Exploring the digital university – next steps digtial university ecosystems?

Regular readers of this (and my previous) blog, will know that exploring the notion of just what a digital university is, c/should be is an ongoing interest of mine. Over the past couple of years now my colleague Bill Johston and I have shared our thinking around the development of a model to explore notions of the digital university. The original series of blog posts got very high viewing figures and generated quite a bit of discussion via comments. We’ve developed the posts into a number of conference presentations and papers. But the most exciting and rewarding development was when Keith Smyth from Edinburgh’s Napier University contacted us about the posts in relation their strategic thinking and development around their digital future. Which in turn will help them to figure out what their vision of digital university will look like.

For the past year Bill and I have been critical friends to Napier’s Digital Futures Working Group. This cross institutional group was tasked with reviewing current practice and areas of activity relating to digital engagement, innovation and digital skills development, and with identifying short term initiatives to build on current practice as well as proposing possible future developments and opportunities. These will be shared by Napier over the coming months. Being part of the Napier initiative has encouraged me to try and develop a similar approach here at GCU.  I’m delighted that we have got senior management backing and later this month we’ll be running a one day consultation event here.

Earlier this week Bill, Keith and myself had a catch up where we spent quite a bit of time reflecting on “our journey” so far.  Partly this was because we have another couple of conference paper submissions we want to prepare.  Also as we now have a very rich set of findings from the Napier experience we needed to think about  our next steps. What can we at GCU learn from the Napier consultation experience? What are the next steps for both institutions? What common issues will emerge? What common solutions/decision points will emerge?  What are the best ways to share our findings internally and externally?

As we reflected on where we started we (well, to be precise, Bill) began to sketch out a kind of process map of where we started (which was a number of lengthy conversations in the staff kitchen between Bill and I) to where we might be this time next year, when hopefully we will have set of actions from GCU.

The diagram below is an attempt to replicate Bill’s diagram and outline the phases we have gone through so far. Starting with conversations, which evolved into a series of blogs posts, which evolved in conference papers/presentation, the blog posts were spotted by Keith and used as a basis for the development of their Digital Futures Working group, which is now being used as an exemplar for work beginning here at GCU.

Stages of the Digital University Conversation

I am more and more convinced that one of the key distinguishing features of a digital university is the ability of staff and students to have a commonly shared articulation and experience of the digitally enabled processes they engage with on a daily basis, and equally a shared understanding of what would be missing if these processes weren’t being digitally enabled. You know, the digital day of student, lecturer, admin person type of thing, but not visions written by “futurologists”, ones written by our staff and students.  Alongside this we could have the daily live of the physical spaces that we are using. So for example we could have overlays of buildings not only showing the footfall of people but also where and when they were accessing our wifi next works etc.

Now, I know we can/could do this already (for example we already show access/availability of computers in our labs via our website) and/or make pretty good educated guesses about what is happening in general terms. However it is becoming easier to get more data and more importantly visualise it in ways that encourage questions around “actionable insights’ not only for our digital spaces, digital infrastructure but our physical ones too. Knowing and sharing the institutional digital footprint is again central to the notion of digital university.

Alongside this, by using learning analytic techniques can we start to make see any correlations around where and why students are online? Can we understand and learn from patterns around access and engagement with learning activities?  Are students are using our uni provided spaces and wifi to do the majority of their uni work or to download “stuff” to listen/watch/read to on the bus? Are they just accessing specialist software/kit? Does it matter if they all have Facebook/youtube/whatsapp open all the time if we are confident (through our enhanced data driven insights) that they are successfully engaging with our programmes and that they have the digital literacy skills to connect and collaborate with the right people in the right spaces (both on and offline)?

As we were talking one word kept coming.  It’s maybe a bit old fashioned, I know they were all the rage a few years ago particularly in the repository sphere, but we did think that mapping the ecosystem of a digital university could be the next logical step. The ecosystem wouldn’t just be about the technology, infrastructure and data but the people and processes too.  Via the the SoLar discussion list I discovered the  Critical Questions for Big Data  article by Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford. As part of their conclusions they write:

“Manovich (2011) writes of three classes of people in the realm of Big Data: ‘those who create data (both consciously and by leaving digital footprints), those who have the means to collect it, and those who have expertise to analyze it’. We know that the last group is the smallest, and the most privileged: they are also the ones who get to determine the rules about how Big Data will be used, and who gets to participate.”

In terms of a digital university, I think we need to be doing our utmost to ensure we are extending membership of that third group, but just now there is a need to raise awareness to all about how and where their data is being collected and to give them a voice in terms of what they think is the best use of it.

What a digital university will actually look like will probably not differ that much from what a university looks like today, what will distinguish it will be the what happens within it and how everyone in that university interacts and shares through a myriad of digitally enabled processes.

4 comments

  1. Hi Sheila,
    Another great post and has got me thinking how and what is collected, and what as a university we do with it? How does it help shape our systems? What will be the outcome for the students? Are we looking to develop a digital panopticon? If so what are the ethical issues of that? Lots to ponder look forward to discussing. Evelyn 💭💭💭 😊

    • Hi Evelyn – I like the notion of a digital panopticon. Yes, there are ethical issues – the Cetis Series has a paper on legal and ethical issues. Making sure everyone knows that their data is being collected so we need to be transparent about that.

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