People in the university sector have been talking about transformation for a number of years – but when I reflect on my career in higher education (HE), the initiatives and the drivers we prioritised back in 1984 barely changed in 35 years. We were looking at the same issues, just dressed in different clothes.
Then came the pandemic, and everything moved. We saw action, and I wonder whether COVID shifted people’s open-ness. The question of how we pivot from the physical to the digital was on everyone’s lips.
Through 2020 and into early 2021, universities were asking, what’s the right way to approach digital transformation? What should our investment in digital be? What are the benchmarks? And how do we manage this burgeoning physical estate in a blended learning future?
Issues are evolving, too. While the pandemic initially accelerated digital delivery and highlighted digital and data poverty, we may soon see challenges with admissions added into the mix. With A-levels now allocated by teacher assessment, we’re likely to see higher grades. And if we have more students meeting the required grades for university admission than institutions have places to allocate, that could lead to larger intakes, creating a different pressure to approach content more innovatively. If this characterises the next phase of the pandemic’s impact, it will bring implications for digital transformation.
There is some unpicking to do here to understand where the need for transformation lies.
Students have said ‘we miss lectures’, but some explain that what they mean by this is they miss what happens in and around lectures. They miss mingling with peers before going into the lecture theatre, they miss the coffee when they come out, they miss the opportunity to discuss their assignments; so, for many, it’s about missing the social learning that accompanies formal learning. Maybe rather than rushing back to campus, we should be looking at whether and how we can recreate those elements digitally in an effective way. Perhaps a UK network of virtual classrooms could help improve learner experiences, while saving institutions money.
Let's think about how HE can make the most of the cards we’ve been dealt. Perhaps this is an opportunity to leverage digital to help break down divides and ‘level up’.
I’ve met students throughout my career who feel uncomfortable either at university or through the HE application process. Our institutions – particularly our redbricks - can feel more welcoming to people from particular backgrounds. For example, I met a brickie many years ago who wanted to study English part-time. He had a particular interest in Shakespeare. But he was terrified of what his pals on the building site would think and, as an ‘ordinary’ local lad from a comprehensive school, he was anxious about what university was and what it represented in his social circle. That’s a roll of the dice. Many of us might have ended up elsewhere if life had taken a different turn, and diversity of experience brings great richness and benefit to all - so we have to do our best to support everyone.
Perhaps that’s about addressing digital transformation holistically and from the student perspective. As well as thinking about technology, should universities look at the design of their curriculum and consider how students access their courses and programmes? Through Jisc's recent consultancy work in particular, we have been supporting universities to better understand the (digital) needs of students and how to review course and module design so students don’t need access to high-end devices and good connectivity all the time. Could we also design programmes so that learners don’t feel excluded or intimidated?
Maybe we didn't pay enough attention to all of this before. And while I’m delighted to see genuine progress and momentum now, I hope it isn’t just for the short term. My concern is evidence of a rollback. Many universities are going back to focusing on on-campus activity, and some academics are rowing back from transforming their learning materials for digital delivery.
As the world starts to emerge from the pandemic, I worry we’re settling into a routine that is only a very slightly different ‘normal’ to the ‘normal’ we had before. The pressure of the pandemic pushed - even, in some cases, helped – university leadership teams to tackle some hard, knotty issues. As that pressure dissipates, let’s focus on transformation for good.
Jonathan Baldwin, Jisc's managing director of higher education, is speaking at the Government Events Management and Leadership in Higher Education Conference on 7 July 2021.