Digital in HE – a perspective from Coventry University

By Simon Launder, Deputy Chief Innovation Officer and Ian Dunn, Provost (Coventry University, UK)

The meaning of digital in education is changing.

In spite of universities often being at the bleeding edge of technological innovation in research, higher education providers have often lagged behind when it comes to digital innovation and the adoption of technology in teaching and learning.

To date there perhaps hasn’t been the competitive imperative in higher education, as seen in other industries such as finance or media, to develop technology on a continuous loop of innovation and improvement, but there are signs that the sector is waking up to the strategic advantage of adopting a digital mindset.

Albeit with exceptions in “pockets of innovation”, the use of technology in education was previously perceived on par with filing cabinets i.e. a place to store and find information. Today, the role of technology at universities is increasingly seen as a strategic differentiator. This surge of interest is evident from the scale of EdTech startups promising to deliver new and exciting digital insights and transformational experiences that until now have been broadly absent from education. This emergence is possibly driven by the students’ demand for the latest innovation. It is in this arena of innovation and strategic advantage that Coventry is playing, at a time where the student experience is everything.

Digital is strategy and digital is people.

We know our students today have different demands on education from those a decade or even a year ago. We also know the students of tomorrow are going to be expecting a different experience entirely; one that is developed to fit seamlessly alongside personal lives, where technology is embraced and the ‘consumption’ of information is ever-available – on any device – ready to pick-up from the last point of interaction.

Our digital strategy can’t be understood in isolation from the university’s overarching strategy. Rather, digital is an integral part of what the university is and will be. For example, as the university strengthens its focus on mobility and employability, digital will be an integral part of achieving that. The realisation of Coventry’s digital strategy will not be a commodity, or a solution chasing problem, but a strategic advantage reflected in concrete initiatives affecting the individual student. What is locational mobility without the opportunity for students working part-time to study whilst commuting? What is employability without the integration of subject-specific and industry-relevant tools across courses?

Obsessed with engaging our students and enabling them to enter the workforce of tomorrow.

Our students are digital integrators for whom technology blurs the lines between work and social, of study and entertainment, of private and public. They favour the simplicity and flexibility of ecosystems of products over single “do it all” platforms that are either hard to navigate or removed from the social experiences in which they live their lives and share with each other.

To cater to the unpredictable needs of the students of the future, we are embracing the continuous change and development that accompanies applications and digital services. We know change will provide richer, more intuitive and personalised experiences with each iteration; for Coventry, this change is seen as a positive, rather than an inconvenience.

Yet, the complex nature of education means that change isn’t easy. To avoid having continuous change that leads to loss of focus, we are guided by clear principles in our approach to the digital student experience:

Principle 1: We don’t invest and deliver the latest technology trends to lead the pack, but rather we identify true use cases to improve the students’ experience.

For example, we strive for all of our use of digital to emulate the digital worlds that populate and enhance our private lives. We look at digital innovation as a key component of delivering exceptional experiences throughout university life. By using data from the classroom and across campus, we can enrich not only the teaching quality but also advance the overall experience, engagement and wellbeing of our students and staff.

Principle 2: We will be guided by data and interdisciplinary evidence rather than buzzwords and promises.

For example, a key resource in Coventry’s digital portfolio is learner analytics. But analytics mean nothing in isolation. We believe that harvested digital touchpoints of a student’s daily routine alone won’t provide insights or deliver the nudge necessary to steer those who are drifting back on track. However, by taking this information within the context of psychology, educational theory, socioeconomic data, trained AI and targeted human intervention, we will be able to truly understand our learners and provide them with the support each one needs to succeed to their full ability.

Principle 3: Our digital portfolio is an integrated ecosystem with an ever-changing use of applications that speak with each other.

For example, we will embed in all our processes – from procurement to integration – the understanding that the nature of digital is such that no single provider provides a ‘one size fits all solution’. Our students will not compare the quality of our platforms with those of their schools or other universities, they will compare them with Netflix, Instagram or Spotify. Most importantly, they will compare them with the multitude of applications on their devices. To live up to these expectations, our role is not to reduce the number of applications, but to ensure that we constantly scan the horizon for ‘best of breed’ and when we find those solutions then we ensure that they speak well with each other and provide an integrated digital student experience.

The way forward.

Although the benefits of technology are evident in higher education through use and application, the way forward is likely to be one where technology supports on-campus learners; one where full-service online learning is widely available and one where new forms of super affordable but highly credible learning become available. Technology will not diminish the campus experience but enhance it through personalisation, for those students who wish to experience campus learning. And as the price point, development and accessibility of technology advances further then it is for the universities and EdTech community to develop the pedagogy and technology in unison to provision new channels of super low-cost personalised learning, available for all.

So, for universities to use digital to both compete in the same way as other industries, and support their students, there must be a strategic lead and drive across the whole institution. It is no good allowing digital to be an add-on to a strategy. The culture amongst the leadership team needs to strive for innovation with a clear responsibility for digital innovation at the highest levels of the Executive. At Coventry we believe that we have this and aim to lead the way for a new generation of higher education provision, obsessively focused on the ever-changing needs of our students in digital and beyond.