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    Key insights from JISC Report – Digital strategies in UK higher education: making digital mainstream

    JISC’s Digital strategies in UK higher education outlines some key transformation strategies for universities
    Last updated:
    December 6, 2023

    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:

    1. It’s important to learn from what’s gone before

    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.  

    2. Don’t be afraid to create your own language

    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.”

    3. Think small, not big

    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.”

    4. There’s no one-size-fits-all

    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.

    5. Digital and corporate strategies must align

    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”.

    6. There are 6 keys to success

    When interviewing digital professionals in higher education for the report, the following six common keys to success came to the fore:

    • Robust and secure technology infrastructure, which is regularly upgraded and improved – it is apparent that a number of higher education institutions need to improve their digital infrastructure to minimise disruption.
    • Effective processes for managing investment and change – unlike traditional large projects, such as those relating to on-site construction, digital project management needs to be smaller and more flexible, to account for changing requirements.
    • Strong stakeholder engagement and customer focus – evaluating data from digital systems, tools and services can help universities understand stakeholder expectations and engagement, and in turn shape effective strategies.
    • Digitally aware executive leadership – success in digital transformation also depends on how digitally capable senior leaders are, which is why some universities appoint a board member with expertise in the area.
    • Development of all stakeholders’ digital skills and capabilities – as well as leaders, the institution should ensure that everyone within the organisation is equipped with the digital skills they require to do their job well.
    • Evidence-based centres of expertise in digital research and education – some universities in the report have academic digital research institutes, such as the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Leeds, which works alongside the professional digital education service.

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    7. Digital can equate to more freedom

    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.

    8. Prompts can help you

    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:

    • Where do we focus our attention and resources? E.g. What is our attitude to digital: is our main priority operational resilience and business continuity; enhancing the university’s mission; or major changes to our business model?
    • How do we gather data, to know what is needed? E.g. How do we gather the expectations and experiences of our staff, students and other stakeholders, to ensure we truly understand requirements for the digital systems they use?
    • What do we need to put in place for successful digital change? E.g. Is there sufficient digital awareness among the executive team and the board for them to make informed decisions in strategic digital areas, to inspire and model good practice?

    9. Digital transformation is the new normal

    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.

    10. Human interaction is as important as ever

    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.”

    If you’d like to learn more about digital strategies in higher education, check out the full report on Jisc and explore Full Fabric’s resources on digital transformation.

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