BCG’s Digitization Blueprint for Higher Education

Universities must digitize to keep up with students’ increased demand for innovative online learning opportunities. BCG leads the way.

Foundationally speaking, the framework of institutional learning had not changed much over the last two millennia—until the advent of the computer. Digitization of the learning process has the potential to change every facet of the academic experience. That’s especially true for higher education, which is seeing increased demand for innovative distance and online learning. 

Digitization is altering the economics of education. As such, even the most prestigious universities must embrace digital education if they are going to compete. Six dominant trends in the digitization of higher education are changing the competitive landscape:

  1. Democratization of Education. With more than 1 billion new students expected to enroll in universities in the near future, and increased prosperity taking root in developing countries, digitization allows higher education to be more scalable and more affordable.
  2. Lifelong Learning. Higher education is no longer solely available to traditional students who are able to attend class during regular business hours. Digital education offers nontraditional students—including full-time workers, single parents, and career changers—convenient access to higher education at various stages of their lives.
  3. Individualization of Education. Digital education allows for more flexibility and more customization in what, how, and where courses are delivered, and it makes for faster and more relevant feedback.
  4. Exponential Technology Advancements. Digital education is being furthered by new capabilities in mobile devices, cloud delivery systems, video streaming and other broadband-intensive applications, and learning management systems.
  5. Digitized Students. Today’s students are digital natives who are used to getting want they want at the time and location they want to get it.
  6. Changes in Workforce Demand. Digitization and automation in the workplace requires new and continually advancing skills. As a result, employers are demanding that universities provide more opportunities for their employees to access continuing, convenient education.

Challenges and Opportunities

These trends have numerous implications for universities as they move quickly to advance their digital education capabilities. 

For starters, universities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia—even those with the strongest current demand—face more intensified and global competition. In addition, digitally native students expect more flexibility, convenience, and learning options than traditional education models can provide. Digital tools and automation are necessary to achieve new operational efficiencies and lower costs per student over time. Digital provides universities with a greater ability to satisfy growing employer demand for relevant and qualified labor. Universities can also leverage digital education to gain new opportunities and additional resources to conduct more innovative research, which serves to improve the brand and competitiveness of teaching institutions. 

Perhaps most critically, digital provides a way for universities to serve more students without having to invest capital dollars and resources to construct new classrooms and residence halls or absorb the costs associated with ongoing building maintenance and operations.

A Three-Pronged Blueprint for Success

Many universities tend to view digitization as a simple matter of launching online courses and building a cash cow. Instead, universities—even those already offering online courses—need to fully weave digital capabilities into the fabric of the educational environment and campus culture. Doing so enables them to more effectively serve students (whether they are online or on campus), better enable innovation among staff and faculty, and transform academic and operational quality. 

For this reason, BCG’s successful approach, which is being adopted by several leading international universities, focuses on the following three primary pillars:

  • Digital Education and Research. Universities need to put in place a broad range of digital initiatives, not just online courses. These include: digitized pedagogy and supporting learning and monitoring systems; online education that is scalable and achieves wide distribution; dynamic accreditation and examination; and developed research using digital tools, digital data access, digital communications, and global transparency.
  • Strategy, Operations, and Partnerships.  Schools must adopt digitization as part of their overall strategy in order to transform existing structures and processes, enforce digital change, and enable innovation and entrepreneurship. They must adapt business models that achieve increased quality and efficiencies, and encourage collaboration between constituencies while also pursuing partnerships with other universities, industry, and community organizations.
  • Facilities, Infrastructure, and Campus. Digitization must be built into the physical assets of the university. Among the new features expected: user-friendly, flexible and integrated work-study environments; digital labs; WiFi everywhere; wireless charging stations; outsourced data centers; and smart and green buildings.