It’s no secret that embracing and implementing digital technologies is one of the keys to success for universities today, both in the short and long-term.
Earlier this year, and Jisc commissioned its Digital Strategies in Higher Education report to share insights into how, and to what extent, universities are developing and implementing new digital strategies.
To inform the report, Jisc interviewed ten digital leaders from UK universities, looked at written digital strategies from other universities, and attended various digital-themed higher education conferences. The report provides a snapshot of digital strategy in the UK higher education landscape today.
You can read the full report on the Jisc website. It’s full of interesting and useful information – here are 10 key insights we, at Full Fabric, have gleaned from it:
First and foremost, a university’s digital strategy should be mindful of what has gone before. When it comes to digital, there is no such thing as starting afresh. Any new approaches should aim to build on previous digital strategies and innovations, taking into consideration successes, failures and room for improvement.
The term ‘digital transformation’ doesn’t work – or mean the same thing – for everyone. As written in the report, Keele University’s chief information officer (CIO) and university librarian Dan Perry explains:
“I didn’t want to make this digital thing a huge thing, a huge new strategy. Transformation is a dangerous double edged sword. There may be areas where we will make very substantial changes, where we transform. But Keele University has been doing education since 1949! I will build on that, not transform that.”
It’s true: digital change can often require significant investment in resources and people; however, in terms of planning and resourcing, it’s important to set realistic expectations and position change as a single, large hurdle to overcome.
As Jisc explains in the report, “digital strategies are best implemented as a collection of joined-up smaller initiatives, which can be scaled up and replicated.”
Every university’s journey towards digital change is unique. As such, every strategy will differ and take into account the university’s individual needs and context. It’s also dependent upon the people leading the strategy, and to what extent the organisation as a whole – and those within it – are willing to embrace the journey.
A digital strategy should, according to one of the report’s interviewees, include “people, technology and culture”. It must also align with the university’s institutional/ corporate strategy.
Keele University’s strategy does just that. According to the report, it has three broad themes: education, research and community/region. “So the digital strategy is structured accordingly, explaining how digital will support each area”.
When interviewing digital professionals in higher education for the report, the following six common keys to success came to the fore:
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Every university knows that digital technologies can break down barriers relating to physical space and time. Digital classrooms means universities don’t have to rely on the campus to facilitate lessons, or even the traditional academic calendar.
“Large, in-person lectures will be reserved for plenary events with prestigious guest speakers. These create a sense of occasion and bring the cohort together. Other ‘information delivery’ lectures will be replaced with short video lectures, interviews and podcasts, available on demand for students to study at a time that suits them.”
“... Some institutions will switch to block teaching (Jackson et al, 2020), with students completing each module as an intensive block, rather than a few hours each week stripped over a semester. In some disciplines modules will be redesigned so that they can be taken in any order. Postgraduate courses will have two or three entry dates each year,” the report reads.
The report provides some practical prompts that universities can use to help shape or build on their existing digital strategies.
Some are taken from the Jisc/ Emerge Education report Digital at the core: A 2030 strategy framework for university leaders, (Iosad, 2020) which contains a variety of helpful prompts. Here are some examples:
There will inevitably come a time when digital will be a pervasive part of the background context of higher education, as opposed to an element that is constantly at the fore. In other words, “it will become mainstream”.
“To reach this stage, universities need appropriate, reliable and secure technologies and networks, which work effectively to support a wide range of operations,” the report reads.
“Investment in technology is critical but universities also need to invest to improve the digital capabilities, skills and confidence of their staff and students.”
It is important for universities to equip both students and staff with an understanding of digital tools and techniques. This includes basic competence in using digital tools and techniques, as well as more advanced and specialised digital capabilities for learning, research or specific job roles – skills that will enable them to thrive in their subject or job role.
Ultimately, digital strategy in higher education is not intended to replace human function. It aims to support it. As the report describes so well:
“Education and research are fundamentally human activities and the people that engage with them need to be supported and nurtured to make the most of the opportunities these activities bring. Digital technology has the potential to amplify human interactions, over time and distance, so people can study, work and research together, in new, flexible ways.”