Setting the stage for digitally enhanced higher education

The growing acceptance and use of digitally enhanced learning and teaching (DELT) in higher education is increasingly clear, not least due to the sector’s ability to pivot during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, beyond getting the technology in place, it also requires considerable resources and engagement, as well as strategy and leadership.

For the past three years, the DIGI-HE project has explored how to support and foster strategic approaches to implementing DELT.

Enabling digital transformation

DELT requires changes for the entire institution, ranging from technology use and the adaptation of premises to the reorganisation of curricula and teaching, not to mention the impact on staff’s tasks, working methods and profiles. It can also bear relatively high risks in terms of costs, maintenance and interoperability, and resources and skills.

While there is no blueprint for institutions to follow, institutional strategies and inter-institutional peer learning are key for moving forward. A DIGI-HE survey of higher education institutions in 48 European countries confirmed these as key enablers, and also highlighted the proactive engagement of staff and students.

Interestingly, only a few institutions pointed to key challenges resulting from the technology itself. Apart from lack of funding and resources, external factors, such as national regulation or external quality assurance, were seen as an obstacle by less than 10% of respondents, although this number was notably higher in certain countries.

Building on these initial findings, project activities such as Thematic Peer Groups for university leaders, which explored a number of themes ranging from strategy and organisational culture to the needs and wellbeing of students and staff, further showcased the diversity of approaches across the European Higher Education Area.

This can be a challenge, but also an opportunity for reflection and finding solutions. Interestingly, when it comes to enhancement, there is broad agreement on the need to develop strategic participatory approaches. Consistent involvement of staff and students from an early stage not only avoids disengagement, but also fosters proactive enhancement.

This is also crucial for learning innovation, which requires technology and leadership, but tends to be driven by staff and students. Therefore, strategies should provide space for experimentation and reasonable levels of subsidiarity, in view of the specific needs of faculties and departments, while avoiding islands and silos.

Rather than focusing on digital skills, discussions in the DIGI-HE project tended to focus on how to enable learning and teaching in a digital environment. How can we combine different (synchronous, asynchronous and on and off campus) approaches in consideration of student-centred learning and student and staff wellbeing?

This also has wider implications for how teaching is organised. For example, there are visible trends towards more collaboration and teamwork, with a knock-on effect on staff profiles and careers.

Rethinking self-assessment

Beyond peer-learning, is there a more systematic way to support institutional strategy development? At the outset of DIGI-HE, we anticipated that self-assessment by institutions of their digital readiness would be an essential step, and that self-assessment instruments could support this, and also stimulate inter-institutional exchange, peer-learning and possibly benchmarking and community building.

An inventory report found close to 30 pre-existing self-assessment instruments. In general, these tools are quite comprehensive and most are free of charge. As such, they may help institutions to save time, resources and money.

However, we found only limited evidence of their use, or indeed impact. There are several explanations for this. Many institutions must already undergo mandatory reviews, for example, for quality assurance. So, why would they sign up for an additional evaluation, without any incentive?

Moreover, during the period 2020-22, institutions were under significant pressure to devise ad-hoc measures to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Post-pandemic, long-term DELT strategies that embrace innovation and ensure sustainability are commonly acknowledged as the way forward. However, throughout 2022 much uncertainty remained, and institutions now have to cope with inflation, energy costs and the war in Ukraine.

Despite these challenges, self-assessment is without doubt a necessary step for developing a strategic digital approach for institutions and the existing instruments can be helpful starting points. A massive open online course (MOOC), provided by DIGI-HE project partner Dublin City University sharing more information on the issue and enabling discussion, will also be launched shortly.

Outlook for 2023 and beyond

There had been high expectations that after the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions would quickly roll out innovative, future-oriented DELT strategies. However, many approaches that worked during the pandemic are no longer relevant and there is considerable pressure to get ‘back to normal’ at many institutions and also at system levels. The impact of inflation and rising costs do not really set the stage for the necessary investment in digital transformation.

A different rationale for change and transformation might be needed. Improving the student experience and changing skills needs are, of course, the most immediate and pertinent challenges: the issues that the 2021 thematic peer groups have addressed – strategy and organisational culture, curriculum and assessment and international partnerships – are highly relevant for institutions, whether in a physical or hybrid setting.

However, the advantages of DELT in terms of quality and student experience are not easy to demonstrate and measure. ‘Good teaching’ should, therefore, also consider the wider context of innovation and the institution’s societal mission, including environmental issues and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

During the pandemic, partnerships at national and regional level, also with industry and civil society, explored new, often digital, methods and brought increased calls for the provision of lifelong learning. We learned that while physical mobility cannot be fully replaced by its digital counterpart, it can considerably enhance and complement opportunities for international university cooperation in learning and teaching.

Last but not least, pressure also comes from evolving technologies. Take the example of artificial intelligence tools, such as the recent ChatGPT. Banning it from campus, as some voices currently demand, cannot be the solution. Universities have to explore how this changes learning and teaching and must also fulfil their mission of generating knowledge and advice for wider society on this and similar developments. Research-based teaching and co-learning with students is one of several promising avenues for this. So, the discussion is to be continued ….

Michael Gaebel is director of higher education policy at the European University Association. The final conference of the DIGI-HE project takes place on Tuesday 24 January in Brussels and also presents the results of the 2022 Thematic Peer Groups, on digitally competent teachers, collaborative teaching practice, and wellbeing of students and staff. DIGI-HE is a three-year Erasmus+ project, led by the European University Association, to support strategic approaches for digitally enhanced learning and teaching (DELT).