Inform interview
Deborah Millar
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Deborah Millar

“Technology can change so much for the better” - Deborah Millar

Deborah Millar is a highly experienced teacher with a passion for using digital technologies to improve learning experiences for all students. In 2016 she completed our digital leaders programme. She is now group director of digital learning technology at Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education and shares her vision for the college and ideas for the future.

What drives you?

I've been a teacher for 30 years now and I know what the challenges are with teaching different year groups and difficulty levels, and meeting the needs of people with disabilities of various kinds – one male in ten is colour blind, for example, and the same proportion of people are dyslexic. I, myself, have got dyslexia so I know how it feels to struggle in a classroom.

I also know the difference that technology can make for everyone. It can be as simple as giving people resources in formats that work for them. Technology can empower a learner to do something they've never done before, give them independence, or enable them to do something quicker, or a bit better, than they did before. I’ve seen those differences again and again. I was totally won over to the idea of using digital in teaching, so I became an ambassador for it. Technology can change so much for the better.

Now I work at a very large institution and we use the Microsoft Educator Community. There are thousands of courses on there, all badged up and all within a community where people work together and encourage each other. At Grimsby Institute there’s a hugely positive culture around technology and our principal believes in leading from the front on this. She does the courses and she's got more badges than I have.

We've got lots of free courses and we encourage our staff to do these to help them find smarter ways to work. So much so that we built something called Level Up, which won the AoC Beacon Award for digital staff development. When they do a course and achieve a pass, that’s one digital thrill, and then we photograph them with their pin badge and we’ll post it on Yammer so everyone can see their achievement. After that, they nominate two colleagues so my team know who to go to next to start training.

What were your ambitions coming into your role at Grimsby?

My ambitions have always been about consistency and equal opportunities for students. Sometimes colleges have their mavericks, their innovators, and a lot of colleges and institutions tell their stories based on those ten or 12 people who are doing phenomenal things with technology.

I want to make sure all our staff here at Grimsby have the skills to deliver at least one tool confidently in front of a group of students. Then, for the students, it's all about equal opportunity. No matter who you are, I want you to have the same opportunities for learning as any other student.

When I talk about opportunity, I believe that technology reduces barriers to learning. If you've broken your leg and can't make it into college, you should be able to continue learning. If you've got financial difficulties, you should be able to submit a piece of work online, without having to print it out.

For me, technology should empower and give learners independence to the point where they can lead their own learning. We shouldn't be the sage on the stage giving information; it's our role to facilitate learning. Digital technologies allow students to go on a collaborative learning journey. Today’s students can go home and still continue working in groups. When I was at school we had to wait till we could meet in class on a Wednesday afternoon.

How can an organisation foster or nurture that kind of collaborative environment?

You need ambassadors who lead by example. I've always tried to do this but it’s difficult if senior management don’t use technology and don’t understand it. It’s important to foster that positive culture about using technology at every level.

At Grimsby our senior managers all use technology and they use it confidently. When we introduced the Microsoft Innovative Educator, all the senior management team worked towards their award. They've all done the Level Up silver level and they’re working towards gold.

I’ve got my strategy for filtering skills training through the college. I have a tracker with the name of every single person in the college and all the badges they can do. Senior managers have this information too, and they use it in meetings to encourage people to keep up with their training. There’s clarity about who's achieved what and everyone’s really keen to keep an eye on progress. That’s how we keep the momentum.

My team just do the training where they need to. I've only got two members of staff for the whole of Grimsby Institute, yet we're making all this great progress. It's about using technology efficiently but support from senior managers is absolutely essential.

Looking back at the Jisc digital leaders programme, how would you assess its impact on you?

The fact that we were taken out for two full days away was the first benefit of that programme because you're removed from all the distractions. And second, I think any experience where you're surrounded by like-minded individuals who are actually having the same problems is valuable.

We all have things that we're doing great and others that we aren’t. On the programme you can share experiences and I always find that being surrounded by like-minded individuals is very positive. You can express your concerns and then, when 50% of the people are saying, “do you know what? We're struggling with that,” it's kind of reassuring. Then you start brainstorming and, because you've all got the same issue but different experiences, you have a richer conversation and generate new ideas– innovation often starts with connected minds!

I'm still very much aware of the impact that it had on me. For me the real benefit was all the brilliant minds in the room, including the people who presented. It was a very positive environment.

What are you excited about doing next?

I now manage teacher education at Grimsby. I can directly influence the teachers of tomorrow by getting them to embrace technologies and to see how to use technology in the classroom effectively. When you're seeing a teacher who's already teaching, you've only got ten or 20 minutes and then they've got to get back to class. When you're working with student teachers you've got several hours to embed that knowledge and to get them to demonstrate it.

I am very, very excited about changing teacher education. To inspire our future teachers, their own learning experience must be exciting – we are after all role modelling what outstanding teaching and learning looks like. It should be immersive. It should be virtual. We need to think more smartly about assessment. Everyone should be doing online submissions with online feedback. Formative work needs to receive automated feedback within the VLE, where possible. Then you can check on learning in the classroom and have face-to-face conversations where you can explore how to advance learning. I have so many ideas and I’m working with the team to change the way that teacher education is delivered.

Anything else to add?

Yes, and this is important. My job’s all to do with technology and it can change so much for the better, but I still believe in a healthy diet. I believe in using digital when appropriate but face-to-face conversation, activities where you're hands-on, practical exercises and role-play still have their place, too.

It is about people. It's about using the right tool in the right place at the right time. And do you know what? That tool doesn't have to be the same tool for everyone. As long as we get to the desired outcome or the same positive result and people enjoy their teaching and learning and are engaged by it, or find better and quicker ways of doing tasks essential to their job, then that's a good thing.

A word to the wise: Deborah’s advice for aspiring digital leaders

Communication is essential

Build strong positive relationships with the team around you and make sure they understand what your job is and why you're doing it. Then sell it hard so they actually want to do it with you.

Sweat your resources

Don't buy for the sake of it. Review what resources are already there and stop the ones that you don't need, that aren't used effectively. Look at the ones that can do more than they already are – we buy applications and we turn some tokens off because nobody knows how to use it or what it's for but another department may be able to use it instead of buying something different that does the same job.

Focus your support where it can do most good

Work out whether resources are ones that people must, should or could use. For ones they must use, like the VLE, Office 365 and Turnitin, you’ll need to provide support. Then there are those that aren’t essential but you subscribe to them and people should think about using them. Again, you should be able to provide support. Then the ‘could’ is perhaps things that you don't subscribe to and you don't support, but you know they’re reliable and useful, like Twitter, Kahoot! and Instagram.

Deb Millar using VR
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Work hard and be inventive

Get yourself a network. Collaborate with people at other organisations to forge relationships where you can work together on projects, where you can share best practice and learn from each other.

Our next digital leaders programme takes place in October 2019 in Edinburgh. Find out more and book your place.