| Publications | Analyses & Studies | The pandemic as a driver of the digital transformation of universities?

The pandemic as a driver of the digital transformation of universities?

Dr. Roland A. Stürz bidt
Antonia Schlude bidt
Hannes Putfarken Innovationsnetzwerk Niedersachsen
Prof. Dr. Yvette Hofmann LMU Munich School of Management | Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich
Dr. Maike Reimer Bavarian State Institute for Higher Education Research and Planning (IHF)
Nathalie Salmen Bavarian State Institute for Higher Education Research and Planning (IHF)
Franz Classe Bavarian State Institute for Higher Education Research and Planning (IHF)
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As part of the study, the Bavarian State Institute for Higher Education Research and Planning (IHF) and bidt are investigating the effects of the corona pandemic on the digitalisation of teaching and research at universities. The associated impulse of the bidt think tank derives recommendations for action.

The outbreak of the corona pandemic at the beginning of 2020 resulted in drastic changes for the organisation and implementation of research and teaching at German universities. During the coronal pandemic, for example, teaching and research had to be shifted almost entirely to digital space for infection control reasons. To what extent was this shift successful? What problems arose in the process? And can sustainable effects on the digital transformation of universities be expected as a result?

IHF and bidt have investigated these questions in a cooperation project. For this purpose, 3,846 professors from universities and universities of applied sciences (HAWs) in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Lower Saxony and Saxony were surveyed during the corona pandemic. Secondly, the assessments of 1,847 students and 4,090 employed graduates from Bavaria were collected.

The most important facts in brief

Shift of teaching to the digital realm largely successful, but classic teaching formats still predominant

The majority of professors are of the opinion that the universities have succeeded well in shifting their teaching and examinations during the corona pandemic. Before the coronal pandemic, teaching at Bavarian universities was largely face-to-face, whereby HAW professors had already digitalised their teaching to a much greater extent on average than their colleagues at the universities. They have been able to extend this lead in some cases over the past few months.

However, the digitisation of teaching is still dominated by teaching formats that are carried out virtually but are similar to analogue (face-to-face) lectures in many areas, such as lectures or seminars via web conferencing tools or teaching videos. Learner-centred teaching formats such as blended learning, flipped classroom or just-in-time teaching also experienced an upswing, but to a comparatively much lesser extent.

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The majority of professors rated the university’s handling of the corona pandemic and the concrete support provided by the universities as positive

All in all, the professors assess their university’s handling of the coronal pandemic quite positively; at HAWs, the assessment tends to be somewhat better than at universities. The majority of respondents attest that their university has taken adequate measures and implemented them quickly. In addition, the majority of the professors surveyed consider themselves to be adequately informed about the implemented measures. The concrete support provided by the university in the form of guidance and resources is also generally rated as good – the former better at universities, the latter better at HAWs. These assessments have improved overall compared to the pre-pandemic survey.

Overarching digital transformation processes at universities are rated cautiously by professors, but the benefits of the digitalisation push during the coronal pandemic are predominantly assessed positively

The overarching digital transformation processes that have long been initiated at both central and faculty level are rated less favourably by the professoriate – for example, the linking of teaching and administration with the help of digital technologies or the need-based and appropriate IT services. Overall, the HAWs also have a slight lead over the universities here. In addition, it is recognisable that the outbreak of the corona pandemic triggered a significant digitalisation push at all universities and that in many places there is an
improvement compared to the time before the coronavirus.

However, although the professors do not always give the university administrations a good report card in terms of digital transformation, the majority of professors believe that the digitalisation processes during the coronavirus have benefited their own university, the faculty, the department, themselves and the students. Here, too, HAW professors rate the benefits of the digital transformation higher than university professors.

Research made significantly more difficult during the corona pandemic

The continuation of their own research under pandemic conditions is described by the professors as significantly more problematic than the conversion of teaching. This applies in particular to the adaptation of research processes in the virtual space. Nevertheless, on average, the respondents were able to keep the proportion of their working time spent on research at the same level as two years ago. This proportion is just under a third for professors at universities and just under a quarter for professors at HAWs.

Job satisfaction of professors hardly changed during the pandemic

The average job satisfaction of professors has changed only slightly during the corona pandemic: As two years ago, a good 60% of all respondents say they are (very) satisfied with their work situation. Satisfaction at universities has even risen somewhat, whereas it has fallen slightly at HAWs. Important factors influencing job satisfaction during the corona pandemic are the short-term nature of the necessary changes, inadequate equipment, lack of support from the university and restrictions on the content of the digitisation options.

Assessments of Bavarian professors in comparison to the federal states are partly more positive

A comparison of Bavarian professors with those from three other federal states (Baden-Württemberg, Lower Saxony and Saxony) reveals similarities, but also differences that do not follow a uniform pattern.

For example, general job satisfaction is higher in Bavaria than in Lower Saxony. In Lower Saxony, on the other hand, the university’s handling of the corona pandemic and the necessary support as well as the orientation assistance for the conversion of working methods to digital possibilities by the university tend to be rated more positively. The difficulties in converting teaching are rated as lower in Bavaria than in Saxony and Lower Saxony. Across the Länder, the narrow time horizon for the conversion and poor internet connections are the biggest problems.

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Support from the university largely rated as good by students, but to a somewhat lesser extent than by professors

About half of the students surveyed at universities and HAWs in Bavaria consider themselves to be well supported by their university in terms of guidance and resources. A direct comparison of the professors’ statements with those of the students reveals similarities: Both groups rate the necessary support, the guidance and the provision of resources as good for the most part. Both students and professors agree that the provision of resources is the best. However, the positive assessment of the students is generally somewhat less pronounced than that of the professors. In addition, the differences between professors and students are more pronounced at HAWs than at universities.

Limits of digital teaching recognised by students in interactions during their studies, preparation for the digitalised world of work seen critically

Overall, students notice clear limits to the interaction possibilities in digital formats when it comes to teaching that has been shifted to the virtual space. This particularly concerns the possibilities of social interaction with other students: Only about one fifth assume that this can succeed in digital formats. The proportion is higher for subject-related interactions (with each other and with teachers), but here too only about a third of the students assume that there are successful opportunities for interaction in online formats. The assessment of the preparation for the challenges of a digitalised working world through the study programme is also reserved: Only about a third feel well or very well prepared, and just under another third feel at least partially prepared.

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Recommendations for action

Take up impulses from the digitisation of teaching, further develop suitable hybrid formats and blended learning for the future

The past few months of teaching being forced into the digital space should be comprehensively evaluated by the universities in order to draw conclusions for the design of teaching in the future. The search for a suitable combination of face-to-face and online teaching should be at the centre of this.

The findings from the last semesters should also be used to further develop existing formats. For example, in the future, face-to-face events can be increasingly supplemented with digital elements and online formats can be designed to be more interactive and learner-centred. Methods and technologies that have hardly been used in higher education so far, such as virtual reality or digital learning games or gamification of teaching, are suitable for this purpose.

Only by conveying teaching content in classic teaching formats combined with new innovative methods and technologies will it be possible to realise the full potential of digitised teaching. Ultimately, higher education institutions should strive to align teaching more closely with the needs of students and their learning goals and offer integrated, hybrid learning – so-called blended learning.

Involve stakeholders in the digital transformation, create spaces for experimentation

In order to better align teaching with the needs of students, higher education institutions must involve them more than before in the further development of the teaching offer. The systematic analysis of student data, which actually deteriorated during the corona pandemic, must therefore be expanded.

The insights gained from the analyses can help to make better decisions for the further development of the teaching offer. In addition, greater direct student participation should also be considered. It is important that attention is also paid to inclusion and equal opportunities for all students in the further development of the teaching offer towards blended learning.

Higher education institutions should also increasingly offer experimental spaces in which students and teachers can rethink and test teaching. As the survey shows, there is a considerable need to catch up here. These experimental spaces are also suitable for testing new cooperations across university and state borders in order to advance digitisation.

Teaching digital competences and other soft skills to students and teachers

The study results make it clear that higher education institutions need to teach digital skills to students across disciplines even more than before so that they are better prepared for the digitalised world of work in the future. Teachers must be empowered to teach these digital skills.

Many universities have recognised the need to teach the corresponding competences and the corona pandemic has once again increased awareness of this. Corresponding initiatives must now be expanded and further developed.

The didactic skills of teaching staff should also be specifically developed with regard to the use of new digital teaching formats and the use of new media. Teaching from a distance requires different skills and competences than classical face-to-face teaching. Accordingly, the training and further education of teachers must be advanced.

Universities are therefore encouraged to further expand investments in the development and training of the necessary digital competences among teachers.

Increase incentives, stabilise funding

The compulsion to digitise teaching offers in order to maintain teaching at all during the corona pandemic has led to a significant digitisation push. However, in order to be able to offer more complex digital teaching formats, such as virtual learning realities or learning games, in greater numbers in the medium and long term, suitable incentives are needed.

In addition to suitable incentives, for example within the framework of the teaching load system, the creation of new digital teaching formats also requires suitable financial resources. Support units with programmers, but also staff in the areas of media and didactics as well as instructional design must be established, further developed and sustainably maintained.

Additional funding during the corona pandemic facilitated the timely provision of new services. If the additional funds provided during the corona pandemic run out without a meaningful continuation perspective, the digitalisation boost that was triggered threatens to fizzle out in the medium and long term. For the universities, therefore, a long-term financing perspective for the digital transformation must be created in the future beyond temporary funding.