Nov 02 2018

EDUCAUSE 2018: Digital Transformation Is Here, and It’s Moving Quickly

Educators and task force members see IT leadership opportunities as campuses grapple with wide-ranging change.

Members of an EDUCAUSE task force on digital transformation led a discussion at the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference in Denver to help attendees understand and prepare for this shift in their own institutions.

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“Digital Transformation in Higher Ed: What It Means for You,” presented on Thursday, highlighted the task force’s work to develop definitions and recommendations around the topic. Additional resources are available at

EDUCAUSE staff members Betsy Reinitz, director of enterprise IT programs; Malcolm Brown, director of learning initiatives; and Karen Wetzel, director of working and constituent groups, led the discussion.

Panelists included Brendan Aldrich, chief data officer at California State University; Joe Moreau, vice chancellor of technology and CTO at Foothill-De Anza Community College District; and Josie DeBaere, director of technology architecture at Boston University

As evidenced by a group exercise in which attendees came up with their own definitions of digital transformation, there’s not yet a consensus on what the term encompasses. The task force’s definition is that it describes the cultural, workforce and technological dimensions of change driven by advances in technology. 

In higher education, digital transformation reflects evolving student expectations for a seamless, technology-enabled experience and the potential of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and data analytics.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out what experts are saying about digital transformation in higher education!

Digital Transformation Promises Ranging Applications for Higher Ed

Panelists made the point that although digital transformation is already underway on almost every campus, the higher education community is still in the early stages of change, and the ultimate destination isn’t quite clear.

“We’re at the point between disruption and transformation,” said Reinitz. “We don’t really know exactly what it looks like for higher ed.”

Amid that uncertainty, panelists raised questions about how institutions can manage, and take advantage of, the potential in digital transformation

For example, said Aldrich, “How are we going to bring data together and capitalize on it?” 

“Can we make quantum advances in how we provide online education?” asked DeBaere.

And on the topic of guided pathways, which are prevalent in community colleges, Moreau speculated that digital transformation provides an opportunity to personalize and customize students’ educational journeys, to help them monitor their progress and to scale that effort across a large number of students.

All Campus Groups Will Have a Stake in Digital Transformation

As educators grapple with those concepts, Moreau said, a short-term priority is to help colleagues increase their awareness of digital transformation.

“It’s here. There’s no turning back from this,” he said. “One of the things we need to focus on is how we translate that into terms that are immediately relevant to a variety of stakeholders across the campus.”

With digital transformation touching nearly every aspect of campus life — from culture to classroom, from workforce to education — the issues go well beyond technology and will require multidisciplinary participation, panelists said.

“Cross-functional is key,” Aldrich said. “There are brand-new skills that are going to be required. It’s not something IT can solve on its own.”

From a staffing perspective, the changes will likely necessitate professional development, Moreau said, along with a reconsideration of the way that institutions have traditionally approached hiring. New leadership skills may be required for management teams as they oversee a workforce whose career trajectories may be far more dynamic than in the past, he said. 


IT Teams Can Help Colleagues Through Technology-Driven Changes

Although digital transformation is a long-term shift that will continue to evolve, the panelists agreed that institutional leaders need to start thinking about it today. 

“What’s urgent is that we start to prepare the institutions now, so they’re not hurt by the disruptions and we’re able to capitalize on the opportunities that it presents,” DeBaere said.

The panelists agreed that IT leaders have a huge opportunity to help guide their institutions through coming changes, much as a city planner might provide shape and guidance to an emerging city. 

“The disruption is now. These technologies are happening and they’re moving forward,” Aldrich said. “They will move forward with or without IT. This is an opportunity to say, ‘We can help lead this.’” 

In fact, Moreau added, IT teams are in a strong position to help lead their communities through change. “We’re one of the few parts of the organization that sees across the entire organization, so we’ve got a pretty unique perspective that few of our colleagues have.”


To stay up to date on all of the news and ideas coming out of EDUCAUSE, follow EdTech's coverage on the EDUCAUSE 2018 conference hub.

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