Inside Track – Professor Neil Morris: Introducing DVC: Digital Transformation portfolio

Newly appointed Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Digital Transformation, Professor Neil Morris, shares our vision for the future of the University in relation to the use of digital technologies.


Introduction from the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Simone Buitendijk

I am giving thought to the best way of distilling strategic priorities for the next five years or so. 

It is, however, already clear to me that the University needs to transform itself digitally. I am convinced that the University can and should focus on becoming a global leader in the use of digital technologies, data and digital approaches to support student education, global lifelong learning, research and innovation and ways of working, and as a centre for the digital transformation of education and research. In short, I would like to see Leeds established as an innovative leader in use of digital technology, data and digital approaches, working in effective partnerships with other universities, businesses and organisations, to solve global challenges. I see this as a fundamental strategic priority for the years ahead.

Transforming the University into a world-leading digital university will require academic leadership of the highest order, and therefore the University Council has agreed to recruit a Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Digital Transformation. The post-holder will, amongst other things, provide expert academic leadership for all staff and services engaged in digital transformation, and chair a digital transformation strategy board, ensuring that its priorities are delivered in a timely way. Working with the other Deputy Vice-Chancellors, she or he would help to ensure that digital innovation secures an excellent education for our students, underpins the development of our research and innovation activities, and supports the achievement of the University’s international strategy.

Given the need for pace in digital transformation, the Council endorsed the appointment from 1 October 2020 of Professor Neil Morris, the current Dean of Digital Education, to act as Interim DVC: Digital Transformation until an international recruitment process is concluded.

Digital transformation – Neil Morris

As I transition into my new (interim) role, with institutional oversight and leadership of digital transformation, I want to engage with as many colleagues and students as possible to listen to your views about our vision for the future of the University in relation to use of digital technologies, digital approaches and online education to enrich our education offer, our research and innovation activities, our international reach and activity, and our ways of working.

I am currently frequently being asked two questions: (i) What is digital transformation?; and (ii) why do we need a portfolio dedicated to digital transformation? So, here goes with my first attempt at answering these two pivotal questions, although I am sure my answers will evolve through engagement with our communities.

What is digital transformation?

As with all such broad, thematic terms, there isn’t a universal definition of digital transformation, but there are a number of common facets to the term within sectors that have used it over the past few years. Primarily, digital transformation is about systematic change in an organisation to effectively embed the use of digital technologies in order to improve the likelihood of achieving a vision and strategic goals, and to set new vision and strategy based on the affordances offered by digital technology. This notion of systematic change is encapsulated well in the Brown et al. (2020) definition of digital transformation: “Digital transformation is a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution's business model, strategic directions and value proposition.”¹

The key here is that digital transformation is absolutely not just about technology or data, but critically encompasses culture, people, processes and impact. For our University, digital transformation will be cross-cutting across our core business of education and research, and our ways of working.

In education, it is about understanding and harnessing the potential affordances of digital technologies to enhance and enrich the education and experience we offer to students studying on campus, in hybrid modes and online, and offering learning opportunities to individuals globally, to support lifelong learning and professional learning.

In research, it is about ensuring we have best of breed technologies and platforms to support cutting-edge activities, provide an environment where we can innovate, co-create and embed new and emerging technologies to solve global challenges, build strong bridges between research and education, and create a research-informed evidence-base of the positive and negative impacts of digital technologies.

Underpinning this is transformation of our ways of working to ensure that effective use of digital technologies, data and approaches improves our administrative processes, freeing up as much time as possible for our core business. And beneath all of that is transformation of our culture to embrace digital technologies, and ongoing, deep and impactful professional development to support all staff and students to be able to harness the power and potential of digital technology, and manage the challenges they present. Of course, you might be thinking we are already doing this, and I agree, Leeds has a great track record in digital transformation, but there are many more opportunities for us to embrace and an exciting journey ahead.

Why do we need digital transformation?

For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on the rationale and ongoing need for the digital transformation of education, our most urgent priority. I will say more about digital transformation across our other activities of research and ways of working soon. 

In the education and training space, we will focus on three cohorts of learners: (i) our students, studying on campus and online, who can benefit from pedagogically effective use of digital technologies and online learning; (ii) global learners with lifelong learning aspirations, who can benefit from high-quality online education opportunities; and (iii) professional learners seeking opportunities to upskill and reskill, to enhance their employment opportunities.

It is increasingly evident, both from the research literature and evidence-based practice, that digital technologies and online education offer many opportunities for learners to access educational opportunities more flexibly and inclusively, enable rich and diverse learning communities, and support learners to achieve their learning goals. Embracing digital technologies to enrich face-to-face, hybrid and online education improves learners’ motivation and engagement, and use of active learning pedagogies enables learners to work creatively and innovatively with their peers and teachers to co-create knowledge and gain new skills. We need to continually scan the horizon and invest in new and emerging technologies that we think can support us to improve our students’ learning opportunities, and enhance their experience, and we can develop and evaluate these solutions ourselves, through partnership with our students, researchers and technology partners.

As we evolve our student education strategy, we will incorporate the best practice from our hybrid delivery model, and embed student-centred active learning approaches into all aspects of student education. We will need to continue to redesign our curricula to deliver effective blended learning for on-campus learners, and be prepared to adapt our approach and pivot seamlessly to hybrid and online learning in the face of external forces. We will also need to redesign our assessments, and our processes for managing assessments, to continue to realise the benefits of digital delivery and marking of assessments, whilst maintaining quality, rigour and standards. This is a great opportunity to reimagine assessment to be more inclusive, flexible and authentic.

Online education increases access to learning opportunities for people all around the world, and is a powerful force to enhance lifelong learning for all. Growing our online education portfolio will help to support global lifelong learning, and to support realisation of the UN’s Education Sustainable Development Goals. Through working in partnership with education providers globally, we can increase and enrich the global learning community, and collaboration will create new knowledge and impact. Through these partnerships with other universities around the world, and with online education platforms, we can provide accessible, stackable, credentialed online learning opportunities to support people solving global challenges. The educational provision created through these activities will be re-used and re-purposed to enrich our students’ learning, and to grow our professional learning portfolio to generate revenue for the University.

I look forward to discussing this with colleagues over the coming months, as we develop our digital transformation strategy.

¹ Malcolm Brown, Betsy Reinitz, and Karen Wetzel, Digital Transformation Signals: Is Your Institution on the Journey? Enterprise Connections (blog), EDUCAUSE Review, May 12, 2020. 

Posted in: