The human element: reimagining the digital strategy

The University of Exeter puts people, not technology, at the heart of its digital strategy.

Woman presenting in front of a university group

Towards the end of last year, Jisc held Demonstrating digital transformation: Turning digital vision into reality, an event at the University of Exeter and part of a series of events with more to come this year. 70 members of staff from around the sector listened to presentations, shared ideas about digital transformation, and came along with a unique perspective about challenges, triumphs and helpful solutions.

The University of Exeter’s president and vice chancellor, Professor Lisa Roberts, delivered a warm welcome, outlining the impact the new digital strategy has had for staff and students so far. Helen Cocks, head of digital strategy and engagement at the University of Exeter, began a deeper dive into how they began their digital transformation journey, where they are now, and what they plan to achieve.

Helen presented a comprehensive and inspiring digital transformation strategy that raised plenty of audience questions. At the outset, it was clear that students and staff are at the heart of their digital strategy, not technology, as one might assume.

Helen quoted former Universities UK chief executive, Alistair Jarvis, noting:

“Higher education (HE) as a sector is generally ten years behind other public sectors, so we need to keep up - but nobody wants to just keep up. Outside of education, our students are used to personalised, immediate and streamlined digital experiences, so that’s what we need to give them.”

Putting people first

A result of true co-creation, the digital team at Exeter spoke to staff, students, sector experts and industry leaders about how digital could improve their university experiences. They adopted creative approaches to find out exactly what students needed, taking to TikTok and YouTube, and even hosting an online escape room- style event.

Then, feedback in hand, the digital team headed to a perhaps surprising destination – the campus shop. They had one goal, to boil down their digital strategy into a simple, streamlined, and easy to follow ‘recipe’ – so they left the store with a tin of baked beans. Could they fit their digital strategy, its key ‘ingredients’, instructions and goals onto the back of the tin? It turns out that they absolutely could - and they used this productisation of their strategy to help stakeholders understand it.

Mission accomplished, they then identified three key questions and how they planned to answer them. The following is from University of Exeter's 2030 Digital Strategy:

How could the university of Exeter experience be the best and most accessible?

  • Championing hands on co-creation with users
  • Designing journeys from start to finish - across both digital and physical environments and giving options where possible
  • Creating personal and value-adding experiences, embedding user groups in teams to solve all problems
  • Using data to understand what’s going on and why

How could the university enable people to get stuff done?

  • Reducing the number of user touchpoints and making them work for everyone
  • Making it easy for people to complete an activity, in a way that works for them, whoever or wherever they are
  • Creating data and software tools to help people do their jobs and learn
  • Using data to predict future outcomes and prevent unnecessary activities, as well as to automate

How could the digital strategy generate more value and maximise Exeter’s reputation?

  • Bringing people and brands together to create belonging, collaborate and exchange value
  • Connecting people, especially those who have minority representation, enabling communities to create safe environments for support, societies and subject matter engagement
  • Staying at the forefront of the latest digital trends through assessment, experimentation and adoption
  • Finding ways for people to develop digital skills quickly and apply them to real working situations
  • Creating ‘shared’ capabilities that multiple parties can use and therefore reduce duplication

Why sharing best practice helps

After her presentation, there were many questions from delegates for Helen – how to link different digital platforms from different providers, how to help university departments work together seamlessly, how to integrate all university products and services so that they operate smoothly, and how the universities’ new app uses student data to deliver what each student needs on an individual basis.

Exeter’s comprehensive digital strategy is proving successful so far. How do they do it? Helen’s answer: one step at a time.

“It’s all about people and culture. For our first student-led event, nobody turned up! But we didn’t give up, we kept going. You need to be prepared to stumble and try new things to succeed in doing something different. We now hire students to work with us on our digital strategy, and student engagement is higher than ever. Our senior leaders are committed to our strategy too, which is essential. That’s our anchor, so that we’re able to work towards being the most accessible and connected university destination for any user. We couldn’t do it without that buy-in.”

Sarah Knight, head of learning and teaching transformation, higher education, at Jisc, understands the challenges involved in developing and implementing digital transformation. She’s been heading up a digital transformation programme of activities, working alongside sector bodies and organisations to create and pilot a comprehensive digital transformation in higher education guide.

The guide serves as a toolkit to support the development of digital strategies, assessment of digital maturity across the organisation, and the creation of actionable roadmaps and plans for implementation. It covers digital and physical infrastructure, effective digital leadership and organisational culture, and aims to provide a holistic approach to digital transformation.

Attending the University of Exeter event, Sarah said:

“The day was fascinating, and a real example of the benefits of getting the sector together to share experiences. Each university has a unique experience of digital transformation, and I’ve heard so many of our members today learning from each other’s challenges and achievements. There’s a similar goal though: we all want to make the most of technology to create the best possible university experience for everyone.

“We’ve been working to co-create our digital transformation in higher education guide, and have more demonstrating digital transformation events coming up this year, in Manchester and Ulster, so it’s an exciting time for us and the sector. We’re piloting the new resources with 27 universities, adapting and improving them as we go along.

“We’ve also launched a new service designed to guide universities towards digital transformation. Using the latest insights, frameworks and tools, as well as advice from sector experts, the digital transformation consultancy service offers universities flexible, targeted solutions and support to prepare them for a digital future. We’re all on this journey together. We’re excited to see what the future holds and are looking forward to supporting the sector along the way.”

The next demonstrating digital transformation event is on 27 March at Ulster University, followed by the University of Manchester on 15 May.

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