Digital-education-with-ebook-on-computer-400x326.jpgIt is hardly surprising given that the vast majority of their customers today make use of a myriad of technological devices, rendering the need for universities to utilise contemporary digital strategies paramount to their continued success. 

The higher education sector cannot evade the influence of current digital trends, thus determining which of them may be most crucial to their upcoming strategic and marketing processes is essential.

The Power of Big Data

Use of Big Data in higher education is incredibly advantageous, and perhaps fundamental with regards to academic research development; the area which Big Data is most applicable to. Analyses of raw data can be used to advance scientific research, economic growth and industrial innovation, and a number of leading universities are receiving heavy investment in order to employ Big Data research strategies.

A Big Data health research centre at the University of Oxford is set to receive £30 million in donations, benefitting from the government’s UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, and a £20 million donation from Chinese entrepreneur Li Ka-shing. The centre will primarily focus on analysing anonymised medical data sets, in order to advance detection, treatment and prevention of a number of medical conditions. 

The University of St Andrews is another institution employing Big Data research strategies, and its Big Data Lab’s research mission is to ‘identify, engineer and evaluate innovative technologies that address current and future data-intensive challenges’. 

The impact of Big Data upon higher education is vast, therefore, and it is further employed by universities to improve websites, in creating predictive models and in accessing information compiled from large social databases such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

Anytime and anywhere - Mobile Marketing

Mobile device usage is a digital trend which is now beginning to have a profound influence on higher education. According to the Cisco VNI Global Mobile Data Traffic Update, average smartphone usage grew 81% in 2012, and in the same year, a report entitled The State of the Mobile Web Report published on University Business stated that 59% of surveyed institutions reported having a ‘mobile solution’, up from 37% the previous year. 

University apps in practice include the Iprinceton app; which enables students to browse a full library catalogue, access academic news pages and connect to the University’s social media pages, the Harvard Mobile apps – an initiative to improve mobile experience for not only students but faculty staff and visitors in addition, and UK’s University of Warwick app that quizzes its medical students on the human anatomy and lab scenarios using video and audio clips. 

The relevance of mobile technology in higher education is thus easily demonstrable, and is sure to increase as universities have started to recognize the importance of customized user experience across devices such as tablets – usage of which is said to have tripled from 11-30% in the UK, smartphones and PCs. 

Connecting the Virtual with the Physical

The term ‘Internet of Things’ refers to the connection between physical devices and the virtual world, and higher education is now making use of this connection. Northern Arizona University, for instance, had a new student ID system implemented in 2010 whereby each student card contains an RFID chip enabling teachers to track attendance and alter grades accordingly! 

RFID is a radio frequency identification system which allows data to be transmitted wirelessly, and has further been employed in marine biology research to track marine animal behaviour. 

The modern electrical Smart Grid has proved highly useful in Anthropology and History departments, allowing them to monitor the condition of objects; the internet providing the mechanism for observing current locations and environments in real-time.

Innovative new technologies such as these therefore allow universities to use the internet as a tool for tracking physical objects and devices which subsequently provides novel and exiting forms of teaching and research. 

Social Savvy 

The relevance of social media for higher education is clear today, with universities utilizing social platforms to build student recruitment campaigns and engage with the public. Following a study conducted by Virgin Media Business in 2012, the University of Warwick has been crowned the most ‘digitally savvy’ when it comes to online communication channels, deploying a large social media presence to attract students. 

The study found that 65 per cent of the universities surveyed used new media to communicate and engage with students, thus demonstrating the awareness of social media in British Institutions.For instance the University of Sussex has a large ‘Digital and Social Media Research Theme’ dedicated to advancement in these areas as well as a page with links to all social platforms that it engages with. 

Although social media has been a powerful tool for information sharing and promotion, it has also had negative impacts on higher education, as inappropriate online behaviour has led to multiple dismissals of teaching professionals – more than 40 were referred to the General Teaching Council in 2011 - and it can be damaging to student’s career prospects.

Growing use of social media hence necessitates awareness of how it can affect education, in order to limit negative usage and allow it to provide an insightful database.

Website Aesthetics & Usability

A trend which must further be taken into account by the higher education sector relates to the design and usability of their websites. This links in with the availability of big data, which as mentioned allows for more interactive sites, and it is now greatly important for institutions to modify and advance their websites in response to consumer demand.

A good university website is crucial for recruiting students, as it provides the main initial focus point for students as they search for an institution that suits them. It is worth noting the public success of Pixar’s interactive Monsters University website, which boasts engaging content that has, in the view of the public, rivalled that of ‘real’ universities, thus highlighting the importance of clear brand identity and user engagement.

The Future

Digital trends are changing the face of higher education institutions, and they’re not going away. The incorporation of these trends into business strategy is vital, and universities must work out how to connect the traditional with the digital, and employ forward thinking – what is the future for universities? Could growing trends decrease campus-based learning in favour of online teaching? And further, what does this mean for increasing education fees? In an emergent digital age, it is issues like these that now require attention.