Grand Challenges: A New Approach to Digital Transformation

In the latest issue of the Educause Review, Educause researchers Susan Grajek and D. Christopher Brooks write that Grand Challenges should be issued to encourage institutions to solve some of the biggest issues in higher education and that a digital transformation could be the best way to solve those challenges. For the uninitiated, a Grand Challenge “describes desired outcomes to problems that are extremely difficult (but not impossible) to solve and that are widespread, if not global, in scope.”

Grajek and Brooks write that that there are four widespread concerns that their Grand Challenges encourage institutions to solve. These four areas of concern are student success, financial health, reputation and relevance, and external competition.

According to Grajek and Brooks, the key performance indicators of student success are persistence (remaining in school), retention (completing a course), and completion (earning a credential or degree). Two additional issues related to student success are engagement and outcomes. Engagement involves helping students build a rich learning and social experience during their time in college. Some of the more popular recommendations for outcomes are getting a good job, earning a useful credential, and graduating with low debt.

Financial health is the concern most recently in the press, given the COVID-19 impact on student enrollment, college tuition, and expenses. Prior to the pandemic, shrinking enrollments and state budget constraints generated warnings from policymakers and researchers. Penn’s Robert Zemsky and NYU’s Scott Galloway are two that I have covered in previous articles.

As student debt rises and completion rates stagnate, the reputation and relevance of colleges and universities in the United States is in trouble. Institutional leaders interviewed by Grajek and Brooks explained their reputation and relevance initiatives to improve affordability, improve teaching quality, introduce more relevant academic programs, and expand research.

As the public’s dissatisfaction increases with traditional colleges and universities, higher ed’s leaders need to be concerned with external competition, particular in the alternative credentials area. Employers who cannot hire college graduates with the skills that they require are developing their own training or partnering with training providers. Grajek and Brooks write that students want to earn credentials through means other than those offered by most colleges and universities.

Progress towards solving all of these four Grand Challenges can be accomplished through technology. Time is not on the side of many institutions and for this reason, the authors propose that a Grand Strategy be adopted to solve these four Grand Challenges.

A Grand Strategy is a vision for how to achieve a desired outcome. The Grand Strategy that an institution chooses will be based on its position in relation to peers and other institutions regarding the Challenges that the Grand Strategy is trying to address. Digital transformation, according to Grajek and Brooks, can supply the methods by which the institutional leaders can achieve their goals.

Educause defines digital transformation as “the process of optimizing and transforming the institutional operations, strategic directions, and value proposition through deep and coordinated shifts in culture, workforce, and technology.” Digital transformation should not be confused with digitization or digitalization, yet it is dependent on both.

The authors illustrate the process for digital transformation with a five-step diagram. Step 1 requires information to be digitized. Step 2 requires information to be organized. These two steps comprise the digitization process.

Step 3 is the automation of processes. Step 4 is when processes are streamlined. These two steps are the digitalization process.

Step 5 is transformation of the institution which occurs through culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models. They also transform the institution’s operations, strategic directions, and value propositions. The authors state that online learning is not digital transformation, but using online learning to offer nano- and micro-credentials to new populations of learners is an example of digital transformation.

In August 2019, Educause surveyed higher education IT leaders to explore the current experiences, attitudes, and practices related to digital transformation. Only 13% of institutions responding to the survey indicated that they were engaged in digital transformation. Two-thirds of IT leaders believe that digital transformation is more important now than it was two years ago, and one-third of institutions are developing a digital transformation strategy.

Also, leaders were specifically asked to rate the importance of 17 specific benefits associated with digital transformation and whether those benefits would be minor, moderate, or major. Over 75% of respondents indicated that the impact of each of the 17 benefits would be at least moderate.

The authors write that the institutions that are currently engaged in digital transformation (13% of respondents) are primarily focused on six benefits, four of which pertain to student success. The six benefits are improving the student experience, decreasing the student dropout rate or improving retention, improving faculty teaching and advising, improving student course level performance, containing or reducing costs, and improving the institution’s reputation and standing.

Some of the interviews with institutional IT leaders occurred in March and April, as COVID-19 changed the way traditional colleges and universities operated. As a result, the authors added COVID-19 as a fifth Grand Challenge, calling attention to its influence on crisis mitigation; the health and safety of faculty, staff and students; and digital transformation.

In fact, Grajek and Brooks state that COVID-19 has accelerated trends that were already in place. They write that the benefits of digital transformation during the pandemic exceed the act of moving classes and operations online.

Grajek and Brooks note, “Digital transformation requires a culture that values flexibility and agility, has shifted from risk aversion to risk management, adjusts strategy in response to changing circumstances and new opportunities, is adept at change management, and prioritizes cross- organizational alignment and collaboration over siloed goals and autonomous lines of business.” The pandemic forced these shifts and created a situation making digital transformation more likely.

I agree with Grajek and Brooks that digital transformation can help many colleges and universities address the Grand Challenges they identify. I also agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a major culture shift at universities, particularly for those who continued their online initiatives during the summer and likely this fall. Those who succeed in transforming quickly will likely benefit financially over the long term.

For institutions like APUS that already have substantial online courses, programs, and students, they have a leg up on the rest of higher education in that Steps 1 through 4 of the transformation (digitization and digitalization) have already been completed. Given the pace of technology changes and the fact that many tech solutions are available as cloud services, these institutions will need to implement a digital transformation themselves or risk losing ground to those institutions adding education capabilities and innovations.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence