Could a digital workplace help universities address modern challenges?

At a time when universities face ominous challenges that threaten to change the face of further education, we ask whether prioritizing digitalization and introducing a cutting-edge intranet could be the answer.

Universities are a hub of knowledge, a place to network with like-minded individuals and learn collaboratively. Yet when it comes to utilizing modern technologies that maximize these abilities, universities, and the education sector in general, are slow on the uptake.

In the corporate sphere, digital adoption is transforming the workplace, providing new opportunities for increased communication, collaboration, employee engagement and, ultimately, productivity.

As a result of this digital boom, distinct leaders and laggards have emerged, with the latter performing significantly worse in all categories from employee satisfaction to efficiency. Not only are the digital leaders performing better in a business sense, they’re also being prioritized by employees according to research.

While colleges are yet to be confronted by the full force of digital competition, as forward-thinking institutions start to catch up with corporate demands and prioritize digital adoption, it is likely that similar trends will emerge.

At a time when universities face ominous challenges, could a robust intranet be the answer?

The challenges facing universities

In recent times universities have come under fire for outdated practices and claims that antiquated systems will render them obsolete in an internet age.

Under threat from the rising popularity of self-study and the success of online learning platforms like MOOC, educational institutions across the globe are being increasingly pushed to compete by offering students more value for money.

At the same time, they are being forced to respond to rapid changes in the employment landscape, primarily an increased demand for digital skills.

A recent report by Jisc, a non-profit digital services provider for educational institutions, found that only 50% of students in the UK felt their course prepared them for the digital workplace, trends that are being reflected in the US.

As victims of these combined circumstances, there is mounting pressure to keep up with corporate trends and explore digitalization as a route to delivering greater educational value to students.

Enter, the digital workplace

Introducing a robust intranet is increasingly being seen as a practical way of equipping staff and students with the digital skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace.

Traditionally, intranets used by the education sector have been far from user-friendly. Often an extension of campus portals, they suffer from poor usability, limited functionality, confusing IA and information overload. They also tend to be disjointed; rather than providing a single platform that caters for all, there tend to be different systems for staff, students, and even departments.

As a result, both students and lecturers are likely to disengage with their University intranet, turning instead to alternative communication routes like Facebook and email to network and keep themselves informed.

While the majority of universities persist with outdated technology, the corporate sector is enjoying the benefits of highly customizable, modern, single solution systems with contemporary features like social integration.

Rapid advances in technology mean that finding a complete intranet solution that delivers real value and drives true engagement is now entirely possible. However, in the mainstream, adopting a modern intranet is yet to be seen as an obvious route to improving the student experience and equipping staff and students with practical, digital skills.

Unily University Example Homepage

Progressive institutes, such as UK Top 10 Bristol University, are starting to introduce ‘Digital Workspace Programmes’ that aim to tackle digital inadequacies by introducing state-of-the-art digital workplaces to campus life. As part of this holistic approach, inadequate and often siloed existing systems are gradually being replaced by powerful modern intranets, bringing staff and students together on a single, centralized platform.

Commenting on their full-force approach to digitalization, Bristol University states, “investment in digital infrastructure is as important as investment in our physical estate.”

It may even be possible to argue, as we move even further into technological entrenchment, that investing in digital infrastructure is going to hold more significance than physical estate. After all, what use is a lecture hall when you can access resources and collaborate with peers and lecturers remotely?

So, why the lag?

Generally speaking, there is a fear amongst educators that prevents aggressive digital strategies from taking off. Scared to encourage practices indicative of remote learning, many universities focus on preserving tradition in hopes that this will set them apart from online competition.  

In reality, this approach is rendering institutions outdated and unable to prepare students for the real world of work. In order for universities to stay ahead of the digital curve, embracing technology seems inescapable.

Until recently there have been limited options for universities looking to maintain traditional pedagogic practices whilst embracing technological advancements. However, implementing a digital workplace can now offer a hybrid solution in which technology is used to support traditional learning practices, rather than replacing them.

How can a digital workplace be used to enhance the student experience?

In many cases, universities have similar needs to corporations in terms of wanting to drive productivity, collaboration, and communication. Below we outline six ways a digital workplace could help universities and other educational institutions to enhance their ability to deliver an engaging and relevant education.

  1. Practical digital upskilling

Perhaps the most obvious way a modern intranet could improve prospects for staff and students alike is by providing practical opportunities for digital upskilling. Companies expect graduates to be familiar with digital tools and the easiest way of preparing students for a digitally enabled workplace is to expose them to this environment while they study. By exploring the possibilities of the digital workplace prior to entering the employment arena, students can gain a competitive edge over their peers by demonstrating digital aptitude and familiarity with corporate tools.

  1. Enhancing networking opportunities

One of the main competitive advantages universities hold over online learning providers are the networking opportunities available on campus. A robust intranet could assist universities in capitalizing on this unique selling point by digitally enhancing the ability to forge new alliances. Aside from advanced social networking tools, features like people’s directories assist users in making new connections by providing a condensed list of profiles that can be filtered by department, location, language, skills and other custom criteria. In a university environment, this provides students and lecturers with a quick way of finding people with expertise that match the requirements of a particular line of study or inquiry. Integrations with Skype and social features allow users to start dialogues instantly, enhancing the ability to share knowledge and form connections.

Unily University People's Directory

  1. Improving communication

Good internal communications keep staff, students and alumni informed and engaged with a university’s mission, fostering a positive culture and sense of belonging. A modern intranet offers new possibilities for engaging university affiliates with vibrant internal comms. Video capabilities, rich-text editors, and widgets that can surface just about any information available give content creators endless options for keeping communications fresh and dynamic. Opting for a mobile-responsive intranet with native apps opens up new channels of communication, keeping everyone connected at any time, from any device. For comms teams, advanced analytics show you exactly how your content is being consumed allowing you to identify areas for improvement and strategize accordingly.

Unily University Mobile Video

  1. Promoting collaboration

A digital workplace brings people and tools together under one umbrella, opening up new possibilities for efficient collaboration and knowledge sharing. Most universities already take advantage of the Microsoft’s range of collaborative tools like Sharepoint and Teams, using them to streamline teamworking assignments and facilitate feedback. However, adoption is far from universal. Providing an intranet that integrates these tools makes them more usable. And encouraging their use is certainly worth the investment both in the short and long-term; giving students the best tools to succeed now and preparing them for the workplace later.

Unily University Apps and Tools

  1. Centralizing resources

Dedicated workspaces provide a home for department, society or project specific resources and announcements. Instead of turning to social networking sites to create groups and connect interested parties with relevant news and resources, workspaces provide a centralized, internal platform for dissemination. Lecturers can upload supporting materials and advice to their pages and rest assured that everyone has access to the necessary resources and the ability to discuss and collaborate with their cohort in an open, devoted forum.

Unily University iPad Targeted Homepage

  1. Taking the pain out of routine administration

Every year course administrators have the painstaking task of onboarding new undergraduates and reinitiating returning students. Endless form-filling, chasing and reviewing can all be avoided with mandatory content reads that deliver important forms and announcements directly to all relevant users. Forms can be filled in from any device and administrators can easily keep track of those users who have not read or returned the necessary documents. A modern intranet can make routine administration is as simple in practice as it is in theory.

Unily University Mandatory Content

In addition to these features, it is worth mentioning the easy-to-administer governance tools built into leading intranet platforms. This not only allows content managers to easily adjust permissions so that confidential information remains private but provides personalization options that mean users are not inundated with resources that are not relevant to them. Essentially it makes keeping staff, student, and departments specific information separate as a simple as a few clicks.

Could social integration be the answer to adoption?

Unily University People's Directory

Driving engagement to an intranet is a challenge in any environment and requires a clear motivation for adoption: it must do things better than existing systems. In a university setting, leveraging the existing reliance on social media platforms could prove to be a lucrative way of ensuring the success of a new intranet platform.

Social media is already used ubiquitously by staff and students as a platform to communicate, collaborate and promote events, activities, and opportunities.

As a student, if you’re starting a new society, running for a leadership role or looking for a new housemate, nine times out of ten you will turn to Facebook, find or create a group, and start a dialogue.

The same goes for staff, many of whom use social networking sites to reach students on the platform they deem most likely to deliver engagement.

Significant reliance on traditional social networking uncovers a gap in universities’ current digital offerings whilst also highlighting an intuitive route to adoption.

A good intranet will offer the same benefits as leading social networking sites and make them available within the same space as all other applications and resources.

For universities, selecting an intranet with powerful social capabilities could prove to be a clever bottom-up strategy for driving traffic onto the digital workplace by offering a single solution that can compete with established platforms.

Start your journey to a modern digital workplace

In ‘The Idea of a University’ written in 1858 by John Henry Newman, post-Enlightenment universities were envisioned as “a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country”.

In the post-industrial age, we have access to tools which can enhance a university’s ability to deliver these principle capabilities and we shouldn’t be afraid to use them. A powerful digital workplace may just be the technology age’s answer to a modern university experience.

To find out more about how a digital workplace can enhance collaboration and communication for your organization, contact our team today. Our team of experts look forward to working with you to create a platform that supports your staff and students in achieving their potential.

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