Universities’ digital transformation will be focus of next THE forum

Topics including strategising, the benefits of online learning, and international research will be explored in conversations across two virtual stages 

October 13, 2020
a digital world
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As the academic year begins with the majority of teaching and learning taking place online, more than 2,000 higher education professionals from around the world will virtually gather on 21 October at this critical point of transformation for tertiary education at the virtual Times Higher Education Digital Transformation Forum, hosted in partnership with Kazan Federal University.

Even before Covid-19 scuppered international networking events, the potential for digital transformation to enhance relations between universities and industry, and the overall student experience, was yet to be embraced fully. Institutions still relied on face-to-face events to drive engagement, never imagining that the tangible energy exuded from a bustling campus could be snuffed out in a matter of weeks.

The near universal stay-at-home mandate earlier this year certainly accelerated the adoption of digital teaching and learning, but far from seamlessly, with students reporting connectivity issues, and poor translations of material designed to be delivered in-person.

Sara Custer, THE’s associate editor, curation, said: “The pandemic has forced many universities to make a long-overdue shift to online teaching and learning. This transition has been beneficial in some ways, but it’s also exacerbated pernicious inequalities among students and researchers and created space for new disparities – especially for already disadvantaged students and precarious academic staff.”

The forum’s conversations will be split across two main stages: a World and an Ideas stage. The World stage’s opening presentation at 09:30 BST will feature a conversation between Phil Baty, THE’s chief knowledge officer, and Jamil Salmi, former tertiary education co-ordinator of the World Bank and highly distinguished emeritus professor of higher education policy at Diego Portales University in Chile. They will be comparing and contrasting previous strategies implemented by universities in earlier health crises to circumvent persistent challenges. John Gill, THE’s editor, will lead a session with speakers including Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technology at the UCL Institute of Education, and Shuaiguo Wang, president of XuetangX (the first massive open online course platform in China founded by Tsinghua University), on the longer term advantages and disadvantages gleaned from blended teaching to enrich higher education beyond the confines of socially distanced learning.

Collaboration between researchers has become paramount in the race for a Covid-19 vaccine, but the practices involved in sharing information have been somewhat divisive. Oleg Gusev, head of the KFU-RIKEN Functional Genomics Unit (the result of a fruitful partnership between Kazan Federal University and RIKEN, Japan’s largest comprehensive research institution), will introduce the Ideas stage by debating the right to access digital resources from various consortia across the world in the interest of scientific discovery. Alongside Mikhail Abramsky, director of the Higher Institute of IT and Intelligent Systems at Kazan Federal University, THE’s student content editor Seeta Bhardwa will analyse how existing data on student behaviour are augmenting digital platforms and driving success within the student body.

Ms Custer will also appear on the programme to host a THE Campus lightning round panel, ahead of the launch of the platform next month. “We want to amplify that sharing of knowledge on a global scale by creating a community of best practice for digital teaching and learning on THE Campus,” she said. "The THE Campus session at this forum is an example of what we’re doing across the platform: showcasing the innovative ways that academics and faculty have adapted to this crisis.”

While the inequalities felt by students at the receiving end of a hastily established virtual model has garnered significant public interest within the context of the pandemic, educators have been struggling under lofty expectations to demonstrate digital fluency. Dale Johnson, director of digital innovation at Arizona State University, will join other panellists to discuss how to best equip academics to navigate this new terrain of teaching, and how to combat concerns that increased online learning will eventually devalue their career path. Speaking on another under-represented topic in conversations orientated on digital transformation within universities – progress within the humanities – Elena Gorobets, head of the Department of Applied and Experimental Linguistics at Kazan Federal University, and Christine Ofulue, professor of linguistics at the National Open University of Nigeria, will share various methodologies designed to conduct research in their field.

The closing keynote, which will be delivered by Sharron McPherson, co-founder and director of the Centre for Disruptive Technologies, will focus on utilising the current crisis to strip back the core factors contributing to tensions within the sector, building in its place a more sustainable and cost-effective model that negates the idea of higher education as a privilege.

Ilshat Gafurov, rector of Kazan Federal University, said: “The pandemic has forced a rapid transformation of higher education. Now that digital technologies have gone from a supplementing the learning process into its principal means, we all are seeking new approaches. We invite foremost experts from across the world to reflect on this pressing issue, share their experience, and find effective ways of addressing our common problems.


Find out more and register for the virtual Digital Transformation Forum on 21 October.

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