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Tackling digital transformation together

The 49th meeting of the Jisc student experience experts group brought together representatives from across the tertiary education sector to discuss digital transformation: what it is (and what it’s not), how to put essential building blocks in place, and how to optimise success.

Chaired by Liam Earney, Jisc’s managing director of higher education and research, the group shared experiences and offered valuable insights into how each is tackling digital transformation at their college or university - from advice on senior leadership advocacy and developing the digital confidence of staff to enabling data-informed decision making.

What is digital transformation? 

Educause defines digital transformation as “a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution's business model, strategic directions and value proposition.”

So how did the panel characterise digital transformation? They agreed that:

  • Digital transformation is essentially about using digital tools wisely to enable people to work more efficiently and effectively
  • It’s an ongoing process to create greater value for the organisation and its stakeholders: employers, communities, staff and learners
  • It’s also part of a broader culture and mindset change that will help move the organisation forward to excellence

And three things that it’s not 

  • It’s not technology for technology’s sake: it’s using technology as a set of tools to genuinely elevate the educational experience.
  • It’s not a complete revamp of everything that’s already in place: instead of an explosion of technology and endless initiatives, it should be an incremental and coordinated journey.
  • It’s not digital translation, i.e. doing the same thing but using technology to do it. It’s more about embracing new ways of working and delivering.

Essential building blocks

Dan Perry, chief information officer and university librarian at Keele University, said:

“This may not be the most fascinating of topics, but mature identity and access management (IAM) capabilities are foundational. That way you can ensure that the right individuals can access the right resources at the right times and for the right reasons."

"Not having IAM, cyber security, systems integration and data integration in place before you even start starves the lifeblood of any digital transformation.” 

Mark Stubbs, professor and assistant director responsible for learning and research technologies at Manchester Metropolitan University, advised that robust, secure, scalable systems supported by a technology-enhanced learning advice capability are key, along with well-defined processes, particularly those focused on supporting the assessment lifecycle.

Jonathan Hofgartner, assistant principal for digital technologies at Weston College, added:

“In addition, you need a dusting of experimentation and creativity, along with a certain level of resilience.”

A wider view 

Dan Perry said:

“Digital transformation requires a wider view of how technology affects change across the organisation and the society within which we work. It requires a re-think on how we deliver education and training, how we explore opportunities, how we innovate faster and better.”

The panel offered several key points to keep in mind from the very start of the process:

Staff are an organisation’s biggest asset

The message came across loud and clear from all panel members: The biggest asset of any organisation is not its technology but its staff.  

Deborah Gray, principal and CEO of Hull College advised:

“Technology can be scary, so don’t force it on people. Instead of imposing it, equip staff with the environment, the context and the tools to succeed. Leading by example and demonstrating that technology is a tool to help them evolve and be better helps staff see the tangible benefits that it can bring to their own work and life.” 

Awel Vaughan-Evans, associate vice chancellor for flexible learning and outreach at Bangor University, agreed:

“Fundamentally, engaging students and staff, and supporting them to develop their digital capabilities, is crucial. Digital transformation can’t happen if you don't go back to basics, and if you don't focus on developing those core skills.”

Developing staff to fulfil their roles and feel confident with technology are key ingredients of initiating and sustaining digital transformation, so extensive training and support are absolutely key to ensuring that staff are engaged. This also applies to senior management. 

Dan Perry asked:

“How do you move an organisation with an historical, retrospective view of data to one that actually uses data to drive transformation? The trick is developing digital capability in the senior management team, so that they can use data analytics and business intelligence to make data-informed decisions. It also minimises the digital divide between senior management and staff.” 

The prevailing mindset needs to shift 

Again, everyone agreed that digital transformation is one part of a broader transformation process, which should be driven from the top and embedded into the organisation’s culture.

As Deborah Gray said:

“It’s a hearts and minds exercise as much as a technology one. Digital transformation must be driven by the organisation’s core values.” 

Jonathan Hofgartner added:

“It should also support key agendas like sustainability and inclusion.”

This culture change must also extend outside the organisation, looking at the wider employment landscape and tuning in to industry and employers’ changing needs.

Deborah continued:

“We need to integrate digital technology into all aspects of our business – not only to provide better, faster, more efficient support services, but to underpin a curriculum that’s fit for the digital economy that’s upon us right now.”

“What is driving all the work we’re doing to get the curriculum ready is the need to meet the skills requirements of our businesses and industry – locally, regionally and nationally. Our job is to mirror the trends in skills and ways of working so that we turn out professionals with the right level of digital skills.”

Awel Vaughan-Evans emphasised that students are also key stakeholders in digital transformation and it’s essential to include their perspective:

“We've talked about a digital divide between senior management and junior staff, but there's a huge difference between what academic and professional services staff think is going to work and what students actually want."

"More focus on student engagement is the crucial thing for me moving forward.”

Collaboration is key

Leadership buy-in is essential - but it needs to be collective leadership, involving stakeholders from all areas and levels of the organisation in order to reflect a holistic view of transformation.

According to Dan Perry:

“Collaboration is key. Unless the entire organisation is working together, you can end up with systems that don’t integrate and aren’t harnessed in a strategy that covers business and curriculum.”

Awel Vaughan-Evans concurred:

“For us, creating that strategic group of key stakeholders means that we can all work together and make sure that the entire organisation is working effectively to really drive digital transformation.”

Mark Stubbs said:

“In that sense, Jisc has been a real catalyst for digital transformation at MMU. Jisc-funded projects have played a really important role because they brought together key individuals from different levels across our internal structures. The need to meet a set deadline, the awareness that we would be subject to external scrutiny, and the absolute commitment to sharing the lessons learned with the wider community all combined to its success.”

A key question to ask, suggested Dan Perry, is whether the IT function is still seen as a cost-centre. If so, that perception needs to change:

"Everyone needs to know that IT isn’t just about boxes and wires - it’s about supporting the business, driving financial growth, reaching new markets and training more people."

Challenged to write a digital strategy for his institution, he said, he informed the senior management team that he would take the education strategy, the research strategy, the student engagement strategy and the estates strategy, and show how the IT team would support, enable and help drive each one with a data and infrastructure strategy, creating a unified core that would take the organisation forward. As he explained:

“Digital strategy is not a separate thing. It’s just part of what we do every day.”

A unified approach to digital transformation

On the question of how Jisc could help support the sector to achieve digital transformation, one thing was clear.

Mark Stubbs concluded:

“The sheer scale of the challenges we face is going to need a pooling of effort, bringing in talent from all areas and levels of the sector.”

“This is where Jisc can really help – by acting as a unifier. Jisc’s strength is its broad connectivity in that it operates across the whole education and skills supply chain and can bring this together as a united collaborative sector.”

Feedback from the student experience experts groups plays a key role in informing community consultations and influencing the direction of Jisc’s future work in learning, teaching and assessment.

Find out more

For more information on Jisc’s strategies to support the sector, see: