COVID-19 has changed the way we collaborate and communicate. It has also revealed the limitations of some of the digital collaboration tools people have had to use, including in sectors like education and healthcare. COVID-19 created a `rush’ to simply get functions online (classes, health consultations, staff meetings). But people in these sectors are now asking the question – how do we use these digital tools to make these interactions more immersive and engaging, and potentially create virtual experiences that are better than real life?

If there’s one thing the COVID-19 experience has taught us, it’s that digital collaboration at scale and at strength is possible, it’s effective and it’s powerful as a way to keep us connected and communicating.

And it’s here to stay, set only to become more useful and engaging as our work and workplaces, like the world around them, keep changing.

Nowhere has that been truer than in education and healthcare.

These are two domains that have been at the eye of the pandemic storm and whose adjustment to digital collaboration platforms at scale, speed and intensity has been remarkable.

For many, the experience came loaded with other challenges too – long hours on video calls, coping with varying degrees of isolation and social dislocation, balancing work, children and often difficult health and care challenges too. It’s been an astonishing achievement of resilience and possibility, but it’s been tough and challenging too.

It took several months for coronavirus to spread through the world and infect millions of people. Our digital infrastructure might collapse in a single day. And whereas school and offices could speedily shift online, how much time do you think it will take you to shift back from email to snail-mail.  

-Yuval Harari

But as the historian Yuval Harari recently pointed out[1], the pandemic has entrenched the Internet and the collaboration tools and communication platforms it supports as one of our greatest assets.  Just imagine if, challenging though it was at times, and difficult to access and use for some, we hadn’t been able to rely on the Internet’s fabric of connections to keep us learning, working, connecting, trading, governing, shopping, being entertained, delivering and supporting.

That is the context for a new research paper, How Digital Collaboration is Shaping the Future of Healthcare and Education, from the National Industry Innovation Network (NIIN).

The Network, established in July 2020, is a new alliance led by Cisco and Optus in partnership with La Trobe University and Curtin University.  Its purpose is to accelerate innovation and improve Australia’s long-term digital economic resilience and transformation.

It’s a new model for industry and universities to collaborate in addressing real-world industry challenges and responding to long-term national interests. It will act as both a clearing house for immediate industry challenges and a driver for economic stimulus, resilience and recovery through digital transformation.

The paper on digital collaboration in healthcare and education is one of the first pieces of joint work from the new network, co-authored by leading academics at La Trobe and Curtin.  It was the focus for a webinar that brought the authors together with other learning and technology leaders in both universities and Cisco and Optus experts focused on the impact of digital collaboration on new ways of working.

Hosted and facilitated by Martin Stewart-Weeks (Public Purpose), the discussion was anchored by the three factors which the paper’s research and consultation has reinforced as critical to adoption of collaborative technology:

  • The importance and urgency of the underlying need
  • The attitude of the people required to make changes as a consequence of the new digital tools and platforms
  • The cost and effort weighed against the benefit from the technology that facilitates change.

The paper sets out a series of domains in both healthcare and education in each of which the research charts future directions, some of the main opportunities and challenges, what role collaboration platforms can play and, in a very practical sense, the requirements for provisioning and maintaining the platforms.

A few things became clear from the conversation about some of the underlying opportunities, and risks from the rapid and intense evolution of new capabilities for more effective digital collaboration in both health and education:

  • The invention and mobilisation of new technology almost always outstrips, and in fact helps to accelerate, the cultural and human changes of mind and heart that are necessary to gradually align behaviour with the new tools.

That’s very much the case from this research, in which all agreed that a major future trend will be the focus on the steady evolution of a culture of work and collaboration that matches and guides the technology’s potential.

  • Sometimes the provisioning of basic tools, infrastructure and equipment is a massive undertaking in itself. None of the obvious benefits, or the risks too, of these new platforms and ways of working can be properly dealt with if the investment isn’t there to provision the tools and assets themselves.
  • “Software isn’t the same thing as experience” was an insight in the conversation that homed in on the importance of crafting not just the connections the technology makes possible, but satisfying and appealing experiences for the learners, teachers, patients, doctors and health workers who make those connections. It’s the experience that matters in the end, or what the whitepaper headlined as the “richness of human interaction.”
  • Collaboration tools and platforms need to be simple to use and intuitive to navigate, and they need to be reliable, predictable and safe too (or, in the words of the whitepaper, “intuitive, integrated and smart”). The pandemic has been a powerful catalyst for the dramatic improvement in all of those dimensions.

Where we have got to as a result of the intensity of the last 12 months offers a “dividend” that should be invested in going further.  Many in the conversation agreed we can’t afford to not take the dramatic advances we’ve made as the starting point for the next phase of the collaboration journey.

Perhaps the underlying sentiment in the whitepaper’s research, reinforced in the webinar conversation, is that the humanity of these new and powerful tools and technologies is key.  

As the whitepaper concludes:

“Getting the mindset and process right serves the basis for, and informs the adoption and development of, collaborative technology. If we do not get the order right, one might very well have the best collaborative tools in the market, but still struggle with collaboration.”


Learn more about the digital collaboration in education by downloading our webinar. Watch Now.

And if you want to stay on-top of all things thought-leadership in education and healthcare, head over to our #EducationNow and #HealthcareNow blog series.


Reg Johnson

General Manager, Education

Cisco Australia and New Zealand