Rapid Digital Transformation in the University Sector

Recently, I’ve been most interested in the transformation to online learning because of the rapid nature of this effectively enforced change. Having attended a series of conferences, it’s been clear that the shift under coronavirus to learning from home is here to stay albeit moving to a hybrid model for many institutions. So how has the speed of change affected staff and students? Is this speed likely to remain at this breakneck pace? And how has the technology affected how individuals have adapted to the transformation in digital learning? Of course, the Open University has managed remote and digital learning for many years and has lead the way especially in the early part of lockdown. After the Cardiff Teachers Commitment Project managed through the Open University, Cardiff and Vale College, and Cardiff Council, to help schools and universities adapt to online learning many people were trained in MS Teams, Zoom and other tools. However two years on, expectations are growing from students who need a more interactive and integrated suite of tools and a learning pathway designed assuming digital first.

Digital learning has placed many pressures on faculty leaders and lecturers, who may have focussed on learning from home being a transitional rather than a permanent destination at first. As it is now clear digital learning is not disappearing, the longer term change management challenges are emerging, What was considered a short term effort is now a constant reality and digital learning by design is transforming the roles of higher education staff, from the senior leader down to the seminar tutor. Going by the current discussion though, it would seem that these new expectations are not yet incorporated into the performance framework and the budgeting process for technology and related tools has not yet caught up with the reality of what’s needed. Most universities are reacting to the ‘pull mechanism’ to finance technology deals in which faculty have already adopted the technology resulting in the pressure to fund the appropriate site licence. This presumably means many unpredicted costs, and a leadership team lagging in their awareness of the digital behaviour and activity going on in the organisation. My overriding impression has been about the need to manage the change more effectively, to enable better advance planning, appropriate support and recognition for staff, and a preparedness to look at the student cohort differently from before.

One thing I’ve noticed is that, with the volume of working and learning from home, normal rules of social interaction are starting to shift. If we only see our colleagues, lecturers, and fellow students in the online space, then how are disagreements negotiated and how is true discussion and debate facilitated? I realised that online there is no tangible emotional consequence to an argument. We can vehemently disagree, then literally switch off to avoid further negotiation which may actually be required to deliver our roles. It seems this has emerged when collaborating on learning design with academic colleagues, where often the tensions rise up when discussing practical solutions to delivering a course coherently. Needless to say sometimes tensions are resolved, but in others these tensions have been seen to completely derail the planning process. A learning design session may therefore fail simply because colleagues have not navigated their disagreements in the normal way. I think it’s important to note that in working from home, isolated from others, we can truly be king of our own castle, barely affected by the outside world. The outcome is not always positive in a world where alignment of views in many ways is essential to the fundamental mechanics of civilisation.

Students and staff may currently be overwhelmed by the technology tools, disparate process, and availability of consistent learning materials. As a result many academics are using learning process design and considering adaptive learning, through tools such as enABLe (Active Blended Learning) from the University of Portsmouth and the Distance Learning Course Design unit at De Montfort University. As with all new approaches, universities have noticed the early adopters are now driving change faster than those in the slower lanes, creating higher expectations in the student body that may not be met by every module taught. At least, not yet met! De Montfort is using Padlet as their primary planning tool, to enable consistency across subjects combined with a templated brief document in MS Word. This enables coherence across modules and the alignment of approaches across lecturers. The more difficult challenge is to summarise those decisions and needs for senior leaders agreeing budget, or for distilling overarching agreements to those not involved in the detail. enABLe incorporates Collaborate and Menti.com within a day long workshop to bring together course delivery stakeholders, to create a student centred view of the digital learning experience.

The main technology tools being used for collaborative learning include MS OneNote Class Notebooks, Padlet, Google Jamboard, Miro, Kahoot, ThingLink, Nearpod, Moodle, and Genially. In addition for polling and opinion acquisition there are Vevox and Menti. So with the plethora of tool available and the inevitable preferences and requirements of different subject faculty, how does a university decide on the best technology to buy, implement, and ensure is future proof. One barrier was raised that most tools do not incorporate mathematical or chemical symbols, since these tools and developed for generic student needs. The technology being adopted recognises that “Technology supported learning is continuous, faciliatory and can occur in any time or space.” Frydenberg, M (2022) Creating a Multi-access Learning Community in the CIS Sandbox. The following model was shown to clarify how this manifests in student learning behaviour and emphasises the complexity of student routes into learning:

Presentation from the Centre for Active Digital Education, University of Northampton

Increasingly there is an awareness that digital learning needs to be adaptive to the pathways and needs of different students. Most universities are developing a persona based model of design learning but this is many layered as student preferences in learning, plus their ability and required support is so diverse. Even giving feedback is contentious! There is a common requirement that tutors give assignment specific feedback, but this is apparently only viewed by 42% of students so what’s the point? I wonder why so few students are referring to feedback, given they likely want the highest level degree and therefore to improve. Some suggest that students today simply want to obtain a degree for employability purposes and are not so worried about the quality of their knowledge. I don’t believe this and instead suspect that students have multiple pressure due to the financial outlay and the related need to work. This need is changing student behaviour, increasing commuting time, and also fragmenting student collaboration. Where before in person friendships would dominate, in the online learning world how do you meet the people who would before have assisted in catching up on anything not understood from the lecture. There is also a theory that of marking work disincentivises learners, whereas to feedback would improve quality of submission. One tutor states the feedback as a voice-note in advance of the awarded grade, which presumably channels students to really listen to their advice.

Meanwhile in publishing, there are an exploding number of new technology launches and new roles in online learning. Where many universities recruited digital transformation leaders two or three years ago, the knock on affect on publishing and other sectors seems to be happening now. Presumably the world has caught on to the permanent change in working and learning, which is now systemic in all areas of life. Recently CABI has launched their online learning CABI Academy, plus IET and BSI are recruiting online learning roles, presumably with the intention of building their own learning centres perhaps for CPD for their society members or in relation to their content.

These observations are simply the high level ones taken from a number of conferences hosted by the University of Northampton and University of Hull. I’m still absorbing the full impact for students and teachers and plan to distil my thoughts further in my next blog. Phew, it must have been a rollercoaster ride over the last two years for all educational institutions and it looks like the pace of digital transformation s here to stay!

Kind regards, Ruth

Header photo by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash

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