Conference report: UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capabilities

Last week I attended the UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capabilities conference in Birmingham. This year’s conference was focused on digital capabilities of staff in HE and FE. One of the most prominent themes was introducing change and change management. Several speakers referred to challenges surrounding introduction of new technologies, changes in relevant policies and modifying institutional cultures.

James Clay (Jisc) usefully reminded us of Jisc’s Building Digital Capability project – interestingly, a number of speakers referred to the digital capability framework,  which seems to have become the main theoretical framework for discussions on digital capability. The Building Digital Capability website contains a number of useful guides and documents, including model digital leader, teacher and learner profiles. James also stressed that when it comes to digital capabilities, we very often don’t know what we don’t know. To help bridge this gap, Jisc are planning to launch a tool for testing staff’s digital capability level (to be released as full public beta over the summer) as well as a course for digital leaders. 

David Walker (University of Sussex) emphasised that change in HE is developmental, rather than transformational: it takes time to manage and take effect. One of David’s main points was that the language of change, transformation, excellence and innovation can often be perceived as threatening and generate resistance. In practical terms, managing change should be about acknowledging concerns, addressing insecurities and sustaining communication – or even overcommunicating, if necessary. Communication is key, which is why it is so important for ed-tech teams to ensure constant presence: for example through a strategic approach to running a departmental blog, newsletter, Twitter etc.

Sue Watling (University of Hull) also focused on the fear of change as one of the main obstacles for change. Staff who are technologically shy and have low levels of digital confidence tend to avoid training sessions and continue to exclude themselves from the digital teaching experience. Sue added the notion of NAYs (Not-Arrived-Yets) to the well-known model of digital residents and digital visitors to help conceptualise all the groups of staff we should be reaching out to. She mentioned the Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age staff development courses at the University of Lincoln.  

The idea of the language of change causing resistance was also echoed Helen Beetham’s closing keynote.

The practicalities of developing digital capabilities was another common theme. Hamish Loveday (University of Dundee) stressed the importance of putting people and processes before technology, which is an approach adopted in University of Aberdeen’s Learners’ Toolkit. Alistair McNaught (Jisc) focused on removing barriers to learning through supporting staff in embedding accessibility and inclusivity in their practice. The Jisc guide on delivering an inclusive digital student experience may be a good starting point here. 

Jane Secker (LSE) gave an inspirational talk on developing a sustainable series of courses in digital literacy through collaboration of various departments to avoid duplicating efforts. She emphasised the importance of critical digital literacy, i.e. knowing when to use technology and when not to use it. Fiona Handley (University of Brighton) demonstrated the University of Brighton’s Digital Literacies Framework and explained the rationale behind it. 

In a panel debate, the participants mentioned the important role of just-in-time support, providing scaffolding when developing digital capabilities (as people may not necessarily know what they don’t know) and using the student voice as a form of pressure on lecturers to enhance their skills.  

Another important topic was that of student engagement and building partnerships to develop digital capabilities. In this context, Sarah Knight (Jisc) mentioned the Jisc NUS Benchmarking tool – the student digital experience. Moira Wright and Eileen Kennedy (UCL) talked about how the owl and pussycat went to UCL their work with students where they reflected, through play, what digital literacies students need at university.   

All in all, this was a very inspirational event and I hope I will be able to come back next year. The presentations are available on the event programme page. There was a lot of Twitter activity at the event too: check out #digicap.

A version of this post has appeared on UWL’s informED blog.