Digital Economy Dispatch #147 -- Back to School: Navigating Digital Transformation in Education

Digital Economy Dispatch #147 -- Back to School: Navigating Digital Transformation in Education
3rd September 2023

Back to School. These 3 words still fill me with dread. As a schoolboy growing up in Liverpool, when the summer holidays started, the factory where my dad worked closed for 2 weeks and off we went to North Wales. By the time we returned early in August, the shop windows were already covered in “Back to School!” posters to lure you into buying school uniforms, protractors, pencil cases, and a thousand other things. Sending shivers down the spine of every child, and sending parents scurrying to find their Provident cheques (look it up!).

In more recent years, working in universities, the back-to-school trauma took a different form. Summers were used to recover from teaching and marking duties, catch up on half-finished research papers, and refresh out-of-date course materials. By early September, back-to-school was the starting pistol to join the scramble to prepare for a new academic year.

Today, as students and educators return from the summer break, they face a new set of issues. To add to the perennial challenges, the past year has seen significant advances in digital technologies that have the power to disrupt many areas of education. As with many other aspects of business and society, the education sector must decide how to address them. Many people now agree that advances in AI, data science, and core computing capabilities will change what is taught, by whom, and through what means. Discussions about whether to accept or reject widely available tools such as ChatGPT highlight their disruptive force. However, like it or loathe it, digital transformation is one of several pressures that are forcing major reform in education.

Another Digital Brick in the Wall

With experiences of the Covid pandemic fresh in the mind, it is worth remembering that digital technology was vital for continued operation in many areas, including education. For many people in many countries, there were considerable positive effects of the Covid pandemic on digital education. With schools closed and universities out of bounds, on-going digitization plans and long-range digital transformation efforts suddenly were top priority. Immediately more flexible approaches to education had to be found, ways of teaching and examining students adjusted, and remote access to learning introduced. Education for some became more diverse, inclusive, and accessible.

But not for all. For others, particularly in vulnerable situations or disadvantaged circumstances, rapid deployment of digital technologies did not serve them well. They required expensive or inaccessible computing facilities, did not have quiet safe spaces to study, lacked local support or direct contact with others, and so on. This has created a learning deficit that is unlikely to be recovered, and a fear of deepening inequalities from digital education that may be difficult to reverse.

It is in this context that the impact of current and future digital advances on education must be assessed. The massive interest and adoption of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT and Bard have come hot on the heels of the Covid shockwave in education. Little wonder that educators, policy makers, parents, and students are not in agreement about the right short- and longer-term approaches to apply these technologies.

Just as importantly, we must remind ourselves that the broader digital transformation of education is much more than worrying about ChatGPT being used to write student essays, or moving lectures online. In fact, we need to consider at least 3 key dimensions of the digital journey taking place: The business of education, the process of education, and the delivery of education.

The Business of Education

Digital transformation is bringing significant changes to the business of education, impacting both educational institutions and the broader education industry. In particular this is helping to reduce the cost of education delivery while opening up new revenue streams.

An obvious starting point for many digital transformation programmes is to reduce the operational costs of education delivery. For example, institutions can save on physical infrastructure, facilities, and administrative overhead through the adoption of digital tools and platforms. Furthermore, digital marketing and advertising techniques allow educational institutions to target and attract prospective students more effectively. This is seen with social media, email marketing, and online advertising helping institutions reach a wider and more diverse audience.

In addition, the rise of online learning and digital course delivery has opened up new revenue streams for educational institutions. They can offer online courses, degree programs, and certifications to a global audience, increasing their market reach and potential student base. In this way, educational institutions have diversified their revenue streams beyond traditional tuition and fees. They generate income through online course sales, corporate training partnerships, licensing of educational content, and more.

The Process of Education

Application of digital technology is reshaping how students learn, how educators teach, and how educational institutions operate. Perhaps the most noticeable change is the rise of online learning and remote education. Students can access educational content, interact with instructors, and complete assignments from anywhere with an internet connection, providing flexibility in when and where learning takes place. This is assisted by digital tools and data analytics that enable a more personalized learning experiences using algorithms to tailor content and assessments to individual student needs, pace, and learning styles.

One of the most important consequences of online education is that digital platforms can widely expand collaboration among students. Online discussion forums, group projects, and real-time collaboration tools enable students to work together regardless of their physical location. This also supports the use of digital assessments and quizzes to provide immediate feedback to students, helping them identify areas of strength and weakness. This timely feedback supports continuous improvement.

Through these approaches, digital transformation has increased the flexibility of education. Students have more choice over when and how they engage with learning materials, which is particularly valuable for adult learners and those with work or family commitments. Furthermore, digital assistive technologies such as screen readers and speech recognition software, assist students with disabilities to engage with a much wider set of materials.

The Delivery of Education

Perhaps the most disruptive impacts of digital transformation can be found in the delivery of education by introducing new methods and technologies that enhance the accessibility, flexibility, and effectiveness of learning. Clearly, in its most basic form this is seen in wide adoption of online learning management systems (LMS) and platforms like Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard. These platforms provide a centralized space for instructors to deliver course materials, assignments, quizzes, and communication tools for students. However, they are also core to the ability to deliver education via virtual classrooms, video conferencing, and webinars to support blended forms of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Additionally, a growing worldwide digital marketplace for educational content has emerged due to broad acceptance of digital delivery at all levels of the educational spectrum. One important consequence has been the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs offer free or low-cost access to high-quality educational content from top institutions and educators. Learners from around the world can enroll in MOOCs to acquire new skills and knowledge. As a result, educational institutions often combine in-person and online instruction in a hybrid or blended learning format. This approach allows for flexibility while maintaining some face-to-face interaction.

Building on these delivery infrastructures, a wide set of new learning technologies is emerging. Perhaps the most promising of these is the use of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). AR and VR technologies are being integrated into education, offering immersive learning experiences in fields like science, healthcare, and engineering. However, many more digital technologies, from gamification to digital twins are also beginning to make in-roads into various education scenarios.

The Sound of the Bell

The phrase "Back to School" can evoke a mix of emotions, from childhood dread to the anticipation of a new academic year. Today, as we return from summer breaks, the world of education faces unprecedented digital transformation in three key dimensions:

  1. The Business of Education: Digital transformation has reduced operational costs and expanded revenue streams for educational institutions. Online courses, degree programs, and certifications now reach a global audience, diversifying income sources beyond traditional tuition fees.

  2. The Process of Education: Online learning and remote education offer flexibility, enabling students to access content from anywhere. Personalized learning experiences, aided by digital tools and data analytics, cater to individual needs. Collaboration among students, timely feedback, and assistive technologies further enhance the learning process.

  3. The Delivery of Education: Digital platforms like learning management systems facilitate the delivery of education. Virtual classrooms, video conferencing, and webinars support both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Emerging technologies like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) offer immersive experiences, while gamification and digital twins are making strides in education.

As the education sector grapples with these transformations, it must strike a balance between harnessing the benefits of digital advancements and addressing the challenges to ensure equitable and effective learning opportunities for all.