‘Students don’t necessarily want more digital – they just want it used better’

The innovation leaders of higher-education technology body Jisc talk to Gill Hitchcock about spreading digital excellence and developing shared services for UK universities and colleges 

One of his favourite uses of digital technologies is to allow students to pose and research questions ahead of a debate, says the University of Derby’s head of forensic science Dr Ian Turner. 

“It really enhances the students’ experience in the classroom.”

The university has developing digital capabilities as one of its core goals for the next five years. For instance, it has student digital champions who help others to develop the digital capabilities they might be expected to use in their course, such as e-portfolios, or WordPress as a website-creation tool. 

Meanwhile, Harlow College claims that it has improved retention and achievement rates for students by making good use of digital technologies. For staff, it offers five cross-college development days where they can learn new digital skills. And there are 15-minute drop-in sessions where they can learn about new apps and tools and explore how they can use them in teaching.

“Facebook and Snapchat are very powerful platforms, but they have particular associations. Students don’t want universities and colleges to use those channels for formal things”
Phil Richards, Jisc

Supporting initiatives such as these is Jisc, the UK body for digital technology and resources in higher and further education and research. Jisc is best known for the Janet network, which connects 18 million users across every university and college and research laboratory in the UK, and Jisc Collections, a purchasing club through which universities buy half their research journals. 

Jisc’s chief innovation officer Phil Richards uses horticultural analogies to describe his role, seeding digital opportunities and growing the shared services of the future. 

“The three trees that have been growing the best over the past couple of years have been research data management, learning analytics, then the digital-capabilities tree – which has quite a thick branch, the student digital-experience tracker.”

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The tracker, a national survey of student experience, will be fully launched this summer. Sarah Knight, Jisc’s head of change for student experience, says it started in 2013 when university and college IT directors approached Jisc with a major problem. They were investing in digital infrastructures with no way of gauging whether they were what students needed. 

“Every student is different and there is no way that we can possibly predict how we can best meet the needs of each and every learner,” she says. “But what we could do was start to identify some trends.”

Research by Jisc shows that 80% of students think that submitting assignments electronically is more convenient; 70% think that digital technology enables them to fit learning more easily into their lives; and 67% of university students and 48% of college students regularly access their institution’s virtual learning environment via a mobile device. But 20% of university students and 31% of college students do not have reliable access to WiFi at their institution and 19% of universities students and 13% of college students do not have access to file storage and back-up.

“First and foremost, students expect seamless access to technology when they are on campus,” says Knight. “If they are bringing in their own device, they expect that to be able to connect to the WiFi and to access learning materials. 

“The second most important thing is they don’t necessarily want more digital, they want it used better. In other words, they want to be able to see a clear benefit of why technology is being used to support their face-to-face learning experience.

“But they want to know what skills they need to access and use technology for learning, and to be able to develop those skills and see the transferability into their future career, workplace or profession.”

Knight is also responsible for another project, building digital capabilities, designed to help staff understand and think critically about technology. Much of this is about new ways of working and a change of culture. Key to the success of this project, she thinks, is that staff are keen to continue their professional development and that institutions support them to do the best job they possibly can.

Across the UK, Knight sees pockets of excellent practice – the University of Derby and Harlow College included – and a need for these to spread. And in all this, Jisc is a facilitator. 

Helping to shape its work is an ‘expert group’, drawn from education institutions. Established in 2004, some members have been with the group throughout its existence. And professional groups from more than 160 universities and 300 colleges, along with the National Union of Students and Universities UK, nominate people to work with Jisc, including taking part in its workshops.

“People won’t use a shared service if they don’t feel a sense of ownership,” says innovation chief Richards. “We use a co-design process, whereby we work very closely with potential users and potential bill payers of services, right from the earliest stage so they are involved in designing and building them up.

Cultural differences
Working with suppliers, is perhaps more difficult. Richards says that as a publicly funded organisation, Jisc can’t use taxpayers’ money to distort the IT market.

“There are competition laws on what you can and can’t do with public money, and we are always mindful of those things.”

He says Jisc looks at the digital services and systems on offer on a case-by case basis. 

“We work with vendors to create APIs,” he says. “And we also created a purchasing framework through OJEU and institutions can buy from providers that meet our national standards. The framework gives them an extra degree of reassurance, because we can ensure that there is there is compliance, with the GDPR for example. We want as many vendors as possible on our framework. If they implement our standards and want to do business with universities, we want them.”

But Richards says that students do not want the technologies they use in their personal lives to be used for learning. 

“First and foremost, students expect seamless access to technology when they are on campus”
Sarah Knight, Jisc

“Facebook and Snapchat are very powerful platforms, but they have particular associations. Students don’t want universities and colleges to use those channels for formal things,” he says. “Can you imagine getting a message on Facebook saying: ‘You are invited to a disciplinary hearing’? It doesn’t fit culturally.”

Richards adds: “Part of the answer is to find similar channels that don’t have that strong cultural association. So, for example, virtual learning environments, Blackboard and Moodle. People are looking at Microsoft Teams, which is aimed at small workgroups sharing documents and information. It has all the functions of social media, but with a more formal cultural wrapping for teaching and learning.”

Jisc has found that cooperation between staff, who have subject expertise, and students, who can be digitally confident and creative, can result in effective partnerships. 

“No one has all the answers,” says Knight. “We are all very much having to share experience, collaborate and move things forward as a collective group.”

Sam Trendall

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