What does a university need to be digitally successful?

Sarah Knight
Sarah Knight
Nick Skelton

A new Jisc report looks at what the future holds for higher education and the components for digital transformation.

A woman sits with her laptop outside a university building.

What might higher education look like in ten years?  

Education is fundamentally a human activity so, while technology will undoubtedly become ever more prevalent, it will not replace people.

Instead, I believe digital technology will amplify and extend human interaction.

Instead, I believe digital technology will amplify and extend human interaction.

It will ease established constraints on the university in terms of space (the campus) and time (the cycle of the academic year), empowering people to operate beyond these barriers. 

For students, digital transformation will mean more flexibility 

I hope to see universities breaking away from the traditional academic calendar and the tyranny of the timetable. Students will be able to choose their own academic pathways, putting together modules from a larger range of disciplines and carrying out personalised, interdisciplinary study.  

More learning materials available online and on-demand will mean that students can study at a time and place to suit them, while postgraduate courses could have two or three entry dates each year and be offered entirely off-campus. 

For the university, space requirements on campus will change 

As lectures are increasingly replaced by short videos, interviews, podcasts and other collaborative activities, there will be a reduced need for traditional lecture theatres, and more need for flat spaces suitable for group work, or study spaces where students can access on-demand educational resources. 

For staff, digital transformation will reduce workload  

Technology will allow staff to work productively from anywhere and enable new cultures that assess by outputs rather than time spent at desks. The notion of ‘contact hours’ will shift to a broader consideration of ‘academic presence’. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) will ease workloads by directing some queries usually made to staff to a chatbot digital assistant, which draws on a knowledge base of answers as well as contextual information about a student’s particular circumstances. 

For researchers, work will become more multi-disciplinary and multi-sector 

Research is increasingly being conducted by teams working across subject disciplines and sectors. They will be able to use technology to work flexibly in trusted digital research platforms and develop new analysis methods and new forms of impact. They will publish research findings openly, almost as they happen, through platforms such as Octopus

So how do universities get there from here?

I’d like to share a few key pieces of advice from universities that have successfully made the changes necessary to smooth the path towards the digital transformation I’ve described above. 

First, fix the plumbing 

Universities need technology that works, supported by a robust infrastructure that’s regularly upgraded and improved. 

In 2022 this includes pervasive wireless networking, laptops, cloud file storage, collaboration tools and multi-factor authentication so that staff and students can work as easily from home as on site. For example, a university that is talking about learner analytics but doesn’t have a network that connects seamlessly and reliably needs to go back and put the basics in place.  

Don’t focus entirely on technology 

Successful digital transformation doesn’t focus on technology: it’s about people and changes to cultures and working practices. Improving the digital capabilities, skills and confidence of staff is essential.  

They need support moving from the short-term, reactive working of the pandemic to a more measured long-term approach to digital education.  

A useful starting point is Jisc’s building digital capability service, which includes a self-assessment tool

A useful starting point is Jisc’s building digital capability service, which includes a self-assessment tool that helps staff and students evaluate their current digital capabilities and guides them to relevant learning resources to help them develop further. 

Make sure the executive team is digitally savvy  

It’s essential for a university’s executive team to recognise that technology isn’t just a cost; it builds and delivers value.  

Having a digitally savvy leadership team makes a huge difference in education as well as in industry. Research shows that, based on revenue growth and valuation, large enterprises with digitally savvy executive teams significantly outperform comparable companies without them.  

Start small and base decisions on evidence  

Digital transformation works best when it is regarded as a collection of smaller initiatives. Universities are finding that it pays to simultaneously start several projects, initially small in scope and resources, and see which meet real needs before investing further and refining them iteratively.  

For example, they could trial a laptop-based e-exam system in one subject, or participate in one of Jisc’s AI pilots to see how chatbots can reduce staff workload.  

Rethink the IT department

Universities need a new concept of what they usually think of as their IT department. Where should an IT/digital service sit? With which other services should it align?  

Given the effect of digital transformation on the campus, IT and estates staff will need to work increasingly closely together to enable hybrid working. Equally, IT might sit alongside library and educational development functions as a fundamental enabler of the academic mission of the university. 

Wherever it resides, digital should not stand alone: it needs to work with every other area of the university.

Wherever it resides, digital should not stand alone: it needs to work with every other area of the university. 

In future, don’t have a separate digital transformation strategy 

Institutional strategies should be innately digital. The digital transformation strategy should not be a separate entity but woven into core plans throughout the organisation to support the overall strategy and add value.  

So, yes, create a digital transformation strategy - but make it your last.  

To get involved in the consultation around developing a framework for digital transformation, contact

About the authors

Sarah Knight
Sarah Knight
Head of learning and teaching transformation

I am head of learning and teaching transformation in higher education and research. My team and I support universities with their digital transformation agenda. This includes the supporting the use of the framework for digital transformation in higher education and the development of a maturity model for digital transformation. Other activities in my portfolio include projects exploring future trends for assessment and feedback, researching international students' digital experiences and supporting staff with designing learning for beyond blended.

Nick Skelton