Forget digital versus non-digital – it’s about making higher education as good as it can be

Adobe pedagogical evangelist Mark Andrews looks towards a post-digital age in which technology innovation and digital fluency are enablers to build education capacity.

Mark Andrews is Pedagogical Evangelist in Higher Education (EMEA) at Adobe.

Before the pandemic hit, “digital” and “online” learning were often viewed as being distinct from “learning”. This habit represented – and cemented – a reality in which digital learning was perceived as a novel, a fringe activity, it was a domain for enthusiasts, rather than part and parcel of every student’s learning experience.

For advocates of digital learning in higher education the prefix “digital” acted simultaneously as an inspiration to innovation, and a hindrance to adoption at whole-university scale. “Digital” brought disparate people together from different disciplines and university roles together – joined by their interest in pedagogical development, student centred learning, and the potential of new technologies – into white spaces where the status quo could be reimagined.

When I described this situation to a former collaborator he described our work as being “intrapreneurial” – we were taking seeds of an idea, forming ad-hoc teams and developing institutional capability. The truth is that “digital” was never really the focus of thinking and development – it was the enabler, creating the conditions for building capacity for education, and education innovation.

University of Leeds vice chancellor Simone Buitendijk remarked at Wonkfest recently, and articulated in an accompanying article, that digital technology is a means for universities to achieve their core missions in more impactful and meaningful ways, not the end result in itself.

And the latest report from Jisc and Emerge Education, Technology-enabled teaching and learning at scale: a roadmap to 2030 finds that to realise the potential of a more blended future for higher education, universities will need to innovate at a whole-institution level, scaling up innovation to build whole technology-enabled learning and teaching ecosystems.

Yet this poses challenges when some in the institution are enthusiasts for technology and others more cautious. Our students’ unions research with Wonkhe on digital literacy and the curriculum suggests that students are aware that aside from the various optional training opportunities universities might provide, their development of digital fluency in their subject depends on the digital confidence and fluency of their lecturers.

This is important, as lecturers can act as role models for disciplinary and professional practice – essentially offering students a vision of their future selves. So a digital divide in universities in which some staff confidently embrace technology and others avoid it is not really sustainable.

From digital to post-digital

Over the past decade there’s been a lively – if somewhat abstract – debate about whether we’re living in a “post-digital” age. This concept takes as its premise that digital technology is, or is becoming, so ubiquitous as to fundamentally reshape the ways we carry out our daily lives – in the process raising all kinds of questions about the relationships between humanity and technology.

Leaving aside the discussion about whether we’ve arrived there, or not, the idea of the post-digital can be helpful in setting a direction of travel for the whole university. With a post-digital mindset, the infusion of technology becomes a default part of learning, teaching, and curriculum design.

Instead of simply swapping analogue for digital, or imagining the two running in parallel, educators can think about how to make the best use of all the various media and modalities available to them – and technology can become an enabler of creativity, and agency in the service of enhancing pedagogy.

At a recent Wonkhe/Adobe round table for leaders of learning and teaching, which explored some of these ideas, one deputy head of learning and teaching suggested that beyond the provision of skills-based materials to support people’s desire to engage with technology, institutions must support dialogue that fosters confidence, fluency, and “flow” in the integration of digital technology in learning.

In this way, the learning environment will more closely align with the world that students will graduate into – one in which, rather than accumulating credentials that signal their proficiency with a discrete range of digital tools, they will need to exercise a level of digital fluency to navigate, ease their paths, and solve problems throughout their lives.

Moreover, the critical and creative input of universities is sorely needed to drive the development of an inclusive post-digital future that we can have reason to value – one that supports individual wellbeing, citizenship, agency, and responsibility, and that fosters cooperation in the service of tackling global challenges.

We can see some of this way of thinking expressed in a recent insight paper for the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, Reimagining research-led education in a digital age, which emphasises the necessity of pedagogic innovation and active learning to prepare students to thrive and lead in complex times:

The sense of urgency to be able to cope with and lead in a changing world demands education that encourages students to be curious, active learners who are open-minded and willing to deal with complex problems that need multilayered solutions. Digital tools and new and established pedagogies are all needed to enable students to explore and apply their learning. Universities have the experience and expertise to pave the way if policy, funders and regulators enable them to do so.

Steps on the road

Reconceptualising how universities might think about what they are trying to achieve with and through digital technology is exciting – but working out the steps on the journey to making that vision manifest in pedagogy and curriculum is a current strategic challenge.

It’s one we’re partnering with institutions globally on through the Adobe Creative Campus collaboration, working with universities that are inspired by the possibilities of infusing digital literacy throughout their whole institution. And it is striking that although universities have very different missions and strategies, there are similar themes and areas of practice emerging that can help give focus to this work.

Assessment was a key area of opportunity that emerged from both our research with students and our round table discussion with leaders. Students welcomed opportunities to engage with diverse and creative forms of assessment, and to use digital technologies in carrying out learning tasks. Attendees at the round table reported the aspiration to innovate in assessment, to embed digital literacy into assessment as an enabler, and give students greater agency in how they demonstrate their learning.

In the spirit of post-digital thinking, using digital technology such as the Adobe Creative Cloud as an institutional wide enabler for learning innovation opens up opportunities for transforming pedagogy and curriculum that will be much more meaningful to staff and students than a bolt-on approach in which “digital” is seen as just another topic to be somehow crammed in.

Our research also highlighted the co-curriculum as a space in which students could be creative in their use of digital technology and apply their learning. Students also liked the idea of learning informally from peers as well as from lecturers. Again, a post-digital mindset requires us to ask what the wider purpose and intention of the co-curriculum is and how innovative use of digital technology can enable wider and more meaningful engagement with new and existing opportunities for student development.

Using the co-curriculum as a more flexible space in which students have space to experiment and learn alongside each other is compelling, and round table discussions picked up this theme as an area for development and innovation, notwithstanding concerns about student time-poverty and the ongoing challenge of bridging the digital divide.

The pandemic has shown that it’s time for digital innovation to move away from a start-up mentality and bring the playfulness, innovation, and creativity of the sandpit into the university mainstream. As Teesside University pro vice chancellor Mark Simpson says, “If you give clever people good technology they’ll run with it and create things you couldn’t imagine.”

This article is published in association with Adobe. Adobe brings together universities around the world that are working to transform curriculum and pedagogy through infusing digital literacy. Contact Adobe to explore opportunities to join the Creative Campus network. 

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