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Digitisation: Challenges and opportunities

Dr. Silvia Steiner, Government Councillor and President of the Council of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts

Digitisation is everywhere today. Be it in the lecture halls, ateliers or research laboratories of the Zurich universities of applied sciences  digitisation has become a reality. But how do we deal with the digital transformation? How can we ensure that our education system remains among the best in the world?

The opportunities of digitisation

First things first: Contrary to what cultural pessimists keep telling us, we are not being overrun by digitisation. Instead of merely reacting, our schools and universities have embraced the digital challenges and are tackling them with optimism. We do not consider digitisation a threat, but rather a major opportunity. This applies in particular to countries like Switzerland with its high-quality education system and strong international connections.It is a fact that digitisation is changing the way in which we teach and conduct research. This not only requires that universities be open and flexible, but also of course lecturers and students.Networking is the word of the hour. Digitisation also leads to a closer collaboration between academia, economy and society. This megatrend can be an opportunity for Zurich as a centre of education and research, and there are many options for promising partnerships, be it with innovative startups or large technology companies.

New competences are becoming more important

However, universities will face further challenges as the projects become larger, more complex and increasingly interdisciplinary. This affects infrastructure in particular. If universities are to meet the digital challenges, it is of key importance that they have enough space at their disposal, especially in more complex operations. Digitisation has a major impact on the work of our lecturers as well. Since knowledge can be accessed everywhere, their task is less and less limited to pure knowledge transfer; lecturers also assume the role of a coach or motivator.For our students, the use of digital technology means more flexibility. They can now choose from a wide variety of subject matters and methods. They can also organise their learning processes more efficiently and customise them to their needs. At the same time, the pressure on students is growing. With knowledge available to everyone at all times, personal skills such as creativity, teamwork and social competence are becoming more and more important. An innovative spirit and the ability to think outside the box are key factors that determine both success and failure.So what do our universities need in order to remain successful in the digital age? The answer is simple: networking, open-mindedness and a commitment to meet the challenges and opportunities of digitisation. In view of the many successful projects at our universities, I am convinced that we are on the right track.

Knowledge transfer and digital transformation

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Andrea Schenker-Wicki, Member of the Council of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts, ZHAW consultant

Dr. Matthias Kaiserswerth, Member of the Council of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts, ZHAW consultant

As a university of applied sciences, the ZHAW plays an important role when it comes to knowledge transfer at the interface between research on the one hand and business and society on the other. This transfer role is becoming more and more important as the cycles between innovation and/or idea and implementation are becoming shorter and shorter. Digital innovations in particular occur in extremely short cycles.

Interdisciplinary transfer services

An example of this transfer function is the interdisciplinary ZHAW platform Industry 4.0 from the School of Engineering, which comprehensively supports businesses with the transformation to Industry 4.0. The platform shows how the intelligent networking of facilities, products and people can create new processes, business models and services. The transfer role of universities is essential, particularly in highly complex subject areas such as data science. The university is in a strong position with the ZHAW Datalab, which was founded in 2013 as one of the first interdisciplinary data science initiatives in Europe, and around 70 researchers from three schools now work together in the network. The digital revolution is also triggering profound changes in the field of life sciences. The School of Life Sciences and Facility Management has reacted to this and established a centre for high performance computing, which is available to researchers for implementing computationally intensive algorithms and simulations.

Besides machines, the focus is also on people

Besides machines, the ZHAW also focuses on people. Researchers are investigating the impact of technological developments on the labour market. Examples of this include the School of Management and Law with its studies on the effects of digitisation in fields such as banking, public management and health economics, as well as the School of Applied Psychology with its studies and continuing education on the topic People in the Workplace 4.0.Education is also affected by the digital transformation. Digital technologies are enabling innovative and more flexible forms of teaching and learning, leading to a didactic cultural change. One example from the ZHAW is the Flex study format in the Bachelor's Program in Business Administration, which combines supervised online learning with classroom sessions to offer students greater flexibility. The acquisition of factual knowledge is being shifted to self-study in an increasing number of course modules, allowing more time during in-class lectures for practical training and specialisation in interdisciplinary competencies such as consulting and communication. Examples from the School of Engineering also show that the use of interactive simulators or virtual reality environments in the classroom broaden the didactic possibilities enormously.The Council of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts welcomes the ZHAW's strong efforts to tackle the various challenges of the digital transformation for the entire institution and to establish a partial strategy on education and digital transformation.

Anniversary with a focus on the future

Prof. Dr. Jean-Marc Piveteau, President

In 2017, the ZHAW celebrated its tenth anniversary. Four universities of applied sciences joined forces in 2007. Today, the ZHAW with its eight schools is one of Switzerland's leading universities of applied sciences. During this period, both the number of students and the number of continuing education participants have more than doubled. In addition, the research capacity has increased significantly. However, the anniversary was not simply an opportunity to look back; we also used it as an opportunity to concentrate on the future development of our university, for example, our University Day, which focused on the future of university teaching in the age of digitisation.

Promoting young scientists

Talking about the future, we have made an important and gratifying step in promoting young scientists. The federal government has decided to finance joint doctoral programmes at universities of applied sciences and universities from 2017 to 2020 as part of the federal project contributions. At the ZHAW, seven of these collaborations are supported in specific fields. Thanks to these programmes, we can offer our young scientists a promising perspective.With respect to research, we were able to concentrate on our key topics. For example, the research focal point on societal integration gained momentum in 2017 and an internal call for project proposals has met with broad interest. The Executive Board selected 14 projects to support over the next two years. With this focal point, the ZHAW aims to use its interdisciplinary strengths as a multidisciplinary university, thus making a scientific contribution to pressing social issues.In line with the Swiss Federal Energy Strategy 2050, the ZHAW defined energy as a research focal point. After four years, the Executive Board decided to have this research focal point evaluated in its entirety. I am very pleased that the external evaluation by experts has had positive findings. The report states that over the last three to five years, the ZHAW has established a leading position among Swiss universities of applied sciences in the field of energy research. Energy will remain a focal point of ZHAW research and development in the future.

The focus remains on the future

However, we do not wish to rest on our laurels, but rather aim to continue on our successful course. Improving our university is an on-going process. In 2017, we continued implementing a comprehensive quality management system that complies with the principles of our quality culture. Peer reviews of all ZHAW units play a central role in the quality strategy, and the Executive Board was the first to undergo such a peer review in 2017. Self-reflection as well as an exchange and dialogue of equals with external colleagues have proven to be very enriching.The anniversary year was also a time of change in the Executive Board. Three deans retired following many years of dedicated service. After being elected by the Council of the Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts, three new deans assumed their positions in 2017. I am very pleased that in all three cases we were able to recruit people with long-standing experience for these important tasks.