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17 December 2020

The rapid digital turn: How are universities faring?

COVID-19 brought an unprecedented digital turn to higher education institutions around the world. This rapid transition highlighted both barriers and inequalities among institutions as well as sparked a spirit of innovation.

The spring of 2020 brought rapid change to the higher education landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many higher education institutions around the world to close their doors and move their operations online. Some institutions were prepared having previously invested in educational technology, while others struggled to set up infrastructure, disseminate information, and support their students and staff in this transition (Dockser et al. 2020; Marinoni et al. 2020).  Although the usage of educational technology has gained momentum in recent years (Brown, 2016; Krull & Duart, 2017), COVID-19 accelerated this process and allowed researchers to observe how multiple institutions and their stakeholders simultaneously respond and adapt to large-scale digital change. 

Leading in Times of Uncertainty 

To track this change process, we collaborated with the Global Learning Council and the FernUniverstität in Hagen, Research Cluster – “Digitalization, Diversity and Lifelong Learning – Consequences for Higher Education“ (D²L²) on an international three-step study that investigated how higher education leadership is responding to the rapid digital turn. Specifically, we explored how leaders (e.g. presidents and deans) of higher education institutions and intermediaries (e.g. university associations, policy institutions, foundations and think tanks) coped with the rapid transition to remote / online teaching and learning, the challenges they faced as well as the collaboration and innovation that arose during this transition.  

Emerging Trends 

In May 2020, we launched an international survey among higher education leaders, which resulted in responses from 85 participants from 25 countries. In the late summer, we conducted expert interviews with a select group of these participants from different world regions and have recently sent a follow-up survey to our respondents. 

Crisis Management 

We observed that the majority of participants first responded to the rapid digital turn with a crisis management approach. This included turning their attention to immediate barriers for digital education – addressing technical challenges, making digital tools available, allocating resources and organizing remote exams. Many institutions grappled with a large knowledge gap among their teaching staff: more than 75% of respondents listed lack of expertise regarding digital teaching among instructors as a main challenge. 

Exposing Inequalities

In addition, many respondents reflected on how the crisis exposed existing and new inequalities in the higher education sector. For example, nearly 40% of the respondents reported that lack of technical resources such as internet access, computers and other equipment was a major barrier.  Some respondents shared that not all students have a home environment suitable for digital education as well as have more caring responsibilities due to the closure of schools and childcare facilities. These inequalities were identified within student and staff populations of institutions, across higher education systems as well as attributed to infrastructure challenges at the country-level. 

High-levels of Engagement 

Despite the many challenges institutions faced and continue to face, a number of respondents reported high-levels of engagement and willingness among staff and students to participate in digital education. The digital transition also facilitated the emergence of new collaboration constellations both within and across institutions. For example, several respondents shared how the usage of digital tools allowed them to set up exchange with international scholars more easily as well as streamline communication processes within their institutions. 

Moving Forward 

This chapter on the digital transformation of higher education has yet to come to an end. Time will tell, if and how higher education institutions keep the lessons they learned from this crisis or if they return to business as usual. Much remains to be seen and we look forward to observing this process unfold in our research. 


Brown, M. G. (2016). Blended instructional practice: A review of the empirical literature on instructors’ adoption and use of online tools in face-to-face teaching. The Internet and Higher Education, 31, 1-10.

Dockser, J., Pineda, J., Gebru, M., Ku, A., Olshan, N., Stavros, A., and Testa, A. (2020). Higher Education Response to COVID-19: A Landscape Map of USAID Partner Countries. Washington, D.C.: United States Agency for International Development.

Krull, G., & Duart, J. M. (2017). Research trends in mobile learning in higher education: A systematic review of articles (2011–2015). International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(7).Marinoni, G., Van’t Land, H., & Jensen, T. (2020). The impact of Covid-19 on higher education around the world. IAU Global Survey Report

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Bronwen Deacon

Researcher and project manager: Knowledge & Society

Melissa Laufer, Dr.

Head of Research Programme: Knowledge & Society

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