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Why digital transformation is crucial to success – an interview with Liam Earney

  • 3 July 2023
  • By Kortext and Jisc
  • This HEPI blog article was kindly contributed by Kortext and Jisc, and is based on an interview with Liam Earney, Managing Director of Higher Education and Research at Jisc.

We spoke to Liam to discuss Jisc’s contribution to UCAS’ Journey to a Million, digital transformation and why partnerships are crucial to success.  

How might the predicted increase in student numbers impact institutions and their staff?

Digital transformation is an essential part of the solution to the predicted increase in student numbers, with far reaching implications to academic and professional services staff. At Jisc, we believe that digital is crucial for institutions responding to the projected changes to student numbers, both the increase and the subsequent decrease. But it is a little more nuanced than that… 

For this to be successful, implementation must be carefully thought through and planned. Embedding digital into an institution isn’t just about the technology itself. It requires strategic planning and rollout, staff need to be included in the process and supported in exploring new ways of working, or it will never succeed. An example would be that leaders will need to ensure that staff have been supported to develop the digital capabilities needed as they reconsider the pedagogic impact of digital on their learning and teaching practices. Training teaching staff may sound obvious, but it often isn’t sufficiently factored into plans, leaving staff feeling like it is yet another task on their already overwhelming to-do list. 

Increasingly we see a focus on outcomes aligned with, and supporting, institutional strategies as teams look to move beyond the silos that they may have traditionally worked in. The binary of academic and professional services staff isn’t necessarily helpful. You need cross-functional teams with a variety of skills.

Does Jisc recommended any steps to enable a coordinated and collaborative strategy?

It’s critical that senior leaders are bought into the process of digital transformation. This will help to ensure that staff are given the necessary support, time, and the backing to develop their digital capabilities and to become digitally fluent. Results from our digital experience surveys found that teaching staff are often the first point of contact for students experiencing problems with digital tools. It is therefore crucial that staff are prepared for these sorts of questions and feel comfortable advising their students.

Alongside getting buy in from senior leaders, investment is key. Digital shouldn’t be seen as an add-on or approached with the aim of spending as little money as possible. It is a strategic investment in the future and should be treated as such. If digital is to be done well, it needs to be mapped in from the start, not bolted on as an afterthought. Of course, that’s not to dismiss the financial challenges that institutions face! We recognise that we’re operating in an environment of stark financial constraints. Everyone we speak to is balancing the ongoing need for investment across multiple domains with those financial conditions. The interplay of quality and value is vital.

Have you seen any particular trends or challenges emerging across universities?

To avoid siloed working practices, we recommend that effective digital transformation needs a university-wide approach. Earlier this year, we spoke to several institutions about their approach to digital strategy, and there were several recurring themes that emerged. Such as robust, secure and regularly upgraded infrastructure, effective processes for managing investment and change, strong stakeholder engagement, digitally aware executive leadership, a focus on digital skills and capabilities and evidence based centres of expertise in digital research and education. None of these factors exist independently. It’s a bottom up and a top-down process.  

How can universities deliver the streamlined, user-friendly learning experience that students want?  

We must take account of the pedagogy. We need to put the right tools, modes and approaches for students in place, and that might not always be the same interface. It comes back to planning and design, putting the student at the forefront of our thinking. We need to integrate different tools and applications, having defined standards and interoperability, and using data to drive the right decisions.  

It’s critical that, individually and collectively, universities have effective supplier relationships and management in place. Many institutions we speak to are looking to develop a relationship that’s based more on partnership, is less adversarial, and where they feel a genuine sense of trust. That raises the bar for vendors in terms of what’s expected of them, and the standards institutions will hold them to in terms of pricing, service and transparency.

Of course, there are commercial imperatives involved, so a willingness to have frank conversations might be needed. But perhaps that’s part of partnership.

What might  the future landscape of  HE look like in ten years from now?

There are the challenges of ongoing growth in student numbers and the political and economic environment. Institutions are navigating a rapid pace of change. Then we have the potential impact of AI on top of that. The future landscape of HE could indeed be a very different one to the one we know now. 

I remain optimistic about the opportunities in HE, having just watched my son complete his first year. Look at some of the underpinning infrastructure we’re starting to see, such as ubiquitous connectivity which can link, not just a campus, but the local region. That network of relationships that universities have across business, culture, health and the wider public sector is far reaching. By innovative use of digital and data across physical environments – which are increasingly developed and built with digital in mind – the user experience can be improved for everyone. 

There’s the ability for genuine personalisation of resources, whether that is through interfaces or the application of data, which can help institutions meet the needs of an increasingly diverse cohort of students.  

Institutions want to be able to use a variety of data points to inform and support interventions around student performance and welfare, with the ultimate aim of improving student outcomes. In order to do that, those data sets need to be well managed and have the right governance in place and integrated from a variety of different applications. 

AI has certainly been a hot topic these last few months. What’s been heartening for us, as a digital technology agency, is the enthusiasm within institutions to think about how they can adopt AI. How they can use it in teaching, learning and assessment so that it provides a high-quality experience, how it could reduce the burden of basic level tasks for staff, how it could help them to be more efficient and more effective etc.

What we’re currently seeing is a deep desire for a collective approach and shared services. The ability to partner or pool resources with other organisations augments an institution’s ability to deliver their mission and vision. 

There’s also a desire for colleagues to share best practices, to learn from each other, to act cohesively in their relationships with suppliers. This is what we’re hearing from members; a willingness and an appetite to work together to achieve even greater things.

Liam Earney will be joining Kortext as a panelist at their summer webinar on Thursday 6th July. To hear more from Liam and other expert panellists, register for your place at Kortext’s summer webinar. 

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