Higher Education

Digital Transformation in Higher Ed: An Opportunity to Advance Student Success

By Dr. Divya Bheda and Britt Nichols
June 08, 2021

Digital transformation has become a catchphrase that includes practically any migration from manual or paper-based processes to digitized information, automation, and data analytics. Digital transformation in higher ed has been happening for decades, along with virtually every other industry. In colleges and universities, digital transformation (DX) started with electronic texts, class registration systems, and online lessons, and then moved toward enrollment management, student records maintenance, and student assessments.

Remote instruction and learning were already well underway before the pandemic turned the desire to digitize into an absolute imperative. While the current focus is on digital classroom organization—making it easier to access and manage vast volumes of information from anywhere regardless of whether students and faculty can get to the campus or the lecture hall—the next wave of transformation must focus on ensuring higher ed institutions succeed at their primary goal: student success.

Digital Transformation in Higher Ed Can Be Leveraged to Improve Student Success

Student success means more than the usual metrics of graduation and retention-rates, time-to-graduation, and strong post-graduate employment opportunities. True success also means authentic student learning achievement and a positive, empowered educational journey where students are at the center of all decision-making; where they can bring their full-human-selves into their learning environment; where they are supported and championed in their education. To achieve this student success, we must leverage the data at our disposal to bolster and improve the efficacy of the educational experience at our institutions. It is no longer optional but necessary if we are to serve our students and communities well.

So, what are some ways institutions can focus their digital transformation efforts to catalyze student success? We offer three simple ways below.

1. Track and support a positive student educational experience.

Digital transformation in higher ed has often focused on data analytics to improve graduation rates. With government and accreditor mandates and expectations, some institutions try to raise passage rates by hiring data gurus. These gurus create predictive models to determine applicants most likely to successfully complete their course of study. Other programs use poor performance on early assessments to encourage students deemed “not a good fit” to discontinue their studies, thereby avoiding low passage rates. Such gatekeeping obviously raises significant concerns around the misuse of DX, and rightly so. It can serve to reinforce rather than ameliorate systemic racial, generational, gender, income, and K-12 education disparities/biases (to name a few) that pervade higher education currently.

There are more effective ways to deploy DX and use data in higher ed that are student-centered, purposeful, positive, just, and equitable. Schools that continuously collect data from digital assessments can identify which students need specific assistance while also gleaning what type of assistance they need. A straightforward student dashboard, for example, can organize all student information in one place, display anomalies in scores and changes in student performance or behavior, and even make recommendations. That way, educators can perform early interventions to help students get back on track and increase their likelihood of success.

The ability to detect a subtle but continued slide in a student’s score to create an appropriate check-in, intervention, and action-plan for success is a powerful tool for educators. Identifying a pattern of missed classes, assignment submissions, or an overall drop in student engagement can be used to start a systematic process of communication, outreach, diagnosis, and support; it can play an enormous role in advancing student success. Whether it is initiating remediation/support services, reinforcing students’ knowledge acquisition and assessment toolkit, or using students’ actual lived experiences to bolster student-centric policymaking and process/procedural redesign to create institutional change—every one of these steps/actions can become more straightforward, automatic, and effective using DX.

2. Review and interrogate curricular efficacy and teaching practices.

Besides individual student performance and support, digital assessment performance can offer insights into teaching as well, such as identifying curricular quality problems and successes, assessment bias, and/or instructional excellence/areas of growth. Such insights are powerful tools in examining the overall efficacy of the institution, including (but not limited to) faculty development and training needs; scaffolding, rigor, and relevance of the curriculum; responsiveness of policymaking; validity and reliability of the assessments; and fidelity and impact of teaching practices.

Higher education faculty continuously improve/change their approaches to help students learn and succeed. The ability to detect when students are not performing well in a class or topic, or even an entire course of study, is an opportunity not just for student intervention but also for faculty to use data to determine if adjustments are necessary to better deliver the learning. DX in assessment can also offer students data on their own learning—areas of strength and those of struggle. By offering faculty and students readily accessible and consumable data on the efficacy of their respective teaching and learning methods, curricular decisions, and assessment approaches—we can realize the true power and value of DX.

3. Utilize a holistic, strategic, institutional approach to DX.

In addition to using DX and data to catalyze student success, DX can be used for accreditation and reaffirmation success. Regarding digital transformation in higher ed, the question is not whether it is essential, but rather, how much further we can integrate it comprehensively into the higher education institutional system? We have already undergone massive digitalization. But we have only just scratched the surface.

Today’s higher education needs to look at digitalization holistically rather than as a series of individual initiatives. We must use DX meaningfully to systematically transform the student educational journey and make the student and faculty experience seamless. Using an integrated strategic-planning approach that includes all stakeholders in the needs-assessment process is essential. Understanding how an entire program weaves together inside an institution allows us to bring a clear, consistent, and continuous experience for all users—students, faculty, and administrators—as we transform and align academic aspects, administrative processes, and student support efforts—i.e., the entire student experience. With this approach and the appropriate technologies, DX can remove barriers and inefficiencies that prevent our focusing on the highest yet most basic of education goals: teaching, learning, and student success.

Dr. Divya Bheda is the director of education and assessment at ExamSoft. Britt Nichols is senior vice president of the same company.


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