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    My Job in Higher Ed with Sarah Knight, Head of Change: Student Experience at Jisc

    This month, we spoke with Sarah Knight, Head of Change: Student Experience at Jisc. Sarah leads the teams supporting the Digital Experience Insights service, as well as a team developing the Jisc Building Digital Capability service to aid the development of staff and student digital capabilities. Sarah has been at the helm of a number of transformation projects on curriculum design, digital literacies and learners’ experiences of technology for the past 15 years.
    Last updated:
    December 3, 2021

    In her role as Head of Change: Student Experience at Jisc, Sarah Knight leads the teams supporting the Digital Experience Insights service, as well as a team developing the Jisc Building Digital Capability service to aid the development of staff and student digital capabilities. Sarah has worked for Jisc for 15 years; during that time she has been at the helm of a number of transformation projects on curriculum design, digital literacies and learners’ experiences of technology.

    In 2013, working with colleagues in higher education, Sarah established the Change Agents’ Network, a national network to support staff-student partnership working on technology enhanced curriculum projects. She also held the vice-chair position at ELESIG from 2017-2018. ELESIG is a community of researchers and practitioners from higher, further and skills sector education who are involved in investigations of learners' experiences and uses of technology in learning.

    We caught up with Sarah to find out more about her illustrious role, the work Jisc is doing to support higher education institutions and how it’s helping them prepare for the fourth industrial revolution...


    Hi Sarah! First off, What does Jisc stand for and what is its mission?


    Jisc is a not-for-profit providing the UK’s national research and education network, Janet, and technology solutions for its members – colleges, universities and research centres. It is funded by the UK higher and further education and research funding bodies and member institutions.

    Jisc does three main things for its members:

    • Operates and develops the super-fast and secure Janet Network and its built-in cyber security protection.  
    • Helps save time and money by negotiating sector-wide deals with IT vendors and commercial publishers.
    • Provides trusted advice and practical assistance on digital technology.

    Jisc’s vision is for the UK to be the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world.

    How would you describe your role as Head of Change in the Student Experience team?

    I am very privileged in my role as Head of Change, to be involved in innovative services which are supporting colleges and universities to make the most effective use of technology. Through our underpinning research and development, we are able to share tools, resources and guidance on how staff can develop their digital capabilities to fully realise the benefits of technology. This enables students to be better prepared for a digital workplace. 

    My role enables me to work with universities and colleges so I can see first hand how technology is transforming the learning experience of their students. I am also fortunate to be invited to speak at national and international events to share our work but most importantly learn through what others are doing. My role is varied and I enjoy working in our vibrant and varied educational community. 

    I am passionate about ensuring staff and students realise the benefits of technology and want to ensure that technology is used appropriately and effectively in learning and teaching. I also believe in the power of communities and the work I have done in supporting the Change agents’ network and the student experience experts group, has proven the value in sharing practice and making links with others across both further and higher education.

    What is the most rewarding part of your job?


    One of the most rewarding parts of my job is working with staff that are leading change in their colleges or universities. To see first hand how their practice is transforming education for their students is so valuable. I also enjoy seeing how the work of my team is valued and the impact this is having on institutions in driving forward digital practice.

    I am very lucky to work with such a talented and motivated team who bring new ideas on how we can better support our community. Their experience of the educational sector is vital in informing the service developments we do.

    An area of work I am particularly proud of is having been involved with pioneering Jisc research into students’ experiences of technology since 2005.  Through the Change Agents’ Network, I've enjoyed working with students who are leading innovative change within their colleges and universities – as digital leaders, digital mentors, champions and researchers. 

    To gain insights into how students view their educational experience and the role technology plays enables us to better support their digital student experience. Students always surprise me with their creative ideas and different perspectives on their educational experience – I enjoy the challenge and seeing their ideas develop and influence practice.

    How many institutions do you currently support? 


    All UK universities financed through the UK’s higher education funding providers are members of Jisc, and we also offer membership subscriptions to alternative HE providers. More than 160 higher education institutions are Jisc members, along with further education colleges and research centres.


    What are some of the most exciting technologies and processes that you’re working with currently, and how are these helping to transform the student experience?


    The two areas of work which are the most exciting and respond to the widely reported digital skills gap are our Building Digital Capability service and our Digital Experience Insights surveys.

    We have been tackling these challenges since 2008 through research and investigations to better understand and support the development of digital capability for students and staff - the skills needed to live, learn and work in a digital society (Jisc, 2014). 

    Work has included: the development of a nationally recognised digital capabilities framework (Jisc, 2017) which has provided a shared vocabulary to describe digital capabilities; a series of profiles that breakdown of the capabilities relevant to particular educational roles (developed in consultation with professional bodies); a ‘discovery tool’ – an empowering first step for staff and students to reflect on their digital skills which generates a personalised report suggesting next steps and developmental resources; organisational models; and curriculum resources. 

    The student digital experience insights survey was first developed by Jisc (UK) in 2016, building on findings from a programme of student-centred research (Jisc 2014-16). This found that few institutions were collecting evidence from students about their experiences of digital learning, despite decades of investment in digital infrastructure, and many initiatives to embed digital experiences into the curriculum. 

    Those that were engaging, did so with one-off surveys that were not always well designed, and did not allow for comparisons or year-on-year tracking. University leaders wanted up-to-date information about their own students – and they wanted to know that it was reliable, credible, and actionable.

    The survey has been developed and validated over a three-year pilot cycle using a co-design approach. It has involved over 100 institutions and over 100,000 students and staff.  It is the second largest international survey of its kind. It differs from other surveys in that universities own the process, and share ownership of the data, and in the emphasis on student involvement throughout. 

    "We need ensure that technology is not used for its own sake but where it can offer pedagogical benefits and opportunities to do things differently and more effectively."

    What can busy higher ed professionals do to keep up with the fast pace of digital change?


    One of the most valuable ways of keeping in touch with technical developments is to connect into communities of practice. We have a number we support including our student experience experts group, a community of practice around digital capabilities and one around better understanding student and staff experiences and expectations of technology.  These are invaluable in sharing practice, working together on the current challenges and co-developing solutions especially in a climate of diminishing resources.

    There are numerous Jiscmail lists which also offer valuable information to assist with keeping abreast with latest technical developments and of course there is Twitter which offers a valuable network nationally and internationally.

    As educators we have a role in keeping our own skills updated and although the pace of technological change is fast, the change in associated practices tends to lag behind. We need ensure that technology is not used for its own sake but where it can offer pedagogical benefits and opportunities to do things differently and more effectively.


    In your opinion, what is the biggest digital challenge institutions face at the moment?


    With a UK government expectation that by 2037, 90% of all jobs will require some element of digital skills (Skills Funding Agency, 2016), there is an acknowledged need to invest in building digital know-how (Beetham, 2015), capability and resilience.  ‘The value of digital capability in economic terms for the UK’ is acknowledged as ‘enormous’ (House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills, 2015), and technological innovation features heavily in the 2017 government white paper The UK industrial strategy (GOV.UK, 2017).

    Yet other reports show a mismatch between the skills employers need (both now and in the future) and the preparedness of the workforce to meet or rise to these demands. An international review (IPPR, 2017) noted that graduate work is being transformed by cognitive automation. Almost all high-value jobs now require excellent digital skills, while routine white-collar work is being replaced by algorithms. 

    The Government’s report on Digital Skills for the UK Economy (ECORYS UK, 2016) found that 72% of large firms were suffering a shortage of high-tech labour and pointed to the ‘challenges in matching the speed of change in the education sector… to the rapidly changing skill sets needs in the economy and society.’ The UK is falling behind many other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries when it comes to young people’s digital literacy (OECD, 2016) and we still have a way to go before staff in UK colleges and universities have the required skills to meet these challenges.  

    Jisc has a role in supporting this challenge and is doing so through the building digital capability service and our digital experience insights surveys.


    How do you see Jisc’s role in higher education evolving in the next five years or so?

    This is best answered by our chief executive, Paul Feldman, who says: 

    “We are already working with UK universities to explore and develop technologies emerging from the fourth industrial revolution. Together we are creating our version of that technological transformation – Education 4.0 – which is bringing the benefits of artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, internet of things and mixed reality to the education sector.

    In this world, we predict the end of the predominance of the lecture. Instead, learning is immersive and interactive and, most importantly, responsive and personalised to students’ needs. Technology pinpoints where and when they are struggling and prompts a human to intervene to help them succeed. 

    AI will play a much greater role in assessment, reducing teacher workloads and allowing them more time to spend with students, to help those most in need, while virtual assistants support students to navigate this world of choice.

    The immersive learning is experiential; mixed reality gives students experiences they can’t have in the real world - and it may even allow them to collaborate globally. Because the learning of knowledge is covered by the AI-led teaching, active, student-centred learning such as project work and problem-solving prevails.

    All this happens in an “intelligent” campus where staff are liberated from the daily grind of essential administrative tasks to do what they do the best– engage with their students. Data even works out how to automatically optimise learning spaces, adjusting lighting or heating levels to suit the tasks taking place. 

    The potential of Education 4.0 is huge and a lot of this is already in motion. It’s now up to us to take the lead. “


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    Kate Tattersfield is a former teacher turned content creator at FULL FABRIC, specialising in writing for the education sector.

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