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Digital University: The Future of Education Will Be Personalized


To stay relevant, institutions of higher education must develop digital frameworks that place a premium on student engagement and speed-to-market.

Higher education has forever changed, thanks to shorter technology innovation cycles, digitally obsessed students and democratized online courses, including free YouTube lectures. 

Consequently, students question the rationale for traditional approaches to learning, marked by a school year that begins in September, travel to a particular location and exorbitant, ever-rising tuition costs and fees. They increasingly expect learning opportunities to be on-demand, perpetual and affordable. Because of the sheer number of choices in the digital environment — and the speed with which they appear — students will increasingly seek the most effective, affordable and easy-to-use ways to engage with an education provider.

Figure 1

To keep pace, institutions of higher education must deliver faster, more personalized and less expensive student experiences. Doing so involves technological change via the SMAC Stack (aka social, mobile, analytics and cloud technologies) and a new mindset on how to conduct business. 

So far, higher education has been slow to accept this changed environment. In fact, 79% of IT budgets have been spent on “business-as-usual” operations, with another 15% going toward incremental upgrades, according to recent benchmarks. That leaves just 6% for innovation spending. In our view, this is wholly inadequate and does not serve the best interests of either students or traditional universities. 

Making Education Personal and Relevant

The possibilities for educational innovation span the entire student journey, which encompasses evaluating college options, applying and enrolling, engaging in the learning experience, career planning and alumni interaction. Today, for example, institutions could make much better use of social media and insights gleaned through available data to target applicants with the greatest likelihood of matriculation and student success. Consider the many online activities students engage in when selecting a college: spending time on student forums, seeking peer opinions on Facebook and Twitter, watching relevant YouTube videos, perusing ads and exploring college-matching websites and apps. 

In response, many institutions simply send out information in the hopes that their messaging reaches the right ears. However, with minimal investment, they could assume a more active role. Using big data analytics, for example, they could develop highly personalized promotions — even scholarships and grants — targeting candidates who might previously have escaped notice, laying the foundation for a relationship. Institutions might also offer campus tours through virtual reality headsets, as well as virtual lectures from professors.

Following enrollment, the options can continue. Institutions could offer a wide range of options based on the student’s preferred learning styles, including gamified approaches, remote learning and personalized guidance where needed. Students could join online and offline student groups, collaborate online for assessments, use apps and affiliated services and choose e-textbooks over more expensive print volumes. All of these capabilities offer a major operational advantage (well beyond cost savings) compared with the primarily manual processes that many universities still use today. 

While it’s impossible to know which new products and education models will take hold, it is clear that student content and services will become more relevant, personalized, targeted and on-demand.

A Future-Proof Framework

The speed and breadth of the changes ushered in by digital education may seem daunting to traditional institutions, which must learn to innovate rapidly and continuously or fall behind. We recommend a three-step approach to enabling innovation:


Implement a focused, managed, collaborative discovery process to curate, triage and assess new ideas. Gather a team of stakeholders and experts and invite them to collaboratively “think big,” identifying the areas of highest potential impact. Encourage the team to cast a wide net, thinking both internally and externally.


Develop capabilities in rapid ideation and prototyping, which are at the heart of the continuous innovation cycle. Develop multiple prototypes concurrently, with the intent on realizing quick value, as well as quickly recognizing when an idea is not viable. Use principles of design thinking to ensure that the process or experience being digitized connects humans to strategy.

Fail fast.

Start small by testing the minimum prototype needed among a select portion of the target audience. Identify the tools needed to build the prototype and deploy the pilot. Once finished, observe adoption, request feedback, learn from mistakes and then repeat the process. As pilots gain traction, scale accordingly by adding more users. 

(To see how we do this, check out the following video.)

Cognizant Digital Works™ Accelerator Methodology

At Georgetown University, for example, the widespread availability of online courses encouraged the institution to evaluate its curriculum to determine which areas were generic and interchangeable vs. which were unique competencies. Evaluators determined that many introductory-level courses could be evolved and delivered at a lower cost. According to CIO Lisa Davis, Georgetown went from “zero mobile presence” to hosting 35,000 students, professors and alums in just two years’ time.

Looking Forward

As learning is a fundamental human activity, the impact of digital on education will be more profound than in other industries. Millennial learners will go where they perceive their needs for engagement are being met. In this new world, speed to market is more important than product maturity. By following the above principles, institutions will discover a more capable pathway to launching engaging student experiences and sustainable innovation.

To learn more, read Managing Innovation and Student Expectations and It’s Time for Learning to go Back to School; or visit our Education Technology Practice

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