The pandemic has forced tertiary institutions across South Africa to reconsider their approach to EdTech and digital transformation in a bid to meet the growing demand of online students. Stewart Watts, Vice President, EMEA, D2L, discusses how a recent D2L study reveals that digital transformation has been fast-tracked in higher education driven by the need to improve student experience and learning outcomes, as well as other key insights for the sector.
Digital transformation within higher education encompasses much more than just technology advances. The goal is to adopt new ways of working in the face of changing technology that puts the student experience first – from recruitment to enrolment to course quality to graduation.
But before the we can begin to consider the learner experience, it is important to understand the collective mindset when it comes to digital transformation.
A digital reality check
Collected from a sample of over 450 higher professionals in South Africa, the D2L survey revealed that compared to respondents from the rest of the world, those from South Africa report the greatest positive change in attitude towards education technology due to the pandemic. But, despite this positive shift, it also revealed that South Africa is lagging in comparison to Europe. Currently only 7% of courses are offered fully online, versus 13% globally.
Opportunities for future economic growth hinge on education, but barriers faced while implementing digital transformation strategies in the country include internet connectivity, access to suitable devices and the academic digital skills gap. These numbers are cause for concern, but when compared to pre-pandemic statistics it is clear that the country is ramping up efforts to implement strategies to close the gap.
Before the pandemic, the majority of institutions had less than half of their learning offering available online despite nearly 9 out of 10 universities having started implementing their digital strategy sometime before 2020. The crisis accelerated efforts to implement digital strategies in South Africa and as a result the number of courses available online for students has grown to 59%.
Learning goes far beyond technology
The sector is willing to embrace the technologies that are being implemented. Now a focus must be placed beyond technology and what this means.
The survey revealed deeper insights in terms of student recruitment and retention. 55% cited that they are motivated by the need to enhance the student experience, 51% are driven by the need to improve course quality, and 43% are motivated by the need to increase student enrolments.
The study further highlights the need for higher education institutions to put the student learning experience at the centre of its digital transformation agenda. Here, 53% of the respondents reported that improving student engagement is the key objective for their transformation projects, while another 53% indicate improving learning outcomes, and 48% indicate improving student retention and completion.
These numbers are a key indicator that if institutions wish to fully transform digitally they must put the student experience and learning outcomes at the centre of their strategies. More than 90% of respondents say that institutions need to digitally transform to enable future growth, and improve digital skills within the academic community.
A digital transformation road map for future focused education
An explosion in mobile technology has seen users leapfrogging straight to digital services, predominantly through the use of smartphones. This development is proving to be pivotal in delivering high quality access to internet networks, and in turn an elevated classroom experience and higher quality courses directly to learners, no matter where they may be.
Overall, respondents in South Africa have seen an increase in the level of digital skills within academic and learner communities, which, at 59%, is higher than that reported in the UK (46%) and Benelux (39%). Similarly, a significantly higher proportion of respondents in South Africa (58%) report the introduction of new learning technologies to improve the digital learning experience, compared with their colleagues in other EMEA countries which is 48% in the UK and 41% in Benelux.
The next few years are likely to herald significant changes across the higher education sector and the push to improve digital skills is welcome. With many institutions fully committed to investing in infrastructure and staff training as a priority, we will likely see a net positive for the education sector, as new pedagogical methods are enabled that can greatly benefit universities, staff and, most importantly, the students. For South Africa specifically, digital transformation will lead to improved skills and capabilities that will be indispensable as students and staff innovate with new technologies