Towards a more innovative, competitive, and accessible higher education: Microsoft’s Digital University project in Slovakia and Czechia

The digitalisation of education, especially when it comes to the higher education sector, is a hot topic not just on a global scale but also in Slovakia. This is also reflected in key strategic documents such as the national Recovery & Resilience Plan and embedded in the planning for upcoming reform of the education system in Slovakia. Universities also cooperate with one another through theDigital University projectcreated in cooperation between Microsoft Slovakia and the Czech Republic with more than 25 technological partners. The project puts forward an interactive and user-friendly platform, which contains practical examples and real-world scenarios that can be used by universities in their digitalisation efforts. The platform can be used by universities regardless of their field of study, teaching, science and research facilities, or the administrative running of universities. Two universities in Slovakia participated in the project: the Žilina University and Comenius University. 

The Digital University project: perspectives from Slovakia and Czechia

The Digital University project is unique in Slovakia and Czechia with its objective to build a collection of modern solutions that are already in use by some universities to digitalise and provide interpretation of results. To achieve this, Microsoft works more intensively in the starting phases with each higher education institution to co-design a digitalisation plan according to the university’s agenda. Through the Digital University project universities can also share experience with like-minded partners and seek inspiration from the solutions already in place. According to Marcela Havrilová, Director of the Education Section of Microsoft Slovakia and Czechia: 

“The digital university is not about the vision of the future. It is a materialisation of our vision of how life at a university could look like today at a time of digital transformation. We took care to ensure that each of the solutions was already available and that universities could deploy and use them.  It materialises our discussions with universities on why it is important to modernise processes, how it can be used, what technologies can be used, what solutions we bring to the academic environment to help meet the goals each university or university has.”

The project is built based on an assessment and review of 65 technological solutions produced by Slovak and Czech technology firms and can complement students’ throughout the higher education process: from the first step in the university to graduation. It can also be used by higher education institutions’ management to coordinate and set-up internal processes, or give hybrid tools to teachers to facilitate teaching and learning. Finally, the Digital University project also brings together an entire network of researchers and scientists in IT and digital communication.  

Going digital: opportunities for students and educators

The digitalisation of higher education brings benefits to both students and educators. For students, it means being able to access relevant information before you enrol, for example through a virtual tour during an online Open Day. Digital tools and technologies can be used to manage online admissions tests and help students navigate in shared interactive syllabuses. With academic content and lectures available online, students can take more time to plan their studies in the way it suits them best. Increased digitalisation of processes and integration of tools can also facilitate online consultations or digital communication between university departments. 

For educators, digitalisation means that data on students’ performance, attendance and results is constantly updated, allowing for immediate visualisation of their progress. Moreover, through remote cooperation tools and virtualisation of the environment, they can work with colleagues from all over the world in real time and, until recently, could only solve complex problems with cloud computing power.

Adopting digital solutions makes universities more effective – and efficient

A large part of the project is dedicated to people responsible for IT governance in order to give them an overview of functional, high-quality solutions and help them with the process of adoption and implementation of new solutions, following the example of the commercial world. So far, three Czech and two Slovak universities have participated in the project: University of PardubiceKarlova University,Czech University of Life Sciences, Žilina University and Comenius University.

The University of Žilina has embarked on digitalisation a while ago: according to Jozef Jandačka, Rector of the University of Žilina, the university is aiming to go digital in virtually all processes: from education and science, to managerial decisions, or the services provided to students and staff. 

“Naturally, the processes of communication with the student, providing information and teaching are crucial for us. Funding is not so much and we need to find optimal solutions to the current challenges we want to implement.”

Comenius University in Bratislava also did not wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to hit Europe to kickstart digitalisation projects. As Zuzana Kovačičová, Vice-Rector of Comenius University highlights, a certain degree of digitalisation is also needed for internal processes. In her words, 

“During the pandemic, we have moved to a remote form of teaching and news was the online performance of exams or recruitment processes. To lead the university and report our activities to public authorities, we are building a data warehouse, which we also intend to use for marketing to attract students. The digital university is a well of ideas for us. We have not even been able to imagine a number of published digital solutions a few months ago, while today we also have a list of specific potential suppliers” 

In total, the Digital University project has 15 examples of good practice from the background of the Czech and Slovak universities involved, covering a variety of aspects from the functioning of the HEI and are already usable in practice today.

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