“The sheer number of staff who are now completely skilled up in a number of critical digital platforms has been an absolute godsend for me as the CIO of the university,” says Gavin McLachlan, vice-principal chief information officer, and librarian to the University of Edinburgh.
When lockdown was looking almost inevitable in early 2020, the university, like all higher education providers, was rapidly preparing to take learning and teaching off-campus and online. Gavin explains how despite the importance of sound infrastructure for a rapid transition, it was the people who made it so successful.
Preparing to move online
We felt that we were in good shape going into lockdown when, like everyone else, we made the swift and sudden move online. We had good underpinning infrastructure, had just moved our virtual learning environment into the cloud, and had recently completed a large programme of digital transformation and skills training.
We already had about 60 of our masters courses fully online so the model and methods of producing online material were already in place. And in addition, two years before, we just rolled out a comprehensive lecture recording service so we had two years’ worth of recorded lectures that served us really well.
From a technical standpoint, our cloud strategy also served us well; our cloud-based vendors turned out to be a real saving grace. They could scale up when needed and meant that staff working from home didn’t have to go through the university network, they could go straight to the cloud vendor.
Adopting digital tools
In addition, Microsoft Teams had just been established as a standard at the start of the year. At the point of lockdown, we saw adoption go from around 15% to basically 100% overnight. We also provided a home desktop recording service through a company called Kaltura which worked really well and by the end of March, had over 4,000 pieces of education materials recorded from professors’ homes.
We were surprised at how well that worked, we had never tried to roll-out something like that at volume before and because it was cloud-based and individuals were accessing it from home, it didn’t impact on our network infrastructure.
And then finally, our digital skills programme. One of the biggest challenges we faced in the rapid move to remote and online teaching was the digital skills of staff. Although we had thousands of online students even before the crisis, most staff weren’t trained in modern online digital pedagogy or how to use the digital infrastructure and tools. But they came rapidly up to speed.
It was a huge experience to see how quickly we could curate playlists of different digital learning courses that staff would need to quickly get up to speed with. We use a couple of subscription learning services including LinkedIn Learning and the sheer breadth and quality of some of the digital skills courses are just excellent.
It has to be said, the willingness of staff in a crisis to take those digital skills courses was truly impressive when ordinarily it would have been way down their to-do list.
Supporting the digitally disenfranchised
One challenge that took us somewhat by surprise was the matter of the digitally disenfranchised. A small but significant number of students just didn’t have IT equipment, broadband or wifi available in their place of residence – up until then they had relied almost entirely on the PCs on campus. We found ourselves parceling out laptops to students and quickly trying to assist putting in broadband to keep them connected so they could continue their studies.
Not underestimating communication
Reflecting back, however, I think the biggest challenge we had to overcome was communications. It’s difficult to comprehend the sheer amount of communication that goes on in a physical office. All the informal ‘chit-chat’ is one of the most common ways information gets passed on from one colleague to another and that was completely taken away.
We really had to up our game in communications using things like Microsoft Teams Live Events, Zoom and other technologies – for instance, I’ve been doing a weekly video to all my staff. We also found that having a communications professional in our groups and meetings was important too – it used to be a nice to have but now it’s essential to make sure staff, or students for that matter, are not left lacking information.
Lasting impact of digital transformation
What stands out for me as one of the positives to come out of this year is our incredible staff and their adoption of our digital transformation programme and the digital tools we’ve been putting in place, including our new online pedagogy.
We have a programme called the Edinburgh Model and we now have more than 600 staff who have fully gone through the course. It teaches a whole new way of learning online in the new hybrid model of teaching that we’ve established ready for this coming autumn term. In normal circumstances, it would have taken me years to get all the staff lined up and doing that, and now the crisis has just put that adoption into overdrive.
The big question is now, which aspects of the work that has taken place because of COVID-19 will become permanent, which trends will be accelerated, and what will completely change for all time. The move to hybrid teaching for example – is that temporary or is that the future? We need to make sure we don’t lose the good things that have come out of this if, or when, things go back to normal.
For details of the Univeristy of Edinburgh's work to build digital capabilities, take a look at the case study: making it easy for people to develop their digital skills.
For more examples of how innovation during lockdown is inspiring long-term change in higher education, see the learning and teaching reimagined initiative.