Transforming universities and colleges for the digital age

This is a featured post from ALT Sponsoring Member Jisc.

There’s been a marked increase over the last two or three years in the level of interest in digital literacies among professional services staff and institutional managers. While ALT members have been stressing the importance of digital issues in teaching and learning for a long time, there seems to be a more general understanding now that digital literacies can transform academic and institutional life. Developing students’ ability to learn well and to thrive in a digital workplace (and a digital society) is increasingly seen as a central plank of the higher education offer. Without digitally confident staff, institutions can’t capitalise on their investments in data, information, library services and the ICT environment. And digital capacity will be crucial in responding to new opportunities in a global market, both for knowledge and for students.

I could go on, but it’s probably enough to say that, over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a huge upturn in the numbers of senior managers recognising the need for a strategic approach to digital technology and digital capabilities. I’ve been particularly struck this year by the number of requests we and our partners (including ALT) are getting under the Changing the Learning Landscape programme for support with developing and embedding digital literacies , some of them from institutions that are already well along the road.

Many of the approaches and tools that we’re able to share with universities and colleges have come from a recent Jisc-funded multi-partner programme focused on developing digital literacies, working through institutional projects and professional bodies, including ALT. ALT contributed to five of the institutional projects, exploring learners’ and staff needs and developing strategies to get them comfortable with technology by demonstrating ways to use them that have clear meaning and real benefits for their day-to-day work. We’re indebted to the association for its commitment and hard work on the projects and also for its own valuable exploration and communication strand.

In particular, ALT’s expertise was key to the success of the Digital Department project at University College London. The project aimed to support teaching administrators through a programme of professional development, enabling them to act as change agents and to support academics in keeping up to date with technological developments. The cohort of teaching administrators involved in the project were guided through the process of gaining CMALT certification. The high proportion seeing the process through to the end shows how highly they value the professional recognition.

The Developing Digital Literacies as a Postgraduate Attribute project, led by the Institute of Education at the University of London, looked at the potential that new media has for education and asked what might be holding back the institute’s predominantly more mature postgraduates from fully embracing it. It found that students valued the digital infrastructure and resources offered by the institution pretty highly, but found some aspects (such as managing multiple log-ins) frustrating and it also revealed that both staff and learners are sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer range of options open to them in terms of devices and resources. The project focused its efforts on three distinct groups of students and – armed with greater knowledge of what their needs are – it has developed a range of resources geared to meeting those needs.

Students and staff who take on the role of digital champions need to be recognised both for investing in their own digital practice and for developing others. Early career staff and postgraduate researchers can particularly benefit from being recognised as digital experts, especially if this is framed in terms of scholarship and innovation. Institutional roles, secondments and awards all show that digital literacy is being taken seriously as a career path. The Jisc programme has mapped digital literacy work to the UK Professional Standards Framework and there is also a digital literacy lens on the Vitae Researcher Development Framework to demonstrate the potential career benefits to individuals.

No matter how enthusiastic they are, staff face acute time pressures so it’s important that their tasks align with their existing work. Embedding digital literacies into curriculum design, or creating digitally-rich activities that reduce staff workload (e.g. incorporating peer assessment and review, having students author learning materials) are examples of projects that could fit the bill.

You can find out more about the full list of projects that the ALT took part in here, and about the Developing Digital Literacies programme here. The learning that has resulted has been distilled into a new Jisc Infokit, published in early March. It contains case studies, guidance and tools and suggests practical approaches. The guide is intended to help other colleges and universities to make use of opportunities that exist, and to avoid potential pitfalls, so they can advance along their own paths to a genuinely digital future. It is very much a work in progress and we’d like ALT members to take a look and give us feedback on how it can be improved or expanded.

Importantly, the Infokit describes how – and why – senior management will see benefits when they engage with the possibilities that digital technologies now offer, and how investing in the digital skills of staff and students can:

  • Open up quality education to more learners
  • Improve experience right across the student body
  • Boost employability
  • Enhance institutional reputation and attract more learners
  • Improve processes and build organisational capacity
  • Maximise the investment in technology and resources

It signs off with some quick-fire recommendations for groups including students and senior managers to get them started.

For those who really want to explore the detail the Jisc Design Studio offers a range of useful resources and these are linked to from the Infokit. We’ve compiled a really short questionnaire to make it easy to share your share your feedback, but if you’d like to talk in more detail I’d be happy to do that  – email me at:

Sarah Davies, head of change – student experience, Jisc

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member

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