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November 28, 2017

Survival of the Digital-est: How Can Institutions Survive Technology Innovation?

Now is the time to create and implement a bold digital plan to transform your institution to be better able to meet the increasing demand for more cost-effective degrees, certifications and training while improving the digital services being offered. Your institution’s future depends on it.

At a time when training and education are becoming even more important for employers and employees, there is a concerning trend of higher education institutions closing, consolidating, and streamlining operations. The demand for postsecondary education is out there, but cost, convenience, and experience are all barriers preventing more students from enrolling or completing their programs. Institutions must embrace new ideas and options for delivering teaching and learning and more campus services through technology.

Cap and Chain

The trends are accelerating. “There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, but Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen says that half are bound for bankruptcy in the next few decades.” Christensen, author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” updated his oft-cited prediction this spring: “If you’re asking whether the providers get disrupted within a decade — I might bet that it takes nine years rather than 10.” [1]

HIGHER DIGITAL wants all institutions to thrive, and in order to do so, schools must operate more strategically. Cost, convenience, and experience at the forefront, and technology is the key ingredient enabling all three. Institutional leaders must develop a comprehensive digital strategy plan within the next 12-18 months, or face the real prospect of bankruptcy within the next decade.

The single, most important job of an institution is to prepare its students for the workforce – a workforce that demands digitally-savvy employees who can work with different devices and technologies to engage with customers, partners, colleagues, etc. Leadership is responsible to set this vision for the institution and should see the vision reflected in the digital experience. Just using technology and digital tools is not good enough; the entire institution from faculty to staff to students must be able to seamlessly move from tool to tool, system to system, and in context while driving towards intended results.

Although seamless digital experiences are not currently “there”, within our lifetimes students will receive a digitally-enabled and immersive liberal arts experience that will rival the in-person education I received at my alma mater, Dickinson College. There are still plenty of on-campus experiences that technology will never enhance, such as being at the library during finals week, creating life-long friends, or running into a professor on the quad – experiences that will continue to be invaluable for those who can afford full-time college.

However, if you believe that innovation will continue to close the gap between in person and distance learning and provide more students with better access at lower costs, then this seamless experience requires a singular vision, priority and plan – one that is owned by one group; however, for most institutions, silos are pervasive, and many business leaders are not willing to take ownership for technology or consider it central to their future plans. As an example, I witness annual department and institutional business plans being drafted with little to no involvement from other executives and technology leadership. This is not a winning formula.  How can institutions say that they are graduating prepared students without considering the digital strategy for their business?

When viewed through the lens of economics, supply and demand for education are not harmonious. The market demand for employees with degrees and credentials is rising, but the supply of educational opportunities continues to be expensive and complicated, creating an imposing barrier to starting or completing a degree for many potential students. Technology and innovation are disrupting the whole equation, potentially addressing this imbalance. Institutions must figure out how provide a more cost effective, accessible, and engaging experience in order to survive.

Peter Stokes, managing director at Huron Consulting Group, described the challenge to Inside Higher Ed:

A key question remains whether it’s too late for some colleges to successfully follow new strategies. Another is whether their leaders will tell themselves that their colleges have a unique story that couldn’t possibly end in closure — until the many pressures build into a crisis and it’s too late.

“Everybody’s got their own history and story to tell about the poor decisions they’ve made,” Stokes said. “If you pan back and look at the big picture, they made those decisions in a particular context, and in the context of a particular business model — and that business model is increasingly threatened.” [2]

Physical campus boundaries and time are the two primary barriers impeding professors’ access to a larger audience. Why not experiment with new delivery and the business models to connect your professors with more students, and explore how technology might enable new teaching delivery and engagement mechanisms, while replicating as much of the in-person experience as possible?

As the first step toward answering this question, institutional leadership needs to embrace, and then quickly act to develop, a comprehensive campus digital strategy. As Clayton Christianson defines disruption, “it’s a technology innovation that transforms something expensive and complicated and makes it accessible and affordable to a new set of customers.” The higher education industry must become more accessible and affordable; technology innovation and business model experimentation are key to making this happen.

Dave Swartz, the CIO of American University (a Higher Digital client), sums up what all institutions should be doing: “Digital disruption is accelerating, and it is critical that every investment needs to be reviewed through its impact on the user experience, how the data is shared between systems, what integrations are required, cybersecurity and other risks, and the return on investment.” [3]

At Higher Digital, we believe that everyone plays a critical role in delivering leading digital experiences. Here are some thoughts on what you can do:

  • Administrators and Boards: Bring technology from the back office to the front executive office and increase your investment in this area. Commit resources wisely – not all technology investments are equal. Create a comprehensive strategic digital plan that focuses on how you will engage more faculty and students using technology.
  • Faculty: Partner with your technical leaders to solve the problems facing the institution. Engage with technology and increase your interaction with students through digital channels.
  • Director of IT/CIO/CTO: Embrace and incorporate value and revenue strategy in all software and hardware/cloud investments
  • Students: Everyone, regardless of age, is a student, and must be willing to learn new skills –  but such learning needs to be easy, affordable and engaging.
  • Institutions: Become a “learning organization.” Experiment with new ideas, and learn from them. Fail forward. Engage with and embrace change.

For more information on HIGHER DIGITAL, our approach and the results we have had in transforming an institution or in delivering advanced digital services and products, call us at 1.833.344.4437 or email us at In addition, we are creating a digital maturity assessment tool. If you are interested in knowing how digitally mature your institution is, please reach out to us.

[1] Abigail Hess, “Harvard Business School professor: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years,” CNBC Make It, November 15, 2017.

[2] Rick Seltzer, “Days of Reckoning,” Inside Higher Ed, November 13, 2017.

[3] David Swartz, “The Need for A Digital Strategy,” Education Technology Insights Magazine, November 2017.

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