Digital Universities Week UK task force: put people at the heart of digital transformation

Ahead of Digital Universities Week UK, a task force of four university leaders in the UK gives advice on how to roll out digital transformation on campus – from staff buy-in to securing your networks


1 Mar 2022
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THE Digital Transformation Forum: Reimagining higher education teaching and learning
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A common misconception about digital transformation is that it’s a technology project. But it is, above all else, about people. This is according to a THE Campus task force convened ahead of Digital Universities Week UK in March.

Four leaders from universities across the UK discussed how universities can tackle the biggest challenges of digital transformation including staff and student buy-in, inclusive access and securing data. Training, expanding digital literacy to the highest level of leadership, and investing in people’s skills were among their recommendations.

How should universities communicate their vision for the digital transformation of campuses? And how do they do this in a way that encourages faculty and staff buy-in?

The first step to digital transformation is consultation. Any shift towards digital processes should be developed with students and faculty, not done to them, the group said.

Immediate buy-in isn’t guaranteed, cautioned David Maguire, interim vice-chancellor at the University of Sussex and former Jisc chair. “There must be a period of consultation with staff and students” to instil confidence in the introduction of new platforms and technologies.

Dilshad Sheikh, dean of the Faculty of Business at Arden University, agreed. Without this period, students may, in her view, feel they are not getting the programme they signed up for, particularly during the pandemic.

The next step is planning. Digital transformation is a long-term project that requires time and financial commitments from universities, according to Maguire. “Digital transformation cannot be a project for a few wet Wednesday afternoons but instead a huge effort taking perhaps five years and a huge investment.”

Finally, communication is critical to digital transformation. Be transparent that it won’t be a linear journey and do trials of systems and processes with small groups before putting them in place across campus, the task force counselled.

Using pilot programmes to show – not tell – the benefits of a new, digital way of doing things goes a long way in encouraging staff to get on board, it said.

Recruiting students or recent graduates to support staff less confident with technology is another way to involve everyone. This model has worked well for the University of Exeter, said Lisa Harris, director of digital learning at Exeter Business School. “We use them to help staff to help themselves. It’s about working with staff to get them familiar with using technology.”

How do institutions ensure that technology is introduced and embedded in an environmentally sustainable and equitable way that leaves no department behind or unsupported?

This is perhaps the most people-centred challenge of the three the task force considered, but it was the one with the least clear set of solutions. Participants agreed that inclusivity and equity in digital transformation is a necessity, laid bare during the past two years, but getting it right remains difficult, they said.

“Not everyone has laptops, and 85 per cent of our students are mature students who perhaps have children, and with their children off and them all trying to learn from home, we needed to get some funding to support them,” Sheikh said, describing the university’s response to remote learning during the pandemic.

Flexibility, it was agreed, is the most important characteristic to get right when an institution is thinking about inclusivity. We “shouldn’t be forcing anyone to study online, or to go onto campus. There was such a push to go back to in-person, and we have had to fight to be able to offer flexibility,” noted Harris.

Carrying out more regular check-ins on students and staff and using data tools to monitor withdrawals, deferrals and assessments can help measure success in this area, the group agreed.

Recognising that staff come in with varying levels of digital literacy and providing upskilling to those who need has worked well at Arden, Sheikh said. Mal Allerton, chief information officer and executive director at the University of Southampton, added that there should be a focus on using “a centralised budget to ensure that everyone gets dealt with equitably” to avoid some departments being better resourced than others.

The sustainability element of digital transformation is also challenging, especially when considering universities’ scope 2 and scope 3 emissions, the group noted.

However, Maguire suggested doing an audit before and after digital transformation to gauge its environmental impact. And Sheikh said that institutions could sign up to initiatives such as the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education to be held accountable against specific objectives and to learn from their peers.

 How do institutions ensure the security and safety of students’ data and privacy as universities rely more on complex digital systems to deliver teaching and monitor students’ progress?

More and more frequent training around data breaches and how to respond to them is essential, according to the task force, as is investing in the core technology and infrastructure needed to secure a university’s systems.

Any technological change will be an obstacle to someone, but the priority is protecting the data of those instrumental in the organisation, be that students or staff, said Allerton.

“There are lots of things we do that people find restrictive, but you have to be able to allow people, researchers for example, to have ways around these things. Security is not a black and white thing. The biggest problem with GDPR is the historical issues of what people have stored over the years.”

The group agreed that currently universities are lacking the skills needed to build a strong cybersecurity strategy. They suggested institutions look to their degree programmes and short courses to recruit people with the right skills.

Our task force is comprised of:

  • Mal Allerton, chief information officer and executive director, the University of Southampton
  • Dilshad Sheikh, dean, Faculty of Business, Arden University
  • Lisa Harris, director of digital learning, Exeter Business School, University of Exeter
  • David Maguire, interim vice-chancellor, University of Sussex, and former Jisc chair

Their solutions will be workshopped with a larger group of UK educators during Digital Universities Week to encourage collaboration and peer-to-peer learning among institutions during a crucial moment of transformation in higher education.

Join us in person at Digital Universities Week UK on 15 March for an interactive session to work through solutions and delve deeper into the core challenges raised by the task force members and our editorial team. Digital Universities Week UK runs from 14-18 March 2022. Register today.


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