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Staffordshire University’s 2030 strategy aims to make it the UK’s leading digital university. It’s an ambitious goal and to achieve it the university is working on a large culture change project that has staff and student digital capabilities at its core. The aim is to make sure people are equipped with the skills they’ll need to make the most of all that Education 4.0 has to offer.
We asked vice-chancellor and chief executive Professor Liz Barnes and director of digital services Andrew Proctor why their ‘digital champions’ hold the key to success, and to share their recommendations for a successful change process.
This is what they learned from their project to get people working with collaboration platform Microsoft Teams.
Let champions explore what’s possible
Often, IT departments keep hold of all the digital toys until they are ready to roll them out across their institution. Instead, try flipping the model. Recruit your digital champions, get the tools into their hands and don’t tell people how they should use them – ask what they think the possibilities might be.
What are digital champions?
At Staffordshire University, digital champions are people with a passion for digital and the enthusiasm to cascade what they know down to their peers. They may be students, academics or professional staff but they have traits in common: they’re happy to embrace change, they like trying new things and they’re keen to share their enthusiasm with others.
“They can take other people with them because they can translate digital opportunities into meaningful contexts in their local areas. Rather than the IT department trying to train every lecturer to use Microsoft Teams, for example, our digital champions take a peer-to-peer approach.”
Find a balance between central control and flexibility
For example: once you’ve got schools starting to explore how to use Microsoft Teams, that’s the time when IT can step in to identify what’s working well and offer some guidance, perhaps suggesting when people might want to use Teams rather than Outlook or SharePoint. So they’re offering a good template to start with, but always with the proviso that people should be able to choose how they use the tool, depending on what’s right for them in their role.
“It’s a balancing act. If you give too much flexibility without any sort of guidance, it can become a bit like the Wild West and suddenly there’s so many different working practices that nobody can keep up, which results in a varying student experience across the university or college. But at the other end of the scale you can constrain things so much that you never move forward.”
Help digital champions to be creative
At Staffordshire, digital champions can avoid any queues and circumvent the booking system when they need IT support with their new technology. They can simply turn up and get help to tweak settings or find a way to do something new. It removes potential stumbling blocks and lets them focus on being creative.
“It got to the stage where we connected some of our lecturers with the Teams’ development staff at Microsoft so they could feed back directly. Wouldn’t it be great if they could help influence the roadmap of Microsoft Teams moving forward? For me, it’s very much about connecting and enabling people, looking for good practice and then exploring how you can mainstream it.”
Change the culture in IT
Often, IT departments are focused on keeping the lights on. But at Staffordshire Andrew has led a project looking at how to minimise the effort spent on “business as usual” so his staff can focus on creativity and innovation. He says it’s created a whole new dynamic in the team. Now, IT people are engaging widely with teaching staff and students and finding out from them what they want from the IT team and from digital technologies, and why.
“I have a leadership board once a month and traditionally this would report on incredibly dull KPIs, how many incidents have been resolved this month and so on.
But instead, team managers come in and use real user stories to demonstrate the new things that the university can do because of the work they’ve enabled. And that helps shift the culture to focus on people and become outcome-focused. So, they’re thinking less about doing a system upgrade and more on why they’re doing it, and that helps them prioritise the right things.”
“Get things out there quickly. Don’t spend ages building them up and trying to come up with a gold-plated solution. Just very quickly get them out there and then adapt and change as you go along. You’ll get something that is useful to students or staff much quicker and you’ll also take away the fear element.”
Moving quickly and getting things into people’s hands as soon as possible makes it easier to understand what works and what doesn’t. It also helps people to feel more willing to try new things because there’s less riding on it – it’s not a big thing that everyone must do. It’s simply something to try; if it doesn’t work it can be fixed.
Networking and common sense can win over doubters
It’s hard for most organisations to make innovation and creativity mainstream, but you can make a start just by getting out and talking to people. With the Microsoft Teams project, Staffordshire’s champions began attending things like their senior management team meetings to get all the senior leaders in their school aware of Teams. They started to find some interesting, low-risk use cases for Teams and they introduced people to the concepts.
The university makes online training available to everyone but it doesn’t force the issue. It’s there when people are ready for it.
Connect with industry
Working with large organisations like Microsoft and Amazon gives you credibility – a meaningful qualification or badge gives staff and students a globally recognised qualification that employers understand.
What’s more, Liz Barnes says, working with these big companies has also helped her university to think big. The companies share what they’re doing in other sectors and internationally, sparking new ideas about how that could be translated into an academic setting.
Because universities and colleges are such complex organisations, making big changes is challenging but tinkering around the edges doesn’t have the kind of impact that’s now needed. Staffordshire University say they’ve “almost ripped up the book” because they believe innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI) will change curricula and even the nature of disciplines themselves.
“We’re saying every subject will be interdisciplinary and we’re working out how you can get the opportunity for students to work across the institution. Students will choose if – and how much – they blend their learning, and whether they come to campus or they don’t. And so this thinking has encouraged us to be much more agile.
We’ve generated some excitement about how you can think in a totally different way about higher education. Because, for sure, universities will not look like they do now by 2030.”
It’s all very well jumping feet first into all things digital but how do you show an employer that you’ve gained the skills they want? Microsoft badges offer an answer and they’re proving popular with staff and students at Staffordshire University as they compete between departments and schools to see who can get the most.
The badges provide secure, verifiable digital credentials in the form of an image and metadata that are unique to you, and you can share them on LinkedIn and other social media sites, embed them in your cv and add them to your website and your email address.