Over the past year schools have been forced to close, exams have been cancelled and education providers have been left scrabbling to implement technology in a tactical way to ensure they can still provide their key services. But as schools and universities begin to reopen and navigate the challenges still presented by the pandemic, the focus now turns to education beyond COVID-19.

Student looking at screen with teacher and blackboard on it

Like many other industries and markets that have been forced to think differently and operate in new ways, the education sector has had to adapt quickly. As a sector that typically suffers from significant levels of technical debt, it must be said that providers have done extremely well to implement an emergency technology-led learning programme to maintain a level of provision throughout the crisis. However, stop-gap tools like Zoom and Teams are a long way off a digital-first approach that could see huge advancements and opportunities in this field.

Most providers have been left in a state of limbo and are asking the same question – what will the future of education look like? One thing is for certain – there is an opportunity to reinvent old systems and use technology to shape a new and improved education system for the future.

Digital ecosystems for education providers

When it comes to a digital presence, universities have been leading the way in terms of using digital to engage and attract students. There is an obvious reason for this – the element of competition. Students and parents need to consider much more than just catchment area and Ofsted reports when it comes to choosing a higher education provider, which is why a university’s digital presence is so important. What the pandemic has done is to force every education provider to implement digital technologies to help them engage with their audience and function, as we have all had to rely on digital tools to function while the physical world has been unattainable.

Group of students outdoors looking at a laptop

Organisations are now left with a Frankenstein model of tools and systems that are neither properly integrated, nor being utilised to their full potential. Looking ahead to the possibility of hybrid learning models, new processes for grading and the opportunities for more personalised learning experiences will rely on providers having a digital ecosystem that will support this innovation and growth. And the acceleration of digital adoption from both individuals and businesses across all sectors will naturally bring about change across every tier of education. Parents and students alike will demand online experiences from providers at all levels that rival those they experience in everyday life. The fact is organisations will need to prepare themselves for a digital-first future. And making sense of their digital ecosystem and how it creates a joined up experience will be the first step to providing a cohesive and intuitive experience for their audience.

Understanding the complex needs of your audience

Education providers face a particular challenge in that they have complex audience profiles with very different needs. As we identified in our insight relating to university online experiences, audiences are hugely varied. Prospective students, the parents of said students, current students, alumni, post-grads, lecturers, members of the local community and press could all be accessing the same portal at any one time. This presents a huge challenge when it comes to offering a personalised experience and how your solution caters for all these complex requirements.

Person sat on floor using laptop and writing pad on low table

Couple this with the journey each user takes and the multiple touchpoints they may engage with, and you start to see how complex the overall picture is. There are two steps in approaching this challenge. The first is to understand the goals of the organisation and where the current shortfalls are – this will feed into the overarching digital strategy and work to build a roadmap for a successful ecosystem. The second is to truly understand the needs of each audience. We do this by speaking to users directly through usability testing. We’ve seen this process work for clients like The Royal College of Nursing, and is the only way you can truly cater to the complex needs of a varied audience.

Embracing technology to drive future growth

To really shape the future of education for the better, providers have an opportunity to embrace technology and really revolutionise the way they educate. When we think about some of the exciting opportunities that technology can deliver in this sector, we start to consider:

  • Tailored messaging and personalised online experiences
  • Hybrid and bespoke learning options
  • Virtual tours to attract overseas students
  • Online communities for remote learners
  • Data-enhanced learning programmes
  • An intuitive end-to-end digital experience

But there are lots of challenges too, and technology can help with those as well. Turning tactical short-term solutions into valuable and strategic long-term ones is where education providers will start to shape an exciting future in education. And as digital experts, we’re here to facilitate that journey and help organisations plan their roadmap for a digital future.

About the Author

Andrew Skinner

A highly-experienced business development professional with over 15 years of software industry experience, Andrew has worked across the UK and Europe with organisations such as Aviva, Sainsbury’s, Legal & General, Barclays and Welsh Government to support their commercial success through the development and delivery of custom software solutions.