovation this essay will answer three questions that aim to look at the environment, the industry and possibilities for the future:

  • Is Digital Innovation friend or foe?
  • What are the barriers to success?
  • Is there and HE future without Digital Innovation?

Is digital innovation friend or foe?

For the purpose of this essay, I will define Digital Innovation as the ‘innovation of products, processes and business models using digital technology platforms as a means or end within and across the organization’ (Ciriello, Ritcher, Schwabe, 2018, 564). In this sense, Digital Innovation has the potential to not only transform business models but also to disrupt the entrepreneurial and business culture. Gone are the days of traditional innovation, characterized by its discrete, linear and sequential processes (Ciriello, Ritcher, Schwabe, 2018). This is no longer enough to ensure organizations remain relevant and competitive, and has rather been replaced by a new concept of (digital) innovation which requires the development of an interconnected web of people, practices and resources, that in coming together provide a fertile ground for digital solutions (Ciriello, 2017).

This is not an orderly process, its not characterized by one brilliant idea, and its often difficult to identify the starting point. This high level of uncertainty, combined with the elevated cost of implementation and the HR intensive process of changing internal systems, are some of the key deterrents for any industry player undergoing digital transformation.

Nevertheless, rather than looking at Digital Innovation as purely disruptive, organizations can explore this powerful tool to promote inclusivity and long-term value for stakeholders. (Weinberger, 2018) For the HE industry, this would be an opportunity to explore issues brought on by the very interconnected relationship between various stakeholders, which has for years driven the price of education up, made it challenging for teaching methodology and content to evolve and ensured that HE remains difficult to scale up.

Specific examples of what Digital Innovation could achieve would be the provision of specific solutions to issues of scalability and cost, where programs and learning tools potentially developed by relatively small groups of people could reach millions of students, and in the process disrupt current costing models. Similarly, open access platforms could provide access to experts and content, giving an extremely empowering tool for anyone wanting to learn and, in the process, disrupting the idea of expert learning that only takes place in the classroom.

In fairness, some of these ideas are already being explored to varying degrees, however they have yet to be pushed to a stage where they disrupt the industry Status Quo. The inputs and outcomes remain largely the same, and e-learning teaching and learning processes are designed in very close proximity to the one used in physical classrooms.

I would argue that there is considerable room for growth, and that a fundamental change in strategy can lead to more significant value creation for stakeholders.

As shown in the Figure 02, Digital Innovation, through its existing platforms, is already demonstrating its ability to positively impact the HE Industry. However, as this has been happening gradually and timidly, we have yet to see its impact when implemented throughout an organization as an end or a means for innovation. The proposed outcomes of distributed and combinatorial innovation suggest new ways of creating value to all stakeholders. They also demonstrate that depending on how platforms are combined or leveraged, the possibilities are endless.

These possibilities are what make Digital Innovation a friend. It provides organizations the opportunity to achieve sustainable competitive advantage in a manner that is relevant and in keeping with shifting global trends.

Identifying barriers to success

‘There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.’ (Machiavelli, 1532,9)

In implementing Digital Innovations, organizations often need to find the ‘right balance’ between exploitation (incremental improvement to explore viability) and exploration (radical innovation of business strategy). (Ciriello, Ritcher, Schwabe, 2018) Similarly, they need to have a clear understanding of the Utopian and the Pragmatic.

Precisely because the risks are high and the possibilities endless, there needs to be a strong implementation strategy that recognizes the tension of managing what is wanted, what can be achieved, and the right time to move ahead.

The People, Process and Technology (PPT) framework can provide a measuring background to understanding strengths and weaknesses, as well as finding an acceptable balance to drive organizational transformation and management. It can identify both barriers and opportunities, and in the following sections I will discuss how its components can impact HE and its growing engagement with Digital Innovation.

Interconnected relationship between stakeholders

Perhaps the most significant barrier to greater incorporation of Digital Innovation in HE is the interconnected relationship between its stakeholders. The industry seems to be in a situation akin to a Mexican Standoff (Stead,2019), where any stakeholder initiating a different strategy might trigger its own demise and for that reason everyone prefers to remain stationary.

As shown in Figure 4, regardless of where stakeholders sit within the engagement or impact framework, any move they make has the potential to reshape the whole industry, but if other players do not respond, it also has the potential to isolate the initiator.
However, as the world continues to evolve, this stationary position will no longer be an option and HE organizations need to develop the capability to create Digital Innovation Strategies that are based not only on the organization and its people but also on the surrounding ecosystem.

If we take as an example the experimental transcript for life platform being tested by the Georgia Institute of Technology, we can unpack how a small change can have a ripple effect across the Industry, and how the right change can force all stakeholders to simultaneously evolve. In this particular case students would have a lifelong transcript, that instead of reflecting courses or modules, would rather focus on skills developed, both inside (University) and outside (apprenticeships, military) of a formal learning environment, and in this way reflect the accumulated life experiences of any individual. (Marcus,2020)

In this scenario, possible areas of impact for various groups could be:

  • Students being able to convert both academic and life experiences to an accredited standard recognized by the job market; being able to develop skills in line with job requirements and industry trends;
  • Employees placing greater emphasis on skills developed rather than degrees when advertising for jobs, and in the process giving access to a whole new group of potential employees trained outside of traditionally ranked institutions.
  • Ranking agencies changing measuring guidelines.
  • Universities re-evaluating existing departments and course structure in order to address a skill based rather than a course-based evaluation.

For some groups these changes may be more daunting than for others, but I would argue that the overall potential benefits and value creation for the industry outweighs the risk.

Finding new ways of teaching and learning

Digital innovation offers an opportunity for HE to scale up and automate. It makes it possible for people to accelerate growth in the way it provides a global platform for learning, as well as provides a means to execute processes faster and store more information in its use of machine learning, cloud computing and data analysis amongst other.

However, once again HE has only partially capitalised on these opportunities and has over the years maintained the same goals and incremental approach to change. To address this, there needs to be new pedagogical solutions that question the very format of the teaching institutions as well as expected outcomes. As long as HE institutions aim to deliver pre-established degrees, taught by specialist that fall under certain faculties, in line with a curriculum that is tied to funding and ranking, adaptability and flexibility will remain unattainable. Current issues of productivity (overworked vs underworked teaching staff), operational inefficiencies (underutilized buildings), and unsustainable costing models (classrooms sizes determining number of students) could be addressed by a Digital Innovation Strategy build around scalability and personalization.

E-learning has made considerable steps in that direction, but most of the truly scalable platforms still happen outside of certifiable, regulated learning environments.


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