What’s Hot in Digital for EduTech? Digifest 2018 Top Takeaways

Edutech professionals travelled from far and wide to attend Jisc’s two-day Digifest 2018 conference at the Birmingham ICC on 6th and 7th March 2018, to find out about the latest developments in digital strategy and digital learning technologies in further and higher education.

The conference boasted a rich agenda grouped into four distinct streams; digital strategy, the student digital experience, next-generation learning and learning excellence in a digital age.

The conference kicked off in spectacular style, with an incredible live performance by The Royal College of Music, augmented by musicians in Edinburgh who joined the performance via a low-latency audio-visual link (“LOLA”). The performance showcased the brilliance of the musicians combined with the incredible scientific achievement that allowed musicians several hundreds of miles away to play together with the same experience as if they were in the same location. A pretty amazing concept for anyone who has ever experienced a lagging video conference call!

With up to six talks happening concurrently and having left my time-travelling Tardis at home, I had to choose carefully which sessions to add to my schedule in the seamless Digifest App. With my background in and current work at Coventry University on digital transformation, it was only natural that I would tend towards the Digital Strategy sessions. The slides are all available on the Jisc Digifest 2018 website, so I won’t bore you with the 20-something pages of notes I took during my packed schedule of talks and workshops, but here are some of my top takeaways and the recurring themes I picked up from the conference overall.

1. Digital needs to be an integrated part of strategy and day to day operations, not just a bolt-on
2. Embedding digital requires a cultural shift
3. Digital Advocates should be used to lead Digital Transformation
4. Do not assume that individuals already possess digital skills from their everyday lives
5. Digital can be used to increase access to education for under-privileged students

Digital needs to be an integrated part of strategy and day to day operations, not just a bolt-on

Aula‘s Director of Partnerships, Mikkel Lauritzen introduced the 100 Education Strategies Later session with a quote from the Harvard Business Review;

“A real strategy involves a clear set of choices that define what the firm is going to do and what it is not going to do”

and went on to explain that an organisation should commit resource and capabilities based on this principle. If digital transformation is a priority, it should be reflected in departmental and organisation-level strategy. Quite simply, digital leaders need to put their money where their mouth is.

Doing just this, Leicester University implemented a new corporate strategic aim whilst undergoing their digital transformation. The university introduced a vision statement that “All members of the university community are confident operating in a digital environment”, reported Leicester’s Digital Programme Manager, Nevin Moledina in the ‘Building Digital Capabilities’ session on Tuesday. Both Moledina and Jisc’s Allen Crawford-Thomas emphasised the importance of moving away from viewing digital as a ‘bolt-on’ and towards it being a fully-integrated part of day to day activities and strategy, if it is to be embedded successfully.

It was emphasised in many of the sessions however, that technology is not and cannot be the full solution. A digital transformation cannot be a success without embedding digital into the culture of an organisation through effecting a cultural change in which digital is embraced and given sufficient weight at a strategic level. As Kerry Pinny from the University of Warwick explained in the Defining Digital Leadership debate, it is essential to always consider how the proposed change effects people and to always consider people over technology. Liza Zamboglou from Queens University Belfast summarised it nicely, saying that;

“tools are an enabler, but it’s mostly about the conversations”.

Ultimately it’s the traditional People, Processes and Technology model, which dictates that these three elements need to be in balance and need to be considered equally in order to successfully facilitate any business change.

Embedding digital requires a cultural shift

This was a recurring theme across many of the talks over the two days. In the ‘Building Digital Capabilities’ session, Penny Jenkins and Ian Wilkins of Milton Keynes University explained that effecting a cultural change requires collaboration and communication and outlined the model they used to understand their digital maturity and embed the changes required (see below). Engaging and collaborating as a team from an early stage increased engagement in the change.

DigifestModel

Many speakers at Digifest 2018 reported the success of providing staff with dedicated time to focus on ‘Digital’ and experimentation with digital technologies – whether in the form of ‘Digital Fridays’ once per month or full-day conferences or events dedicated to the subject, to increase engagement with a digital transformation and to encourage staff to take ownership of their own digital journey and personal development.

During the Defining Digital Leadership debate, the panel reassured attendees that cultural change is often a slow process and that the route to the digital transformation vision may not be a direct one. However with strong leadership, a clear vision and allowing digital advocates to drive the agenda, the success stories of many of the attending universities suggest that a successful cultural change and subsequently digital transformation is achievable. Sarah Davies, Head of Change at Jisc’s advice is to;

“give people a path to the change you want to effect” and “be authentic when driving digital”.

Use Digital Advocates to lead Digital Transformation

Davies explained that “often we effect change through others” and recommends identifying “digital advocates and allow them to push the agenda”. Indeed the consensus in Wednesday afternoon’s Crowdsourcing Strategy session was that leaders needed to be brave and hand over the reins to those team members who have digital skills and experience, even if they are not currently at management level. It is these people who have the passion, skills and experience to lead and drive forwards the digital transformation and as North Lindsey College’s Jason Boucher explained

“whatever your role, you can embody leadership in some way”.

Do not assume that individuals already possess digital skills from their everyday lives

With technology being so pervasive in our everyday lives, it is easy to assume that everyone has skills and capabilities in the use of devices and software. However, warned NUS President, Shakira Martin, this may not be the case. Students and staff alike join a university or college with the expectation that they will be given the required skills for the workplace and whilst they may be accomplished in the use of social media, self-curation of media and an understanding of apps, there may be significant gaps in their digital maturity. In addition to this, it may not always be apparent how the day to day digital skills individuals possess map onto or translate into those skills required in the workplace. Sarah Knight of Jisc introduced the Jisc Digital Discovery Tool, which is currently under trial by 100 universities in the UK, including Coventry University. The tool allows individuals to assess their personal digital maturity and identify skills gaps. From an organisational perspective, this data can be compiled to gain an understanding of the digital maturity of a team, department or the overall organisation.

In a break-out session, a number of us discussed the implementation of tools such as Yammer into the workplace. In many cases, individuals had received a notification that they were part of a Yammer group, but no direction as to what the tool is, what it should be used for or, most importantly, the reason for or benefits of using it. Those who came from organisations who had successful adoption of Yammer reported formal launches, training provision and top-down direction on its use and rationale. We agreed that Yammer is often rolled out with minimal launch support as it is assumed that people will know how to use it because of its similarity to social media platforms used in everyday life, however that there is a gap in providing users with the direction for how it should be used in the workplace context.

Digital can be used to increase access to education for under-privileged students

Less related to digital strategy, but an interesting and important recurring theme none-the-less. Whilst there may be funding available to students who may struggle to access courses, often little consideration is given in traditional academic structures to the need for these students to work whilst studying, care for and support other family members or manage other life and societal pressures. These factors may prevent such students from applying in the first place, or may cause them to drop out part-way through their studies. There was much thought-provoking discussion about how digital could reduce these pressures and enhance the university experience for these students.

The obvious candidates are distance and online learning, which remove the need for physical attendance on campuses, but there are also many possibilities with social platforms and collaborative technologies for assisting these students in developing a feeling of belonging by giving them access to a virtual university community. Indeed there is much focus currently on exploiting the capability of digital technology to develop a sense of connectedness and belonging to the central university campus, irrespective of where in the world a student is studying.

In addition to this, Ravensbourne’s Associate Dean, Rosemary Stott explained that under-privileged students are the most likely to not attend pastoral support sessions and extra-curricular activities, despite often being the ones that would benefit most, perhaps because of those additional pressures on their time and finances. It seems likely that digital tools could bridge at least some of this gap and deliver some of the benefits of these additional facets of university life.

These highlights really are the tip of the iceberg of what was a truly excellent conference. If you would like to find out more, I highly suggest perusing the session slides on the Digifest website or viewing some of the sessions on Jisc’s YouTube channel. Better still, sign up for a place at Digifest 2019 – I hope to meet you there!

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