17 Oct 2023
by Stan Neal, Joanna Wright

Historically, students arriving at university would be handed a folder at orientation containing reams of paper. While the days of carrying (and often losing) this ‘bible’ are long gone, has the shift into digital learning, teaching and administration negatively impacted university experience? Business and technology consultants from Waterstons explore the top risks for staff and students from the ineffective adoption of technology changes.

Risks for students

Technology use within UK universities was accelerated by COVID-19 and offers many benefits to students, but an unplanned transition can introduce untold quantities of risk.

Traditional structure, modern technology: During the pandemic, quick adoption of online learning technologies without course redesign meant delivery of ‘in-person’ content didn’t translate online. For example, Teams had to launch breakout rooms in December 2020 to facilitate small group discussions as part of a larger event (such as lectures). However, not all lecturers would use the same communication channels.   

This misalignment resulted in a difficult learning experience for many - supported by a report in which 45% of higher education students were not satisfied with their online education.

Communication chaos: Younger students are ‘digital natives’, and mature students have grown through the technical revolution; even lecturers range from Boomers to Millennials (even some Gen Z). Everyone across university has a different experience and need – but simplicity is the common thread.

During the pandemic, the speed entire establishments moved learning and administration online was neck-breaking, but it was done. Since then, how many have moved from Teams to Slack? Or use Zoom for student interaction but Teams internally?

A disjointed communication ecosystem in online learning can make student engagement frustrating, disrupted and challenging to access vital course materials. Even if different channels are required so that information can be directed to the right staff team, technology must be used to create a simple, single interface for student users.   

Implementation without purpose: Hasty implementation of technology without considering purpose and benefits can lead to wasted resources and confused students. We need to make sure technology is fit for purpose. The adoption of new technologies should be based on a proactive strategy or plan, rather as a knee-jerk reaction to external changes.

Teaching exclusively online became the norm during COVID-19, but student feedback suggests a strong preference for in-person or hybrid learning. Technology should be used to complement the physical student experience, not replace it.

By moving purely online, not only are students losing the opportunity to interact with their peers, but academic and non-academic staff are missing that same interaction with students, potentially impacting learning and experience.

Risks for staff

Change fatigue: Staff morale can be badly affected by the constant need to learn new systems without the time to be able to concentrate on business as usual.

Change is inevitable – in fact in a 2022 survey, 70% of institutions said they would be reviewing their Technology Enhance Learning tools in the next two years.

To mitigate this risk, changes need to be communicated as transparently as possible. It must be clear to staff why a change is being made and what the benefits are

Involving staff in decision-making and testing, communicating clear benefits, and hosting regular refresher sessions are all key. However, so is a long-term technology strategy that aligns with your mission and is something that a team can get on board with.

Lack of training: Investing in a robust development, training and support programme when adopting and integrating new technologies could make the difference between a smooth transition and a bumpy one – as can conducting pilot programmes to evaluate effectiveness and usability.

It’s important that in a busy workplace, staff engage with training and are given time to learn the skills needed to use new systems and technologies.

It’s common to new systems being implemented with a ‘train the trainer’ approach or small group of ‘super users’, but to properly embed a new system and stimulate engagement there needs to be as broad expertise as possible across a business.   

Cybersecurity: Mistakes happen when not everyone is onboard with a new system, or they’ve had to learn it quickly. By changing systems regularly, there a risk of losing data or creating a weakness in the switchover. There is also a high likelihood that users will be sloppy, find shortcuts, and ultimately cause issues when it comes to security and procedure. Data migration needs to be managed centrally, with clearly defined governance and processes.

As always with anything online, there comes a cybersecurity risk, and with evermore online systems, that risk grows exponentially. In fact 50% of UK HE institutions have reported data breaches or attempts to hack their data at least weekly. A robust cybersecurity infrastructure, regular training and posture assessments, plus strong access controls, encryption protocols and incident response plans are essential to safeguard digital assets and protect an organisation.

Opportunities for students and staff

With risk comes opportunity; technology can improve student experience, accessibility and data security.

Ultimately, the university experience is changing, with digital processes and technology playing a huge part in that. While some areas are adapting more quickly than others and creating a more efficient way of working, others are lagging behind.

So has the shift into digital learning, teaching and administration negatively impacted university experience? No, in fact digital innovations have huge potential to improve student and staff experience if they’re properly implemented.