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Leadership through a digital lens

14 Jan 2021 | Professor Lawrie Phipps Contributing to our monthly member benefit series on 'rethinking high education', Professor Lawrie Phipps reflects on what we have learnt over the past year from having technology front and centre of HE, asking how we ensure that we do not adopt a techno-solutionist approach but look at our goals through a digital lens.

2020 was the year that we delivered education in a global crisis; the pandemic was and is devastating, but we have also had to cope with national policy failures, misinformation, and confusing guidelines. For most of us it is a time of great stress and risk. For many of us it will be the year we lost someone. As our journey through 2021 begins, still in the grip of the pandemic, and navigating an uncertain relationship outside the EU, institutions are looking to their strategies, and future scenarios. A host of things have been written about technology, and how it made education possible in 2020, and much of what has been said is true. We would not have been able to deliver the quality and quantity of education without the technology we have implemented over the last 20 years.

Chief Information Officers (CIOs) are familiar with the promises of technology, and more than anyone in the institution they are also familiar with the ways in which digital will fail, or sometimes more importantly the ways in which it will cause a cascade of other things. 2020 put CIOs under a stress test, their plans, their back-ups and their teams were tested, time and again. But the business of Education, teaching and learning, continued: not easily, not stress-free, not without changes, but by and large it continued.

What comes next should not just be predicated on what we think we have experienced.  Understanding what we have actually experienced may take a lot longer than we think. For example, there are some early indications that during lockdown the attainment gap closed for some students. Undoubtedly some people may point to asynchronous online learning as being one of the key factors, but we need to look deeper. Was it the reduction in the commute for students, or that those who were working were furloughed?

There are so many factors impacting institutions during the pandemic, it would be easy to latch onto some of the positive things that appear to have happened and make assumptions about the causes. But we need to do the work, looking and reflecting on experience and testing assumptions before making lasting changes. We need to understand what we don't know yet, we also know there are silences and absences because of the pandemic emergency, we know there are people we aren't hearing from, and we need to work to account for their needs, too.

One change we saw in 2020 is the increased engagement with digital by leadership teams, as the necessity of the systems and tools that for many had disappeared into “business as usual” were brought into the spotlight. Senior leaders began to recognise that a deeper understanding of how systems, tools and processes impacted on each other would enhance their ability to plan and make better decisions. That is not to say that we now have leadership teams with more digital capabilities, and deep technology understanding, but the nature of the year has meant that everyone has developed more understanding about both their own digital engagement and a perception about how digital works in their domain. In some areas we see an increase in technosolutionism, the idea that anything is possible, and things can be fixed, as long as we throw enough technology at it: the discussions and debates around technology mediated proctored examinations, more prevalent in Australia and North America, are a good example of this. The subsequent arguments, high profile examples of problems, and even lawsuits are testament to what may have been an ill-thought rush to fix things with technology (and turn a quick profit). There are plenty of EdTech vendors and tech evangelists plying their magic beans at this point in the crisis, and the media and social media timeline is full of stories about how technology “saved” different aspects of education. However, in our Jisc research with senior leaders and lecturers, it became apparent that good processes, timely support for staff, and an understanding of what already works, when it comes to learning and teaching, were more important than shiny tools.

As we start moving forward, as we start to plan for what comes next – whether pandemic, Brexit or something unknown – we need to build on the things we have learned. Institutions now need to capitalize on the knowledge we have gained through 2020, not what we have seen technology do, but what we have learned from our own experiences and how we have seen institutional teams work together to deliver.

In the introduction to this series of posts on Reshaping Higher Education for the Future, Kay Hack said "we are at a pivot point". This might also be the pivot point for digital, but it is not about the technology, rather this is an opportunity for leadership teams to pivot from sometime being driven by the technology and instead look at their domain through a digital lens. An opportunity to work with CIOs and ask “this is what we want to do in the institution, this is what we aspire too, if we look through a digital lens, what would our strategy look like”.

Post-COVID-19 it would be tempting to let our Institutional strategies be driven by what we think is possible through technology, but if we want to realize the change and reach our institutional aspirations, we must be driven by those aspirations, and then challenge, and work with, our digital teams to stretch and meet them.

Professor Lawrie Phipps (Senior Research Lead, JISC)

The Connect Benefit Series is an Advance HE member benefit and is open to colleagues at Advance HE member institutions. 

January's theme 'Re-thinking delivery models for quality Higher Education for all' will look at the key issues of quality, flexibility and accessibility from the perspectives of the HEI and the student to understand the tensions between what is best for student success and how HEIs can meet changing needs of society and employer versus what is best for the sustainability of the institution.

27 January Webinar – Higher education for the future – a digital perspective

As part of this theme, our three guest contributors Vangelis Tsiligkiris, Principal Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Laura Czerniewicz, Professor, Cape Town University and Mark Birkin, Professor of Spatial Analysis and Policy, University of Leeds have recoded videos their thoughts and views on Reshaping higher education for the future.

This discursive webinar with will be shaped from questions and thoughts around these videos, which webinar attendees can submit beforehand. The videos can be found here, and the form to submit questions and thoughts can be found here. Additionally, a forum has been opened in Advance HE Connect for colleagues to discuss this topic further. Book your place on the webinar here.

Find out more about the other outputs for this theme and related products and services

Lawrie is part of the project team for the new Flexible by Design collaborative project due to start in September 2021, find out more about the project and request an information sheet here.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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