Setting the curve 5 – navigating technology adoption in the academic community

University staff might want to develop their use of technology but struggle to make the time. Jo Midgley and Emily McIntosh reflect on what it takes to make technology change meaningful

Jo Midgley is registrar and pro vice chancellor (student experience) at UWE Bristol

Emily McIntosh is director of student success at the University of the West of Scotland

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

Respondents to the Wonkhe/Kortext survey of educators were confident that building organisational digital capability can support wider goals for student learning and success. Yet, there was a consistent concern expressed about the capacity of university staff to engage in capability building – largely related to limited bandwidth and high workloads.

Organisational development isn’t just about offering training and development for individuals – building communities of practice, and engaging staff in the wider strategy can help create the conditions for collective development. But individual opportunities for development are a necessary part of the picture – respondents frequently expressed appreciation for the expertise and support of their learning technology teams and the development opportunities they offer.

We asked what, given time and space, respondents would most like to develop in their own professional practice. While between one in five and one in three selected relatively operational options like the functionality of the VLE or other university-mandated systems, or university policy and expectations, the most popular answers related to “general purpose” development – general knowledge, theories and good practice for digitally-enhanced pedagogy, and data analysis and application of analytic data.

Chart: What areas do you think, given time and space, you personally would like to develop further in your professional practice? Select all that apply (%)

This points to the difference between addressing specific knowledge of systems and policies, and the development of the kind of widespread digital capability that can infuse effective practice throughout the learning environment – and enable educators to adapt to changing student needs or novel technologies.

Starting with why – when working with engagement analytics getting the technology right is the easy bit

Jo Midgley, Registrar and pro vice chancellor (student experience), UWE Bristol

In common with many institutions, when we started using learning engagement analytics, working with Solutionpath’s StREAM platform, our intention was to support student wellbeing through being able to more accurately identify students who were struggling and contact them with an offer of support. At the scale we are working at, there’s no hope of getting help to students unless we can identify those who need our support, even if they haven’t told us. And we have been able to provide more specialist support for those who might not identify themselves to us as needing it, and support others to persist and achieve more than they might have without an intervention.

After some years of using engagement data, it’s clear just how much potential there is to be more data-informed across the student journey. We’re developing our thinking around digital coaching for example – we have invested in student success coaches for our first year students, and now we’re investigating how students’ insight about their own learning engagement could prompt them towards seeking help to address the issues that are creating barriers to engagement. We’re also exploring how engagement data can link up more effectively with other systems to show a coherent student journey and identify key touchpoints along that journey. Data is helping us understand how the degree apprentice student experience differs from that of “traditional” students, and in aggregate it’s useful lead data when we scrutinise our B3 student outcomes in the executive team.

But we’ve also learned a fair bit as well – and the most important thing we have learned is that new systems are anything but a silver bullet. Implementation doesn’t lead to adoption, data doesn’t mean insight, and intervention doesn’t mean impact. Technology needs to be part of a systematic, strategic solution to challenges – which means that the goal is not to roll out a system but to, for example, improve retention and success by targeting and supporting less engaged students. The rollout of the system needs to be thought through and resourced – responsibility at UWE Bristol for managing the engagement analytics system sits with a central support team – but the success of the strategy will ultimately come down to whether academic and professional colleagues, and by extension students, understand why it’s being adopted, and what that means for how they engage with it. Data can give us the indication of where to focus attention, and it can help us evaluate the impact of those interventions, but only staff and students can cause the change that we want to see.

Thinking about it this way also helps tackle the perception that the issue is a deficit in data literacy among university staff – the data itself is indicative rather than perfect, and it doesn’t require deep data skills to notice that a student has been flagged as at risk and reach out. Staff and students need support to get to grips with new systems, true, but more than that they need confidence that those systems are underpinning meaningful efforts to build a supportive learning culture.

I’ve also personally reflected on the importance of keeping hold of that “why” as a member of our senior team and in reporting to our board of governors, especially as we’ve faced the inevitable setbacks. If your expectation is of a silver bullet, then the temptation will always be to move to the next shiny system rather than going through the painful but necessary process of reflecting, learning, and adapting.

Our data-informed approach to student wellbeing and development gives assurance to our board that we’re making decisions based on evidence and it gives us accountability in the rare tragic cases where we need to know whether there was more we could have done. I see accountability and assurance as a golden thread running through the whole system – helping remind us all why it matters what we do, and how we do it.

Technology can help us achieve our relational goals

Emily McIntosh, Director of student success, University of the West of Scotland

Post-Covid, the focus of the discussion has shifted away from technology adoption as an end in itself and more towards how technology can help us achieve more relational goals.

Many of us are still working in a hybrid way – and the student learning experience is almost universally hybrid by design. That doesn’t mean a move away from in-person teaching, but it does mean thinking more about what connection and community mean when work and learning are mediated by technology.

We are ubiquitously connected through our devices, yet many of us struggle with feeling authentically connected. Gaps in learning exacerbated by Covid are more likely to go under the radar as students sometimes ask if it’s an option to dial into their classes, especially as the cost of living crisis continues to bite.

All this means that rather than using technology as an alternative to or replacement for the in-person offer, we need to be actively designing hybrid learning – making much more thoughtful choices about what needs to be synchronous and in person in the interest of community building and engagement, and what technologies can best support independent learning, especially in the time between scheduled classes.

Technology is absolutely essential to enable access to learning resources – we have a library on each of our campuses, but provision of online resources enables us to build a richer picture of students’ needs and the connections they are making.

Again, this doesn’t mean a move away from the physical campus into a nebulous digital space – I’m curious about how we can gather better data on the spaces people occupy, both staff and students, and how we can supplement that data with human insight about how those spaces enable or create barriers to connection and belonging.

In practice, this comes down to changing the process of course and service design, enabling co-creation between IT, learning technologists, professional services, academics, and students. The conversation needs to be opened up to more people and focus on both pedagogy and student support. Once we have established what the ethos is, we can look for the technology that can realise it.

There are no shortage of technology solutions out there that make claims about what can be done, but before rushing to purchase and rolling out institution-wide training on a new system it’s essential to have lots of conversations with colleagues and students to establish the points of reference that are needed and bake those into procurement.

The best relationships with technology providers are the ones where it’s possible to work in partnership to develop and co-design platforms rather than the technology provider designing something with lots of complicated bells and whistles but that doesn’t meet a critical need. As universities get more confident about determining what they need from technology, I expect we’ll see a shift in expectations of providers – and those that can offer a real partnership and co-creation are the ones that will still be going strong once Covid is a distant memory.

This article is published in association with Kortext as part of a suite on the theme of universities deploying technology for learning, teaching, and student success. You can download the full report of the survey findings and leaders’ insight over on Kortext’s website here.

One response to “Setting the curve 5 – navigating technology adoption in the academic community

  1. An interesting and thought provoking read… it is indeed important to keep the end goal in mind, especially during procurement. Also, the idea of “connection” with others through technology is, I think, a much more challenging piece then people often give time to. Thank you for the article

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