Ideas that make a difference for the digital transformation of universities

In a series of Campus resources, UK digital adopters explore what has worked (and what has not) as universities go digital and where investment in technology can be most effective

,HEdway Group,,University of Leeds,Canterbury Christ Church University
15 Apr 2024
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The investment that universities are making in digital projects is huge. While many of these initiatives are necessary after years of underinvestment, large claims are often made about the solutions that the investment will bring. Such promises often do not ring true for many who have worked in higher education over the decades. This prompts the question to be asked about what has been learned from the many years of digital transformation attempts in HE, before, during and after the online pivot of 2020. 

That is what this series of resources by academics from across the UK sector aims to explore. The writing team is: Sarah Dyer, associate dean for teaching and learning at the University of Manchester; Craig Walker, director of HEdWay Group; Lisa Harris, director of digital learning at the University of Exeter Business School; Arunangsu Chatterjee, dean of digital transformation at the University of Leeds; and Niamh Downing, pro vice-chancellor (education and student experience) at Canterbury Christ Church University. 

In our view, digital transformation must be viewed less as a series of technology projects and more as a state of perpetual agility and continuous digital service improvement. It should be ready to evolve for whatever our stakeholders need. For example, effective digital transformation requires re-evaluation of business case methodologies and approaches to communications internally and with external stakeholders, following work by Andrew Greenway, Ben Terrett, Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore. The development of an extensive engagement plan can enable empowered conversations, the evolution of a shared view and appreciation of the complexity of the operating space.

In this series of articles, we present evidence from multiple universities of the seeds of digital transformation. Collecting and sharing approaches and learning is important to avoid reinventing the wheel. We draw on both published work and on conversations with those who were involved at the time. These case studies demonstrate the true extent of the organisational challenges in realising the opportunities of digital transformation. For example, we show how Imperial College London established and embedded a way of working in collaboration with students that reframed not only who was involved in decision-making but also the kinds of conversations that were had. 

We present these examples within a framework of what we consider to be “ideas that make a difference” for effective digital transformation. In identifying these ideas, we have sought what could be thought of as threshold concepts for digital transformation of universities. These may be somewhat counterintuitive and troublesome ideas, particularly when viewed in the context of current practice. We believe that appreciating these ideas is transformative in itself, changing how people think about digital transformation and the possibilities for the future of universities. As is the case with threshold concepts these ideas may also prompt people to rethink their own role in the process of transformation, and the impact transformation may have on their own working life and identity. 

The “ideas that make a difference” include that: 

We intend these ideas to catalyse changes to how universities think about and approach the digital agendabut they are also transferable to other contexts in a way that facilitates meaningful and sustainable change in higher education.  We are interested to hear if these ideas resonate with you, and what other ideas we should be talking about, too.

Sarah Dyer is associate dean for teaching and learning at the University of Manchester.

Craig Walker is director of HEdWay Group.

Lisa Harris is director of digital learning at the University of Exeter Business School.

Arunangsu Chatterjee is dean of digital transformation at the University of Leeds.

Niamh Downing is pro vice-chancellor (education and student experience) at Canterbury Christ Church University. 

Sarah Dyer, Craig Walker and Lisa Harris will be among the speakers at Digital Universities UK on 16-18 April at the University of Exeter. Their session is “Ideas that make a real difference”. 

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