Feb 25 2019

Digital Transformation Empowers Student Learning in Higher Education

Universities across the country use digital transformation initiatives to improve classroom accessibility and data analytics.

A common refrain in the workplace is "Don’t reinvent the wheel.” But what if the wheel is bumpy and worn? What if there’s a better means of transport? 

Digital transformation sets aside the notion that it’s preposterous to reinvent the wheel. It goes back to the beginning to question what the ultimate goal is, then explores new ways of achieving that goal. It can apply to just about any process on a campus, which can make it a hard concept to grasp. But colleges and universities around the country are seeing countless digital transformation success stories. 

Here are a few examples.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how universities are approaching digital transformation on campus.

Universities Rethink Sign Language Interpretation

Foothill-De Anza Community College District in Los Altos Hills, Calif., engaged in a digital transformation project to pilot more effective sign language interpretation services in lectures for students who are hearing-impaired. 

In the past, an interpreter sat in a designated part of the classroom near the students. The support was costly, with longer classes requiring more than one interpreter to relieve each other, and it could be distracting to the rest of the class.

So, the college began equipping faculty with wireless microphones connected to Skype or Zoom. Classroom audio is sent to a remote captionist who transcribes the lecture in real time. The transcription goes to the student via Skype or Zoom, letting him or her read the text live as the lecture occurs. Students can use college-supplied iPad devices or their own devices, including laptops, tablets or smartphones. 

“We do this remotely, so it’s much less intrusive in the classroom, it’s easier for the faculty member, and then the student has a transcribed record of that lesson,” says Joseph Moreau, vice chancellor of technology at Foothill-De Anza Community College District. 

“Any student, for that matter, could use it,” he says. “It could be a student whose first language is not English or who is dyslexic. It could be any number of students who need that extra input channel to more comprehensively understand the material.”


Digital Transformation Can Expand Educational Opportunities

Building on digital initiatives started in 2014, Boston University leaders in 2016 created the Digital Learning and Innovation department to explore new ways to deliver education. For example, expanding on the concept of massive online open courses, the group created BU MicroMasters programs: combinations of courses delivered in a MOOC format. 

“This is really good for people who are unable, because of time or money, to invest in getting a full master’s degree,” says Josie DeBaere, BU’s director of technology architecture. “Because you have a specific program of courses that are part of this track, it’s more standardized than just taking a bunch of classes on a nondegree level.”

We wanted to rationalize that data and begin to capitalize on it — to make use of it, to help make better decisions and to help ensure our students are supported as much as possible.

Brendan Aldrich Chief Data Officer, California State University, Office of the Chancellor

DeBaere, who earned her Ph.D. at BU, said she was fortunate to be able to finance her education by teaching, but she had classmates who struggled because they couldn’t afford to attend school full-time and therefore couldn’t take on teaching assistantships. 

The MicroMasters programs provide remote access to BU courses at a lower cost, creating opportunities for students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to take graduate-level courses. The programs can also help students demonstrate that they’re strong candidates for a traditional graduate program. 

“It’s a win for the university as well,” says DeBaere.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Higher education experts offer advice on preparing for digital transformation.

Colleges Use Transformation to Make Smarter Use of Data

California State University, the largest four-year university system in the country, has almost 50,000 employees and nearly a half-million students spread across 23 campuses. It also has a wealth of data about its students. But when Brendan Aldrich came to Cal State a year ago as the chief data officer, his biggest challenge was wrapping his arms around all that data. 

“Since it was stored in so many different locations and repositories, one of my first jobs was to figure out how to bring all of that information together fast enough and flexibly enough from 23 different campuses every single day,” he says. “We wanted to rationalize that data and begin to capitalize on it — to make use of it, to help make better decisions and to help ensure our students are supported as much as possible.”

Aldrich spearheaded a data lake project that’s nearing the end of its first phase. “We’ve been pulling in the data for over a year, and now we’re populating our data lake with full sets of every piece of data we currently use for all of our warehousing, analytics, queries, dashboards and reports from every campus across the system so that both we in the chancellor’s office as well as the individual campuses can start to interact with this data more flexibly,” he says. 

The project says Aldrich, is enormous, but the payoffs are equally big: “Every one of our campuses will be more empowered to work with data and to engage in more modern and more relevant data projects in the service of their students and their constituents.”

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