During the COVID-19 lockdown, the children of Wuhan had a collective brainwave. Their teachers were using an app called DingTalk to set them homework, but the kids realised that the App Store has strict guidelines about quality. If an app’s rating dips below one star out of five, it gets taken down. So the children of Wuhan set to work. DingTalk’s rating plummeted from 4.9 stars down to 1.4, where it teetered for a few days. In the end the school system managed to stop the app being removed but it was a good lesson for local educators – when it comes to technology, institutional thinking lags way behind the young people they are working with.

Every sector has struggled during the coronavirus pandemic and its wide-ranging effects. But education, and higher education in particular, has been hit particularly hard. There are two main reasons for this:

1. The campus experience is centred on face-to-face interaction, on the mingling of students and staff and the real world exchange of ideas. For universities, lockdown isn’t just inconvenient, it undermines the very foundations they are built on.

2. Higher education has been slower to embrace digital thinking than other sectors. This reticence has various causes, including the face-to-face culture outlined above, funding challenges and centuries-old structures that work against agile decision-making. But its effects are now being felt and many institutions are scrambling to catch up.

The New Normal

Paul Feldman has seen some universities rise to the challenge and others really struggle. As CEO of Jisc, a not-for-profit which looks to “champion the importance and potential of digital technologies for UK education” he is well-versed in helping education leaders figure out how best to embrace technology.

He points out that most universities went fully online in just three weeks in March, breaking traditions and practices that stretch back more than a millennium (the oldest known university in the world is the University of al-Qarawiyyin, founded in 859). While Jisc has been leading conversations with many universities for some time, suddenly events overtook this long-term strategic thinking.

“The big challenge is the campus experience,” Paul explains. “This is radically altered for the foreseeable future. What does it look like? How can it be safe? How can we meet the aspirations of students?”

There are the obvious challenges around teaching, Paul explains, but also a raft of lesser-obvious questions that universities must suddenly answer. How do you assess students in a world where cramming students into an exam hall feels a world away? How do you ensure that cybersecurity is kept up when everyone is suddenly working remotely?

New thinking in action

There are universities which have embraced new tech-driven ways of working already. Both the University of Michigan and Imperial College in London have dedicated units tasked with exploring and rolling out digital-first initiatives and have made big strides in making the university experience more innovative. At Imperial, this takes the form of its Digital Learning Hub, whose mission is “to fuse new educational and student-centred developments with innovative technology to transform our learning and teaching.”

So for example Imperial’s medical students use augmented reality technology to overlay skin conditions onto the limbs of their fellow students. This allows them to work through a whole range of different diagnoses without losing the face-to-face experience which is such a vital part of the doctor-patient relationship.

Digital innovations can also free up valuable teaching time too. By moving tests online, or asking students to watch “how-to videos” before coming to the lab, professors can maximise the interaction they have with students.

Not digital vs human

For all the discussion around higher education becoming a commodity and students becoming customers, universities have been very slow to embrace digital thinking compared with consumer-driven sectors like banking or travel. There was a wariness about moving too fast too quickly and a lack of leaders steeped in digital know-how. Without these skills and experiences – without digitally-savvy board members challenging institutions to think differently – there tended to be a lot of tweaking round the edges.

“At Jisc we were encouraging people to start with a blank sheet of paper,” Paul says. “We were telling universities to think the unthinkable and reimagine what that student experience should be about.”

That means finding ways to use technology which doesn’t dehumanise the university experience. “Education is personal,” Paul explains. The best technological solutions enhance that humanity and allow for considered experiences tailored to the individual. Of course, he points out, technology can build a more efficient structure and help save both time and money, “but the magic is around keeping people at the heart of everything.”

The Covid crisis may have forced the pace of change, but these are incredibly exciting discussions to be part of. But new thinking requires new thinkers. Now more than ever, universities need to proactively build diverse leadership teams with the right level of digital acumen. And people with those skills and experience should strongly consider joining education boards. There are not many roles where you have the chance to reimagine such historic and influential institutions, where the leaders of tomorrow are being educated and inspired.

Can we help your education body hire new board-level leaders? Get in touch with Richard here to find out how Nurole can help.