Driving Digital Transformation in Higher Education

Introduction and Key Findings

circuit board lines on a blue-green circular background with EDUCAUSE logo


Digital transformation (Dx) is more than merely migrating paper records to a computer, and it is more than adopting technologies to perform business operations faster and more efficiently. As we at EDUCAUSE define it, Dx is "a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution's business model, strategic directions, and value proposition."1  Dx runs wide and deep across the whole institution, requiring innovative leadership at all levels, as well as advanced cross-unit coordination. And it demands flexibility and agility that will stretch higher education beyond the comforts of its traditions.

Dx is a journey with multiple paths and many stages. It is not a single transformative initiative but a process of increasingly consequential transformations. Regardless of where higher education might be on the Dx journey, though, we can all work together to better understand Dx, to share and learn from our collective experiences, and to build better models and stronger capabilities for Dx in the future.

That is the purpose of this report and the research it summarizes: to enrich the collective understanding of Dx in higher education and explore the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead on the Dx journey.

In August 2019, EDUCAUSE disseminated a survey to higher education IT leaders to explore their current experiences, attitudes, and practices related to Dx at their institution. Specifically, the survey presented respondents with a comprehensive set of questions focused on EDUCAUSE's three primary Dx indicators:

Culture shifts: Is the institution progressing toward shared institutional goals, emphasizing change management, and increasing in agility and flexibility to meet rapidly changing needs?

Workforce shifts: Is the institution fostering new skills and competencies and responding to opportunities to reinvent human resource management?

Technology shifts: Are IT leaders adopting innovative practices and technologies and strategically implementing those practices and technologies to support new institutional directions?2 

This report summarizes the findings from our analyses of the responses we received from the 181 IT leaders who completed the survey. Our hope is that this report will not only shed light on the current status of Dx across the higher education landscape but also point readers to the horizons of that landscape and enable them to identify their next steps forward on the Dx journey at their institution.

Key Findings

  • We cannot ignore digital transformation (Dx). The importance of Dx has been growing in recent years and is expected to continue to grow.
  • Few say their institution is currently engaged in digital transformation, but many are preparing to do so. Slightly more than half of respondents said they think their institution is either not yet engaged with Dx but is exploring it or is not engaged in Dx at all. However, almost one-third report that their institution is developing a Dx strategy.
  • Optimism about achieving Dx in the near future is high. Respondents think their institution can make significant strides toward digital transformation in the next five years. Those who have yet to start thinking about Dx are expected to be significantly behind those already planning and implementing Dx approaches.
  • Perceptions about who is aware of, understands, and supports Dx vary widely by campus role. Groups that are closer to technology and digital innovations (e.g., CIOs, librarians, directors of institutional research, and student success leaders) are believed to both understand and support Dx efforts more than those in other groups. Executives and administrators are thought to have a long way to go to develop awareness and understanding of Dx.
  • Dx is a student-centered endeavor. The major benefits and drivers for engaging in digital transformation are related to the student experience and student success efforts. Dx is also seen as potentially beneficial to improving the institution's reputation, competing with institutional peers, and improving the financial health of the institution.
  • The impact of Dx across institutional functions varies widely so far. The digital transformation of institutional functions is an uneven process, with some functions (e.g., central IT, libraries) being significantly more advanced along the path to Dx than others (e.g., community partnerships, faculty promotion and tenure).
  • The greatest barriers to Dx are the usual suspects: culture change and cost. Not having information digitized and processes digitalized are also seen as barriers to Dx. Privacy is considered to be the lowest barrier to carrying out Dx initiatives.

Learn More

Access additional materials on the Digital Transformation research hub.

© 2020 D. Christopher Brooks and Mark McCormack. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Citation for this work
D. Christopher Brooks and Mark McCormack. Driving Digital Transformation in Higher Education. ECAR research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, June 2020.


  1. Malcolm Brown, Betsy Reinitz and Karen Wetzel, "Digital Transformation Signals: Is Your Institution on the Journey?"EDUCAUSE Review, Enterprise Connections Blog, October 9, 2019.

  2. Ibid.