In this blog post, Dr Sean Morrissey explores the concept of digital innovation in universities and shares emerging insights from a peer support network at the University of Strathclyde.
Digital innovation is a red hot topic in academia right now.
However, it is clear that the rate of digital change in many universities has been slower than expected. And because of this, the long cherished goal of many institutions – a digitally literate workforce – remains a work in progress.
Much of the conversation in higher education quite rightly focusses on the benefits digital can offer institutions (at the strategic level). And what digital can offer individual academic professionals (in a practical sense).
We should all, by now, be familiar with the ‘promise’ of digital and the well rehearsed mantra of innovation, new frontiers in teaching and research, satellite and trans-global campuses, more students with 24/7 access to educational resources, stronger bridges with business and industry, and more research impact.
But it has also become apparent that digital technology is far from the panacea that many universities and their stakeholders would like it to be. Digital innovation requires a great deal of investment and careful planning right across an institution. And just as with any disruptive force, digital change is likely to be met with some resistance.
Questions and Answers
A good example of the kinds of challenges that institutions are grappling with can be found in JISC’s Delivering Digital Change briefing paper:
“If an organisation’s strategic goals (in all areas) are to be realised, it is essential that its workforce can make good choices and use digital tools effectively”
Statements like this naturally lead to questions about how academics navigate the many choices that digital brings:
- How can digital tools enhance my role as a teacher, researcher or knowledge exchange practitioner?
- How do I keep up to date with the latest developments and innovations?
- Can I be sure that I have the right tools for the job?
- How do I get the most from digital tools?
- How do I share what I am learning with, and learn from others?
- Can I demonstrate the impact of digital tools on my work?
And for those of use responsible for learning development in universities, the challenge of supporting academics to become digital innovators brings its own set of related questions:
- What practical support do academics need and want?
- How to create an environment that fosters basic digital capabilities while simultaneously encouraging innovation?
- What barriers exist and how can they be overcome?
Barriers to innovation
Speaking of barriers, a recent blog post by Steve Wheeler concluded with an open question to his readers:
What do you think might be other determining factors, or barriers to innovation and uptake of new technologies for learning?
This is something we are actively exploring at Strathclyde.
As part of our Using Social Media and Technology to Enhance Learning (SMaTEL) peer support network last week, we asked staff to carry out a ‘speed dating’ activity.
This involved them moving around the room and having short a one-to-one conversations with colleague from different departments and faculties. They were asked to discuss both their own barriers to using social media and technology in teaching and what they felt worked well.
We then got back together and identified a few common themes from the conversations.
Here are a couple of word-clouds that were produced at the end of the exercise:
It can be tempting to draw hard and fast conclusions from small discussions like this. But to do so, particularly out of context, risks begin unproductive. Suffice to say:
- It is interesting to see the word ‘choice’ repeated in both images.
- (Lack of) ‘guidance’ is seen as a barrier while ‘autonomy’, perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, is noted as something that works.
- Participants in the network felt that a lack of ‘resources’ and ‘training’ were barriers to technological innovation in teaching, whereas when a technological tool is ‘well promoted’, it can often work well.
- And while there is a perception that technology enhanced teaching can be gimmicky, where it works, technology can be ‘interesting’, ‘accessible’, ‘meaningful’, ‘engaging’, ‘relevant’, ‘useable’.
- The discussion also reflected a desire for more sharing of practice and examples of what works well
- And questions of ‘identity’ and ‘motivation’ remain important for academics who are striving to increase their digital competency while negotiating the often diverse and competing components of an academic professional identity.
Stepping forward with technology
It is important for higher education institutions, and in particular those responsible for developing digital strategies, to ensure that widespread barriers to digital innovation and change are understood and addressed through professional development programmes.
While it may seem counterintuitive, some of those bigger issues around professional identity, inertia and resistance, might have relatively simple solutions. Our experience has been that many staff really crave support finding the right digital tools for a job. It can be useful to have a framework for assessing their merits in light of the reality of teaching, research and knowledge exchange. And when digital is made easier, suddenly it becomes less of a disruption, and less of a challenge to academic selves.
The value of relevant examples of good practice, with good peer support and a space for sharing honest reflections on some of the challenges and obstacles that need to be overcome to effectively implement new approaches to teaching, research and knowledge exchange cannot be understated.
And because academics are… well… academics, they should be given access to empirical evidence of the impact of digital on key performance indicators.
The point is that we need to move away from thinking and speaking about digital in binary terms – in 1s and 0s – and accept that digital change requires us to embrace and celebrate those shades of grey; the uncertainty and discomfort that it can bring.
After all digital change in higher education is really about people.
I am an Academic Developer in the Organisational and Staff Development Unit at the University of Strathclyde. My interests include using technology and social media to enhance learning and issues around digital citizenship, health and well-being.