Boosting digital transformation in Higher Education Institutions

The first webinar in the 2021 HEInnovate series focused on the plans, tools and strategies in place that help HEIs build digital ecosystems. The discussion was moderated by Rebecca Allinson, Managing Partner at Technopolis Group, and engaged four contributors. A short summary of the presentations and discussion are included in this article, while the recorded webinar can be accessed at the following link.

Georgi Dimitrov, the acting Head of the Unit on Digital Education from the EC DG Education, Youth, Sport and Culture presented the recently launched Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027 (DEAP). Part of the EU’s longer-term strategy on education, the DEAP was proposed well before the Covid crisis and builds on the notion that digital education should be considered an integral part of all education and training. It is wide in scope, addressing school education, higher education, as well as informal education including lifelong learning. It is aimed at achieving two strategic priorities: 

·   Fostering the development of a high performing digital education ecosystem

·   Enhancing digital skills and competences for the digital transformation

Georgi stressed the importance of building much stronger synergies between the existing funding instruments (Erasmus, Horizon Europe, Digital Europe Programme, ESF, ERDF, InvestEU, Recovery and Resilience Funds), aligning objectives and exploiting their complementarity. Georgi’s presentation of the political setting of the Digital Education Action Plan contextualised and explained the impetus that called for the revision of the HEInnovate dimension: Digital Transformation and Capability. Veronica Mobilio, Policy Officer at DG EAC in the Unit of Digital Education introduced the revised dimension of the HEInnovate tool. Veronica discussed how, in the light of the new Action Plan, it was pivotal to clarify the role of universities in the digital ecosystem, and to take stock of the experience garnered during the Covid pandemic.

Covid has had the effect of accelerating digital transformation, especially in Higher Education, which demonstrated a higher level of preparedness compared to school education. However, the crisis highlighted that the capacity to design and deliver online sessions of pedagogic value is still in its infancy and exposed a large variability of digital capacities across different Higher Education Institutions. A further emerging challenge is that this gap in expertise for designing and delivering online sessions is occurring at the same time as the demand for lifelong learning is burgeoning.

From the European University Association (EUA), Michael Gaebel, Director of the Higher Education Policy Unit followed on with an analytical account of the state of digitally enhanced learning & teaching in universities, and of the barriers and enablers of digital transformation, data from 368 Higher Education Institutions across 48 countries. Findings indicated that from 2014 to 2020 the digital learning provision did not grow much regarding the number of institutions using it – which was already quite high at the time. Digital learning has become more mainstreamed, and more strategic, for example, targeting inclusion and internationalisation. This is the case of universities in Northern Europe, that not only have reached a higher level of mainstreaming of digital learning (84% compared to 57% European average) but also more frequently provide online degree courses (60% compared to 36% European average). The top three impacts emerged from the study were: innovating teaching, being able to provide a more flexible educational offer, and the generation of data that is beginning to reveal important insights in student learning. It is expected that these incipient signs of impact of digital learning will continue to grow.

Michael moved on to discuss how to boost a digital transformation and identified specific enablers that support and drive the change: 

·   Proactive participation of students and staff

·   Staff resources, training

·   Funding instruments

·   Digital strategy 

Michael commented that these drivers of change mirror those illustrated in the Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027 and those underpinning the digital dimension of the HEInnovate tool. The changes that digitally enhanced learning and teaching are likely to bring about include an increase in hybridisation of courses, and more student-centred approaches promoting highly flexible courses and facilitating greater inclusion. There are risks to digitalisation, the most prominent of which being how to deal with digital fatigue and cuts in public funding.

From the Irish Universities Association, Sharon Flynn, the Co-ordinator of the project ‘Enhancing Digital Teaching and Learning’ (EDTL) covered the approach taken by Irish universities by presenting some findings of the three-year project funded through the Irish Higher Education Authority Innovation and Transformation Programme. of university graduates. In her presentation 

·   Not starting from zero - acknowledging existing resources

·   Pedagogy first - rather than focus on the technological elements solely

·   Discipline focus - implement digital enhancement focussing on substantive disciplines and not solely through championing the digital element of teaching and learning 

·   Students as partners - Students were recruited to work as EDTL partners, producing a guide for their fellow students to prepare them digitally for the new academic year and for taking online assessments. They led webinars for university members of staff (and the wider community) and manage student-facing Instagram accounts. Having the students as partners provided the added value of gaining insight into how students responded to digital learning

All four principles shared by Sharon are in fact lessons to be learnt to achieve enhanced digital teaching and learning; the most important lesson learnt working on digital transformation across the sector is more effective than leaving it to individual universities

The audience of close to 200 people put their questions to the panellists through the dedicated Q&A chat: answers were either written or discussed verbally. One question regarded how to possibly link education with the economic and social sectors. Fostering cross-sectoral cooperation is the key to address this challenge and there is a plan to create a Digital Education Hub to develop a cross-sectoral dimension and promote and facilitate synergies. There was general consensus that the newly released Digital Education Action Plan 2021-27 will help enable the access to digital infrastructure and will unlock opportunities for students and members of staff to enhance their digital skills. As this is one of the prerequisites to build a digital ecosystem for everyone, it is crucial that a common vision is articulated across the European Education Area and the Digital Education Action Plan.

We look forward to seeing you on April 22nd at 5pm CET for our next HEInnovate webinar. To celebrate Earth Day we will host the webinar entitled: HEInnovate for the Earth Day - Knowledge exchange and collaboration for sustainable development. The webinar will be held on Zoom and requires registration.

  • Webinar summary
Submitted by:
Zsuzsa Javorka
Submitted on:
07 Apr 2021
Related event date:
25 Mar 2021