Inside Track – Neil Morris: Digital technology – looking to the future

In this Inside Track article, Professor Neil Morris, Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Digital Transformation, reflects on the challenges of this term and looks ahead to 2021.

Inside Track – Professor Neil Morris: Freeing up our time with digital technologies. November 2020

As 2020 draws to a close, and we collectively breathe a sigh of relief that this most challenging year is nearly over, like me, many people are probably reflecting on its highs and lows and trying to pull out some wisdom to carry into the new year.

For me, 2020 has been a blur – a never-ending rollercoaster – a year I will never forget. In January 2020, I came back from the Christmas vacation ready to work on my to-do list of projects in digital education, and ready to tackle my research plans. It wasn’t long before it became obvious that covid-19 had other plans for my time, and the sight of a colleague pushing their office chair laden with tech towards the bus stop outside the Parkinson building on 19 March is burned into my retina. Of course, the rest, as they say, is history, and we will be reflecting on, and learning from, the #onlinepivot for many years to come.

When I was asked for a quote by Jisc about the state of educational technology to support higher education through the pandemic for its Digital Learning rebooted publication in July, I said this year would be a major test that if failed, would set back the use of digital learning many years. As I reflect on the year, after talking to many staff and students about their experiences, I think educational technology has probably scraped a pass, but certainly didn’t ace the exam. Of course, the conditions were challenging, in terms of readiness, staff and student confidence and experience, infrastructure, reliability and, most importantly, the stresses of the circumstances on everyone involved. We have a lot to gain from effective use of digital technology to support our research, our education and the way we operate, but we also have a lot to do to level the playing field, reduce inequality, improve the availability and functionality of our technology and support our staff and students.

Valuable feedback

As we look ahead to 2021 and the launch of the Digital Transformation Strategy as part of the new University Strategy, we are receiving lots of really valuable feedback from staff and students about the opportunities and challenges facing us, in the areas of culture, people, processes and technology. This feedback is all being read, collated and organised, and will be used to shape our thinking and priorities – thank you to everyone who has taken the time to engage with the process.

I was particularly struck this week by a very thoughtful email received into the mailbox from a senior colleague. Without recounting the details, or revealing the sender, there were two strong challenges that stood out to me. Firstly, whose interests does digital transformation serve, and do students want more digital and online learning? And secondly, where is the research evidence that underpins the need for digital transformation?

Clearly, these are important questions that need to be discussed and debated, and can’t be answered well in the limited space of this article. But the questions reminded me that we all exist in our bubbles – I come across these questions, and answers to them, all day, every day on my social media feeds, and have contributed to the literature to try to address them, and have faced them in staff meetings, conferences and other events for many years. But for many colleagues, of course, these are new (very valid) questions that need to be addressed before any further change or engagement with digital transformation can be contemplated. So, we need to discuss this further, through events, debates and activities, and you have my word we will do this in 2021.

Success stories

Last week, I heard a number of stories about how digital technology has helped to enable research activities to continue through this year, and how it has provided new and creative opportunities for students to engage with research, whilst studying remotely. Firstly, Dr Anna Hood, a University Academic Fellow in the School of Earth and Environment, told me about how she has enabled her undergraduate students to engage with Google Earth satellite data remotely, as part of their studies, using her research knowledge and partnerships with other universities and SMEs. She described how the practical classes were research-based and flexible (allowing more students to be involved than had it been in a computer cluster), and hoped they would continue in this form once campus-based learning resumed.

I also heard from a long-time colleague, Professor Martin Levesley, from the School of Mechanical Engineering, who has been successfully delivering remote labs to more than 200 second year undergraduate students, using research equipment and synchronous group-based communication. He believes this approach can be extended to other disciplines, and is a valuable approach to engage students in research-based practical learning. He is happy to provide demos to colleagues, and is happy to be contacted directly about this.

Finally, I attended an IT Service Town Hall meeting, and heard some of the statistics from 2020 – alongside supporting us all to deliver hybrid learning via remote working, and keep essential research and university operations running throughout the year, they have completed more than 70,000 service requests, managed 2,700 changes, resolved 31,000 incidents and distributed more than 2,500 laptops (along with many other activities). It has been a particularly challenging year for the IT Service, and I am grateful for their hard work.

Last week, we held two Leeds Conversation events on Digital Transformation, attended by about 400 colleagues in total. The recording of the presentations from the first event is now available, as is the Q&A arising from both conversations.

Thank you

I would like to close with a huge thank you to everyone who has worked tirelessly this year to support digital transformation in its many forms, and to wish everyone a restful and peaceful time during the Christmas period and a very Happy New Year.

Further information

Read other Inside Track features recently published by Professor Morris:

Inside Track – Neil Morris: Digital Technology – affordances and challenges

Exploring the potential of online education

Freeing up our time with digital technologies

Enhancing our research and innovation through digital transformation 

Introducing DVC: Digital Transformation portfolio

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