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Looking through the digital lens

15 Feb 2021 | James Clay As universities being to reflect on the lessons of the pandemic, Jisc’s Head of Higher Education, James Clay reflects on how we may want to start to look through a digital lens on our strategic priorities.

Advance HE and Jisc are teaming up to provide institutions support in developing strategies and culture. Through working together, Advance HE and Jisc combine expertise to provide comprehensive support for strategy development.

The pandemic crisis has provided universities with serious challenges and required creative thinking to provide solutions. Universities have needed to act at pace and scale. They’ve needed to do this whilst staff and students are coping with yet another lockdown, social distancing and continuing restrictions. All of this whilst trying to navigate a highly charged political landscape, with often conflicting advice and guidance from central government. Despite the positive news of the rollout of vaccines, it will be sometime before things get back to normal, and we don’t yet know what that normal will be.

One aspect of education that has gained more prominence during the emergency response to the pandemic is the importance of online and digital in responding to the situation, and the use of technology to meet the changing needs of students and staff. There have been issues with hardware, software, remote technical support, and planning a blended hybrid curriculum that ensures a quality student experience, but they have, by and large, been overcome through the support of our teams across a range of professional services and with the experience and knowledge of all our staff.

Knowing that digital has been critical to dealing with the challenges of the pandemic, the question now remains: how and what role will digital play in the post-pandemic strategic priorities of the university?

There are two key questions facing universities?

Does the strategy still meet the needs of the university in this new, changing and uncertain landscape?

What role does digital play in helping universities achieve their [new] strategic aspirations?

There are various ways in which you can respond to these questions, you may want to create new strategic priorities, which reflect the new landscape in which universities will operate. Some universities will want to consider creating a digital strategy, or giving their existing one a major overhaul.  A question that you may want to reflect on, do universities need a separate digital strategy? There are challenges with having additional strategies that are an addition to the core strategic priorities, and with more strategies in place it is sometimes easy for things to fall between them. Additionally, the provision of a new strategy, with new digital priorities, may be seen as  some kind of extra or addition to what staff are already doing. The end result is that the digital strategy is often ignored or left to one side. If you are tasked with writing a digital strategy, you could write it in isolation, but prepare for it to be a low priority for people higher up. Also expect people in other directorates or departments to ignore it as they focus on their own strategies.

At Jisc, we argue that in order to get stronger “buy-in” by stakeholders there is a need to apply a digital lens to all strategies. What we mean by this, is reviewing and reflecting on the strategic priorities in turn and exploring and explaining how digital can be used to enable and  achieve those priorities. This moves the emphasis away from a focus on a technology or a tool and onto the core focus of the business.

If you consider a strategic goal such as this one:

"We will respond flexibly to the challenges and opportunities ahead. Flexible modes of study will support our students to succeed and allow them to engage with a greater range of opportunities in education, extra-curricular activities and work experience."

You can start to see how a range of digital and online technologies can enable this to happen. The importance of digital platforms to enable flexibility of access to learning. Using online social platforms to increase engagement in extra-curricular activities.

The lens is made up of different aspects that need to be considered when applying digital to existing and intended structures.

It is necessary to identify which element will be looked at in digital contexts - for example, a particular teaching practice. Different digital options should then be explored to gain a thorough understanding of the range of possibilities. The benefits and risks of each possibility should be carefully weighed before deciding to deploy. As with all change, it is important to reflect and evaluate the nature and impact of the changes caused by the incorporation of digital.

The digital lens approach can enable effective and transformational behaviours to emerge by helping staff to understand and develop their capabilities and confidence in the context of their own work. The results can include an improved status quo and the identification of new goals for individuals and their organisations.

There is a history of people talking about applying a lens to challenges, to look at things differently. To give a different perspective on what has been written or talked about. These are sometimes called strategic lenses and can cover different area such as design, customer focus, resources, cultural amongst others.

Any departmental or methodology strategy should always link back to the organisational strategy and how the objectives and actions will support the organisational strategic aims.

If you apply a digital lens to the corporate strategy, you can demonstrate how digital technologies can enable that strategy. So rather than talk about how you are going to increase the use of digital technologies, the strategy talks about how the use of digital technologies will enable the strategic aims.

Digital does not exist in isolation and there may other strategies, such as teaching and learning, assessment, environmental, wellbeing or community. The concept of a lens can be used here as well. Either placing a digital lens over the environmental strategy and exploring how digital and technology can enable the university to achieve it’s environmental strategic goals, or even using the same concept and apply an environmental lens to  the core strategic priorities.

We at Jisc have worked with universities across the country helping them to utilise the concept of the digital lens to enable transformation and more effective use of digital and online technologies that are aligned with their strategic priorities. A strategic digital lens allows universities to better understand how digital and technology can enable them to achieve their core strategic priorities. It can help inform staff how they will use digital in their work to meet the institutional priorities.


Jisc, 2018. Delivering digital change: strategy, practice and process. [online] Bristol: Jisc. Available at:

Clay, J., 2018. Why does no one care about my digital strategy? - eLearning Stuff. [online] eLearning Stuff. Available at:

James Clay is Jisc’s Head of Higher Education and Student Experience. He coordinates Jisc’s overall strategy for HE learning, teaching and student experience and has lead responsibility for promoting the total HE programme, value and impact. James has worked in the teaching, library and educational technology area for over twenty years.

Advance HE, Universities UK (UUK), Jisc and Emerge Education are working to “create a roadmap for a digital shift in HE for 2020/21 and beyond, setting out the steps needed to harness the potential of digital technologies and deliver an outstanding education experience."

Through working together, Advance HE and Jisc can combine our expertise to provide all encompassing support for your strategy development. Rather than encouraging a separate digital strategy we encourage technology to be considered across all strategies.

Contact us here for more information. 


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