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When and where do you start with digital transformation in higher education?

When and where do you start with digital transformation in higher education?

8 minute read

When and where do you start with digital transformation in higher education?

8 minute read

When and where do you start with digital transformation in higher education?

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

When is the right time for digital transformation in higher ed? Where do you even begin? Most articles suggest the time is...now? But that’s not always practical, and it can’t be a rush-job. Digital transformation is a process, not a one-time project.

In this article, we look at various different catalysts and starting places for digital transformation, so you can figure out the best way for your institution to approach it.

The state of digital transformation in higher ed

First, we’ll take a brief look at the state of digital transformation in higher education. We have done our own report on the state of digital environments in HE in partnership with eQAfy. The results show an analysis of the digital environments of 156 UK and 160 US universities.

What the study found was that most universities are still grappling with legacy technologies, and consolidating data across multiple silos, and bloated, outdated content. Universities are unique in that they have entire web content estates to deal with—the largest UK university site has 1,900,000 pages; the largest US has 8,500,000. Wow.

Despite this, in a study by Deloitte on the technological disruptions facing public sector organisations, higher education gained above-average scores in the following areas (among others):

  • A clear and coherent digital strategy
  • Leadership’s understanding of digital trends
  • Objective of strategy to improve customer experience/engagement
  • Willingness to experiment and adopt an agile, ‘fail fast, fail quickly’ approach to risk
  • Digital fostering an innovative and collaborative culture

That said, leadership and workforce skills proved less positive categories for HE. It scored below-average ratings for:

  • Leadership’s skills to oversee a digital strategy
  • Investment in workforce skills
  • Workforce skills to execute a digital strategy

Digital transformation is really all about managing people, processes and technology, as well as digital content across an institution. So what are the catalysts? Where do higher ed organisations start? Here are just a few examples:

1. Changing student needs

Students today spend a lot of time on the internet, and visiting college and university websites. And the folks at EDUCAUSE have said that:

"The focus on the customer is the most crucial element in digital transformation. Tom Loosemore, founder of the UK's Government Digital Service agency, summed up this concept in a tweet (May 20, 2016) "Digital: Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people's raised expectations." The extraordinary value of meeting these increased customer expectations has dramatically changed business models, with examples from Amazon to Airbnb to Uber.”

And, in higher education, of course. Most students work remotely in some form already at universities, and now with the changing culture, remote, not 9-5. Interaction with students needs to be user focused. Think:

  • Content. Content, content, content is king. We’re sick of it by now but it’s our job. The truth of the matter is though, you need to be doing content marketing, online and offline, to get your brand messages out there and get found. Especially for prospective students, you need content marketing for brand consistency and engagement.

  • Search and SEO. You also need to be making the most of and following at least basic SEO conventions to get your content found online. Try our on-page SEO checklist if you need help with this. If you’re a web project manager then try that article too.

  • Social media. Students are all over social media at the moment. You should be paying attention to using social media as a form of content marketing, but equally, user generated content which is content created by students and other companies. Don’t just shout about yourself!

  • COVID-19 and remote access. The knock-on effects of COVID-19 for higher ed are huge. It has forced many institutions to now be remote or work from home which could be an unexpected and sudden catalyst for digital transformation too as they need new ways of working. We’ve got some great online resources, webinars and video lectures for this in our resources section. You can also check out this article on content institutions are publishing in response to COVID.

  • Apps and chatbots. Universities should be making the most of using apps both for the sake of staff and students alike. Apps make everything easier, considering students are on their phones a lot, and chat-bots are helpful for fast answers when people need them.

2. Website redesigns and content migration

Websites are usually redesigned somewhere between every two and 10 years. But if you’ve left it for five years, you probably need an update. You might not need a total overhaul, but you do need to make sure that things like information architecture, page loading speed, mobile access, and overall user experience are up to scratch. Students (particularly millennial and Gen Z) will just go elsewhere if your website doesn’t help answer their questions ⁠— and fast. You should also be constantly tweaking your websites to reflect user and business needs. They are never ‘done.’

For the best outcomes, focus on going content-first with your website redesign, which means using ‘proto-content’ in the design phase instead of lorem ipsum. Redesigning your website with content front-of-mind will also ensure you can focus on things like increasing traffic and conversions through the content on your site. Check out our webinar on planning for content during website redesigns. Or if you need to migrate content, check out our strategies for success.

In terms of accessibility, there are strict standards that websites must adhere to (with new deadlines for UK institutions). In the US, federal, state, and local government websites must comply with Section 508 regulations, and make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. In the UK, all public sector websites and apps must be up to scratch with the WCAG 2.1 (level AA) standard (more on this later) and must include people with disabilities in user research and have an accessibility statement on their website. Here are the deadlines:

  • The compliance deadline for websites published on or after 23 September 2018 was 23 September 2019
  • For websites published before 23 September 2018 it's 23 September 2020
  • The deadline for all apps to be compliant is 23 June 2021

This means lots of universities are now scrambling to get their website and apps up to speed for accessibility purposes. This is a great opportunity for institutions to update and declutter websites, improve content quality overall, as well as making them more accessible

3. Content strategy, management and governance

Many universities work in silos, which is an issue for communication and collaboration, but digital transformation can help solve this problem with the right tools in place. Content strategy goes hand in hand with digital transformation, and delivering useful, usable and up to date content you need the right tools, processes, systems and culture.

We talk a lot about Content Operation (ContentOps) here at GatherContent which is a new way of looking at content creation and management. It’s about looking at the tools, processes and people involved in content creation holistically. And efficient ContentOps is how you connect silos in your institution. You need to think about things like clearly defined roles, production workflows, and style guides to ensure content operations run smoothly.

We recently interviewed Padma Gillen who is a digital content consultant, and was previously Head of Content Design at the Government Digital Service (GDS). He had overall responsibility for the quality of content on GOV.UK.

Padma is currently working with the University of Southampton on a digital transformation project, and he’s also just launched his new book, Lead With Content which is all about putting content at the heart of digital transformation. In the interview, when talking about 
content governance he says:

“Every page should have an owner, and every page should have an established review cycle. If you haven’t enforced a review of your site pages in a while, chances are you have duplicative and inaccurate information to wrestle with.”

It’s so important to think about your content strategy alongside digital transformation to ensure you can improve your current content and start building good habits that will save you time, effort and money in the long run.

4. Improving organisational processes

Improving organisational processes is a huge part of digital transformation. This goes for all processes, but in this article we’ll focus on content processes. As we touched on in an earlier point, most higher ed institutions have some form of content process bug-bears.

You can solve these with the right technology for your institution. It’s best to use a single editing environment so content is centralised (rather than having multiple tools which can get confusing for everyone) and tools that have the right features for the job: content creation and management. Some of the key things that tech can help with when it comes to content is:

  • Scalable SaaS model. Digital transformation can be expensive for institutions, but there’s plenty of SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) products out there that make it easy to invest and scale.

  • Workflow. When you know what is going to be done, and when is not something that should be in a spreadsheet and there shouldn’t be bottlenecks. You need a clear workflow that shows stages that are followed throughout the lifecycle that’s visible to everyone.

  • Roles and responsibilities. It’s so important to have clear roles defined before starting any content project. When you can see what everyone is working on, and when, and can assign content projects, individual tasks and deadlines then it makes life easier.

  • Communication. Tech that centralises content means that you can make real-time edits to content and tag contributors, which means communication around a project easier and editing and approvals a breeze.

GatherContent does all of this and more. The University of Leicester used GatherContent for a website redesign project, and liked it so much that they then went on to use it to streamline processes, and centralise content production, editing and approval for a successful digital transformation.

5. Creating a culture of digital transformation

A change in culture is part and parcel of digital transformation, but organisations must seek to really foster a culture of understanding, trust and safety around digital to get this right. Remember, digital transformation isn’t about just ‘change.’ Instead of reacting to immediate needs, “transformation is about the proactive, enterprise-wide steps that institutions can take to meet future needs,” as James Wiley says at EdTechMagazine.

Institutions that want to implement real transformation need to get stakeholders involved (check out our webinar with Head of Digital at University of Southampton on making your digital transformation business case a reality).You need to communicate with and train stakeholders early on in the process to ensure everyone is on board with digital transformation, and it can run as smoothly as possible.

Digital transformation is increasingly important so you shouldn't put it off

It’s been hard not to talk about COVID-19 in this article, and we’re living in uncertain times. Content is now more important than ever; and digital transformation can help. Institutions need to get content out, online, and fast and the pressure’s on. But if you do digital transformation alongside content strategy, you can achieve:

  • Time and cost savings. An improved content creation process, with the help of the right technology, can ultimately lead to massive savings in cost and time. How many content projects get derailed by edits and feedback loops and end up going over budget? Content is a large part of any organisation and this will pay off across your institution.
  • Improved user experience. User experience, as we’ve discussed, is really important for students and prospective students today. With the right tools and processes you can rally a productive, happy team who have more time to focus on getting things just right (rather than ‘done’) for your audience.
  • Improved decision-making. Once you start to look at content through the right digital channels and lenses, you can build up a bank of data to analyse and work this into your content strategy for content that is only getting better!
  • More leads and conversions. Improving user experience will ultimately lead to more leads and conversions through the content on your website. Our recent higher education webinar from Illinois State University shows how they improved their content strategy for their website presence. They saw these results:
  • Page views were up 35%
  • Pages visited per session increased by 43%
  • Over 8,000 new leads
  • A 25-30% increase in applications

So thinking about your audience and what will make them happy pays off!

With all of that said, it can be hard to get people on board with your projects in higher education. When it comes to getting stakeholders together in content and digital transformation projects, we recommend this webinar on making your business case for digital transformation a reality. To find out how GatherContent can help with productivity, compliance and quality in your content, visit our higher education industry page.

When is the right time for digital transformation in higher ed? Where do you even begin? Most articles suggest the time is...now? But that’s not always practical, and it can’t be a rush-job. Digital transformation is a process, not a one-time project.

In this article, we look at various different catalysts and starting places for digital transformation, so you can figure out the best way for your institution to approach it.

The state of digital transformation in higher ed

First, we’ll take a brief look at the state of digital transformation in higher education. We have done our own report on the state of digital environments in HE in partnership with eQAfy. The results show an analysis of the digital environments of 156 UK and 160 US universities.

What the study found was that most universities are still grappling with legacy technologies, and consolidating data across multiple silos, and bloated, outdated content. Universities are unique in that they have entire web content estates to deal with—the largest UK university site has 1,900,000 pages; the largest US has 8,500,000. Wow.

Despite this, in a study by Deloitte on the technological disruptions facing public sector organisations, higher education gained above-average scores in the following areas (among others):

  • A clear and coherent digital strategy
  • Leadership’s understanding of digital trends
  • Objective of strategy to improve customer experience/engagement
  • Willingness to experiment and adopt an agile, ‘fail fast, fail quickly’ approach to risk
  • Digital fostering an innovative and collaborative culture

That said, leadership and workforce skills proved less positive categories for HE. It scored below-average ratings for:

  • Leadership’s skills to oversee a digital strategy
  • Investment in workforce skills
  • Workforce skills to execute a digital strategy

Digital transformation is really all about managing people, processes and technology, as well as digital content across an institution. So what are the catalysts? Where do higher ed organisations start? Here are just a few examples:

1. Changing student needs

Students today spend a lot of time on the internet, and visiting college and university websites. And the folks at EDUCAUSE have said that:

"The focus on the customer is the most crucial element in digital transformation. Tom Loosemore, founder of the UK's Government Digital Service agency, summed up this concept in a tweet (May 20, 2016) "Digital: Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people's raised expectations." The extraordinary value of meeting these increased customer expectations has dramatically changed business models, with examples from Amazon to Airbnb to Uber.”

And, in higher education, of course. Most students work remotely in some form already at universities, and now with the changing culture, remote, not 9-5. Interaction with students needs to be user focused. Think:

  • Content. Content, content, content is king. We’re sick of it by now but it’s our job. The truth of the matter is though, you need to be doing content marketing, online and offline, to get your brand messages out there and get found. Especially for prospective students, you need content marketing for brand consistency and engagement.

  • Search and SEO. You also need to be making the most of and following at least basic SEO conventions to get your content found online. Try our on-page SEO checklist if you need help with this. If you’re a web project manager then try that article too.

  • Social media. Students are all over social media at the moment. You should be paying attention to using social media as a form of content marketing, but equally, user generated content which is content created by students and other companies. Don’t just shout about yourself!

  • COVID-19 and remote access. The knock-on effects of COVID-19 for higher ed are huge. It has forced many institutions to now be remote or work from home which could be an unexpected and sudden catalyst for digital transformation too as they need new ways of working. We’ve got some great online resources, webinars and video lectures for this in our resources section. You can also check out this article on content institutions are publishing in response to COVID.

  • Apps and chatbots. Universities should be making the most of using apps both for the sake of staff and students alike. Apps make everything easier, considering students are on their phones a lot, and chat-bots are helpful for fast answers when people need them.

2. Website redesigns and content migration

Websites are usually redesigned somewhere between every two and 10 years. But if you’ve left it for five years, you probably need an update. You might not need a total overhaul, but you do need to make sure that things like information architecture, page loading speed, mobile access, and overall user experience are up to scratch. Students (particularly millennial and Gen Z) will just go elsewhere if your website doesn’t help answer their questions ⁠— and fast. You should also be constantly tweaking your websites to reflect user and business needs. They are never ‘done.’

For the best outcomes, focus on going content-first with your website redesign, which means using ‘proto-content’ in the design phase instead of lorem ipsum. Redesigning your website with content front-of-mind will also ensure you can focus on things like increasing traffic and conversions through the content on your site. Check out our webinar on planning for content during website redesigns. Or if you need to migrate content, check out our strategies for success.

In terms of accessibility, there are strict standards that websites must adhere to (with new deadlines for UK institutions). In the US, federal, state, and local government websites must comply with Section 508 regulations, and make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. In the UK, all public sector websites and apps must be up to scratch with the WCAG 2.1 (level AA) standard (more on this later) and must include people with disabilities in user research and have an accessibility statement on their website. Here are the deadlines:

  • The compliance deadline for websites published on or after 23 September 2018 was 23 September 2019
  • For websites published before 23 September 2018 it's 23 September 2020
  • The deadline for all apps to be compliant is 23 June 2021

This means lots of universities are now scrambling to get their website and apps up to speed for accessibility purposes. This is a great opportunity for institutions to update and declutter websites, improve content quality overall, as well as making them more accessible

3. Content strategy, management and governance

Many universities work in silos, which is an issue for communication and collaboration, but digital transformation can help solve this problem with the right tools in place. Content strategy goes hand in hand with digital transformation, and delivering useful, usable and up to date content you need the right tools, processes, systems and culture.

We talk a lot about Content Operation (ContentOps) here at GatherContent which is a new way of looking at content creation and management. It’s about looking at the tools, processes and people involved in content creation holistically. And efficient ContentOps is how you connect silos in your institution. You need to think about things like clearly defined roles, production workflows, and style guides to ensure content operations run smoothly.

We recently interviewed Padma Gillen who is a digital content consultant, and was previously Head of Content Design at the Government Digital Service (GDS). He had overall responsibility for the quality of content on GOV.UK.

Padma is currently working with the University of Southampton on a digital transformation project, and he’s also just launched his new book, Lead With Content which is all about putting content at the heart of digital transformation. In the interview, when talking about 
content governance he says:

“Every page should have an owner, and every page should have an established review cycle. If you haven’t enforced a review of your site pages in a while, chances are you have duplicative and inaccurate information to wrestle with.”

It’s so important to think about your content strategy alongside digital transformation to ensure you can improve your current content and start building good habits that will save you time, effort and money in the long run.

4. Improving organisational processes

Improving organisational processes is a huge part of digital transformation. This goes for all processes, but in this article we’ll focus on content processes. As we touched on in an earlier point, most higher ed institutions have some form of content process bug-bears.

You can solve these with the right technology for your institution. It’s best to use a single editing environment so content is centralised (rather than having multiple tools which can get confusing for everyone) and tools that have the right features for the job: content creation and management. Some of the key things that tech can help with when it comes to content is:

  • Scalable SaaS model. Digital transformation can be expensive for institutions, but there’s plenty of SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) products out there that make it easy to invest and scale.

  • Workflow. When you know what is going to be done, and when is not something that should be in a spreadsheet and there shouldn’t be bottlenecks. You need a clear workflow that shows stages that are followed throughout the lifecycle that’s visible to everyone.

  • Roles and responsibilities. It’s so important to have clear roles defined before starting any content project. When you can see what everyone is working on, and when, and can assign content projects, individual tasks and deadlines then it makes life easier.

  • Communication. Tech that centralises content means that you can make real-time edits to content and tag contributors, which means communication around a project easier and editing and approvals a breeze.

GatherContent does all of this and more. The University of Leicester used GatherContent for a website redesign project, and liked it so much that they then went on to use it to streamline processes, and centralise content production, editing and approval for a successful digital transformation.

5. Creating a culture of digital transformation

A change in culture is part and parcel of digital transformation, but organisations must seek to really foster a culture of understanding, trust and safety around digital to get this right. Remember, digital transformation isn’t about just ‘change.’ Instead of reacting to immediate needs, “transformation is about the proactive, enterprise-wide steps that institutions can take to meet future needs,” as James Wiley says at EdTechMagazine.

Institutions that want to implement real transformation need to get stakeholders involved (check out our webinar with Head of Digital at University of Southampton on making your digital transformation business case a reality).You need to communicate with and train stakeholders early on in the process to ensure everyone is on board with digital transformation, and it can run as smoothly as possible.

Digital transformation is increasingly important so you shouldn't put it off

It’s been hard not to talk about COVID-19 in this article, and we’re living in uncertain times. Content is now more important than ever; and digital transformation can help. Institutions need to get content out, online, and fast and the pressure’s on. But if you do digital transformation alongside content strategy, you can achieve:

  • Time and cost savings. An improved content creation process, with the help of the right technology, can ultimately lead to massive savings in cost and time. How many content projects get derailed by edits and feedback loops and end up going over budget? Content is a large part of any organisation and this will pay off across your institution.
  • Improved user experience. User experience, as we’ve discussed, is really important for students and prospective students today. With the right tools and processes you can rally a productive, happy team who have more time to focus on getting things just right (rather than ‘done’) for your audience.
  • Improved decision-making. Once you start to look at content through the right digital channels and lenses, you can build up a bank of data to analyse and work this into your content strategy for content that is only getting better!
  • More leads and conversions. Improving user experience will ultimately lead to more leads and conversions through the content on your website. Our recent higher education webinar from Illinois State University shows how they improved their content strategy for their website presence. They saw these results:
  • Page views were up 35%
  • Pages visited per session increased by 43%
  • Over 8,000 new leads
  • A 25-30% increase in applications

So thinking about your audience and what will make them happy pays off!

With all of that said, it can be hard to get people on board with your projects in higher education. When it comes to getting stakeholders together in content and digital transformation projects, we recommend this webinar on making your business case for digital transformation a reality. To find out how GatherContent can help with productivity, compliance and quality in your content, visit our higher education industry page.

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About the author

Paige Toomes

Paige is an English Literature and Media graduate from Newcastle University, and over the last three years has built up a career in SEO-driven copywriting for tech companies. She has written for Microsoft, Symantec and LinkedIn, as well as other SaaS companies and IT consulting firms. With an audience-focused approach to content, Paige handles the lifecycle from creation through to measurement, supporting businesses with their content operations.

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