Digital Transformation at Leeds: Your questions answered

Key questions raised during last week’s sessions exploring the meaning of digital transformation and how it will impact every part of the University’s community are answered here.

Professor Neil Morris, Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Digital Transformation, was joined by colleagues across research, student education and professional services to talk about what digital transformation means for our culture, people, processes, technology and impact. A recording from one of the presentations is now available.

Questions posed during both sessions are responded to here by Professor Morris.

Use of technology during the pandemic has shown that local/international travel is no longer necessary for research collaboration and student education, which is great for sustainability and widening our partnerships in the Global South. But digital poverty (and repressive regimes) in some of those countries and parts of the UK may mean less access if we rely on the internet than traditional travel/satellite campus provision. How can we ensure digital transformation of our activities doesn’t stop at the city limits?

We must work hard to reduce inequality using digital technology and not exacerbate existing inequalities or create new ones. We will need to work in partnership with technology companies, global HEIs and our communities to understand the challenges and create solutions. Our reputation as an accessible university must continue in our online activities as much as it does for campus-based learners.

Could you tell us about the findings from the recent Jisc digital experience surveys and how this may influence future plans?

We have circulated the findings to Faculties, Schools and Services in order that they can communicate the headlines from a local perspective and develop detailed action plans. The institutional data showed that our students were satisfied overall with the quality of the digital learning and teaching provided this term, but there are many challenges to overcome to improve their experience. We are already working on actions in preparation for the start of next term/semester two. We will be taking this data, and a range of feedback, into account as we develop our future strategy for student education. We will be running the survey again in March 2021.

The foundation work is fundamental but largely invisible. How can we show when this is happening and demonstrate the benefits? 

It is acknowledged that we need to invest in technology to overhaul our IT foundational infrastructure, and provide an increased level of assurance around information and cyber security. We are in the process of developing an IT strategy to provide a services, technology and data landscape that is fit for purpose, scalable, resilient and secure and aligned to the needs of the University. We recognise that there is more to do to communicate the benefits and changes coming out of our existing change programmes – e.g. the Student Lifecycle Programme (SLP) and Corporate Processes and Systems (CPS). As these programmes move through 2021, we hope to be able to demonstrate changes in processes and activities for staff involved, and we will communicate these widely.

In particular, how do we demonstrate benefits to student learning as increased engagement doesn’t mean their learning is enhanced?

It is challenging to definitively measure improvements in student learning outcomes as a result of a single intervention, or collection of changes. However, research studies can help us to understand the impact of enhancement activities on students’ learning and other important indicators, including engagement, retention, flexibility, inclusivity, satisfaction etc., for all cohorts of students. The work of our Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE) fellows, and other research and scholarship activities, is important to help us build the evidence base for the changes we make in our student education strategy.

Will part of the strategy be developing a unified approach to help push back against pay-walled/gate-kept/overpriced digital access?

We will be focusing on open access in both the research and education strategies, and we will continue to work through our Library to discuss the impact of rising costs of access to learning resources with publishers and other providers.

Where can we find support in ensuring best practice for digital transformation in design and delivery of blended learning?

The Digital Practice website is a good first stop to read case studies, access professional development resources and seek support in designing effective blended learning.

What can we do to better support our staff as we go through these transformations over the coming years?

We recognise the need to continue to support our staff and students through this digital transformation, through professional development, communities of practice, reward and recognition and external engagement. We hope to have an ongoing conversation about the affordances and challenges of digital technology, so we can work together as a learning community to harness digital in ways that will best support our research and education activities.

Is it possible to share with us a sense of the timeline for this process of transformation? It’s a hugely complex undertaking but are there some elements of the strategy that are going to be addressed immediately and others that are longer-term goals?

It is correct that this is a long-term journey of transformation that needs to start with some foundational activities (culture, people, infrastructure), alongside some transformational activities. We are looking to adopt more agile practices, to deliver change incrementally, so that staff and students can realise benefits as we go along. There are some initiatives that we will start immediately (e.g. technology and data infrastructure) that will take some time to deliver fully, but there are other things that we hope to be able to achieve relatively quickly.

Can you give some examples of the measurable outcomes/metrics by which the progress of the institutional ‘transformation’ will be assessed?

We will be developing detailed outcomes, measures of success and key performance indicators for the digital transformation strategy early in 2021. These are likely to be focussed around areas such as digitisation/automation of processes, reductions in use of paper, increased income from online education activities and staff and student engagement/satisfaction with digital initiatives. Underpinning this we will focus on putting in place the foundations to support and develop our staff.

There was an interesting reference to using the expertise of our researcher community in this process. Could you expand a little on what you mean by this?

We are very keen that we engage our whole community in digital transformation, in order that we can have the greatest impact for our students and staff on campus, and for learners globally. We would like to see greater interaction between our research strengths and our education portfolio, so that our leading research is translated into educational opportunities. We would also like to see our research expertise being used to improve our ways of working – e.g. in the area of data analytics and sustainability, we have world-leading research that could help us achieve our strategic objectives.

Do our current and prospective digital/tech partners align with our values as a university?

This is an important aspect of all discussions with potential partners during procurement activities – we are careful to ensure alignment of values in order to maximise our collective impact.

How will digital transformation be reflected in the University’s IT strategy going forward?

The IT strategy is currently being developed taking account of the University’s emerging Digital Transformation Strategy, and will evolve in partnership between IT and all stakeholders across the University (Faculties and Services).

In the past, technologies have been very much implemented in silos. How can Services engage to ensure future projects are in line with the Digital Transformation Strategy?

We are very keen that all digital technology initiatives across the University are aligned to the Digital Transformation Strategy to ensure that we maximise the benefit of our investments, and share skills, resources and activities as much as possible. Faculties and Services will be requested to bring forward their digital transformation plans through IPE so that we can look at overlaps, potential efficiencies and shared plans. In terms of institutional-wide transformation initiatives, we are in the process of establishing a new governance structure, with academic and professional staff representatives, that will oversee and monitor the delivery of the Digital Transformation Strategy.

The University has made a step change in how we use digital in response to covid-19. I would be interested in hearing the views of Professor Neil Morris and the panel on how we can build on these going forward.

The #onlinepivot as a result of the global pandemic has certainly taught us all about some of the affordances and challenges associated with use of digital technology. We are currently at the far edge of the scale in terms of our use of technology, through remote working and online learning for the vast majority of students and staff. We need to come back to a more balanced position, where we use campus facilities and digital technologies effectively, and where most appropriate, to support our students’ learning, conduct our research and run our University. There have been many examples of how we can digitise and automate activities effectively, that we will want to keep and improve, but there are also lots of examples where face-to-face, in-person interaction is required to achieve a goal. In future, we hope that we can find an appropriate balance, where digital technology is enriching and supporting our activities and helping us to achieve our strategic ambitions.

If somebody has an idea for a teaching-related digital enhancement project, what routes to funding are available?

The Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE) offers fellowships and other project funding to undertake teaching enhancement projects.

How can we address the challenge where IT, technology and systems are sometimes seen as a ‘silver bullet’ to address deeper-rooted process and cultural issues?

We need to ensure that we always start with the intended outcome – what is the problem we are trying to solve? Usually, the people who own the process or activity are the best ones to define the problem and describe how they want it to be changed to improve effectiveness or efficiency. Once this has been done, then IT and other stakeholders will be able to support with making the change and delivering a solution. Problems can occur when we become to technocentric and start with the solution. We all need to work hard to focus on considering culture, people, process and technology more equally.

Could you reflect a bit more on how you see the Digital Transformation Strategy can support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and particularly comments by Professor Stuart Taberner, Dean of Interdisciplinary Research, about how we can use the opportunities to support equitable research and innovation partnerships in the global south?

We believe there are many opportunities to bring together our research expertise with our expertise in online learning to provide new educational opportunities for individuals and communities globally. When considering our research focussed on the SDGs, we believe we can use digital technology to support equitable partnership-based research with partners in global universities, and we can work with researchers and educators to translate our research findings into learning content that can be used, reused, repurposed, enriched and shared within local communities, for the benefit of everyone.

Could one of the panel describe briefly what might feel different and be easier for colleagues in three years’ time?

We hope that our transformational projects (e.g. SLP and CPS) will start to deliver changes for staff and students that will make tasks that are currently manual or paper-based easier and more efficient through digitisation and automation. We hope that we will all benefit from access to a technology and data infrastructure that enables us to work more effectively, feel more control over routine activities and have the ability to create efficiencies ourselves. 

How do we keep people well trained and confident in using digital systems in order to maintain efficiency around administration? Digital can feel like such a fast-moving space that we never manage to fully grasp the potential of digital systems before they change. This can lead people to lose confidence and feel less effective in their work.

We recognise the need to support staff and students through ongoing professional development to feel more confident and competent with use of digital technologies and digital approaches, and to be able to take changes to technology in their stride more confidently. This is an essential element of our ability to make most effective use of digital technology to digitise and automate, and to achieve our research and education strategic ambitions.

Professor Stuart Taberner, Dean of Interdisciplinary Research, made an excellent point about inequalities persisting into digital spaces. Are there policies and governance in place to ensure that digital technology (especially that based on AI) doesn’t perpetuate systemic biases, and to ensure that systems and tools are accessible?

We fully recognise the need to be vigilant about the risks associated with new and emerging technologies, in terms of accessibility, biases and inequality. We will continue to review these technologies against our policies for accessibility and the code of practice on learning analytics, and extend these as we agree new use cases and scenarios. We have made good progress with ensuring our systems and tools are accessible, and staff are engaged in developing inclusive teaching and learning materials.

The Leeds Social Sciences Institute (LSSI)-Leeds City Council review, recently conducted, led to a recommendation that there might be a ‘portal’ for the community in Leeds, something like Nexus is a ‘front door’ to the city. Could this be in part a digital initiative?

This is a good idea that we will consider when reviewing this report.

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