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How do you create a long-term strategy with so many ‘unknown unknowns’?

25 August 2020

Last month, Jisc, Emerge Education, and Salesforce brought together dozens of UK vice-chancellors for virtual roundtable sessions to explore the long-run impact of Covid-19 on university digital strategy. When we asked them what they expected from 2030, 94% told us universities will be radically different or fairly different. Then, we asked how many of them had a formal strategy or vision for 2030. Only a third said they did.

A long-term outlook for digital strategy

Planning for the decade ahead is not easy. We don’t know what further crises to expect. Predicting the rapid development of consumer technology is something of a fool’s errand – after all, it has barely been ten years since the launch of the iPhone. Government policy shifts rapidly and unpredictably. For all that, there has never been a stronger need for a robust, long-term vision of the role of digital technology in higher education

The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated digital adoption across the global HE sector, leading to what may have been the world’s largest experiment in rapid digital transformation. As we wrote in an earlier blog post, there will be two major changes to the perception of technology in HE over the next decade. Firstly, universities now have real confidence in their ability to adopt digital ways of teaching and working. Secondly, and more importantly, a coherent approach to technology is increasingly seen as a source of resilience, not risk.

Take the example of a 2030 strategy. Those universities that had one also found it easier to deal with the crisis. The strategy became their roadmap for navigating the lockdown and preparing for the uncertainty of the next couple of academic years. They were able to accelerate changes that were already underway – introducing remote working, running collaborative challenge-based student projects, going through the shift to digital examinations, and so on. 

Challenge-based learning: How Falmouth University reimagined student engagement during lockdown.

Every vice-chancellor at our roundtables agreed that a long-term vision and strategy were needed. What will this look like? The diversity of the UK HE sector means there will not be a single correct response. Instead, the answer will depend on the unique mission, circumstances, and capabilities of each university. We can imagine a range of scenarios:

  • For some, face-to-face teaching will remain at the core of their proposition. They may focus on operational efficiencies, reinvesting cost savings into the student experience
  • Others may adopt a blended approach, moving lectures online but requiring physical presence for ‘high-value’ activities like seminars, tutorials, labs or fieldwork
  • Some will aim for a ‘mode-free’ approach that provides a parity of experience to online, on-campus, and commuter students and can shift between modes seamlessly
  • The Jisc Learning and Teaching Reimagined programme is also offering up visions of a ‘hyflex plus’ university that embraces online and accelerated learning; a hyperlocal university; and a university co-designed with employers.

Whichever vision is the right one for any particular university, its leadership will need to put in place a long-term strategy. So how can we help more of them develop one?

Tackling the ‘unknown unknowns’

The pandemic response has given senior leaders the confidence that their institutions can tackle the challenge of digital transformation. The next hurdle is the ‘unknown unknowns’ – a lack of knowledge and foresight around the barriers and benefits of the journey. To help address that gap, Universities UK, Jisc, and Emerge Education, together with technical partner Salesforce, are working on a long-term digital strategy framework. This work is led by David Maguire (Interim Vice-Chancellor, University of Dundee) and Graham Galbraith (Vice-Chancellor, University of Portsmouth), tying into Jisc’s sector-wide learning and teaching reimagined programme.

The framework will suggest examples of the questions that senior leaders can ask themselves and their teams to identify what they need to prioritize in their digital strategy. Some of these questions will be more urgent than others, and we’re looking at both the short- and long-term perspective.

Based on ongoing conversations with senior executives at forty institutions, we have identified recurring themes that will be central to a successful digital strategy: leadership, staff, business model, and infrastructure. The framework will include a checklist across each theme, examples of questions to ask, and case studies of universities that are addressing these questions in interesting ways.

Culture change for long-term success

Over the long-term, culture change will be the single most important factor of success for a digital strategy. Executive leadership teams will need to embrace and exemplify the cultural changes required: agility and openness to experimentation, understanding of the value and limits of technology, data fluency and basic digital competence. To make progress, ask:

  • Over the short-term: What digital expertise do we need to look for in hires to the senior executive team or new board members?
  • Over the long-term: What structure of the senior executive team is best to drive the delivery of the strategy and is there a need for dedicated roles with a focus on digital?

These same values will be required of university staff. Many of them already have the necessary skills and creativity but aren’t always empowered to apply them or recognized for it; others may lack the confidence, incentives, or support to adopt new practices. The change needs to be accepted across the entire institution, not just in pockets of excellence. To make  progress, ask:

  • Over the short-term: What proportion of staff currently use digital tools well, and how can we support them to share digital expertise with colleagues consistently?
  • Over the long-term: Is there a route to career progression through excellence in teaching, including the use of digital tools, and is it held in the same regard as research?

Staff capability and development is seen as a top priority by senior leaders today, with 70% of our roundtable attendees highlighting it as the greatest immediate need to address from a digital strategy perspective.

Changing student needs and market conditions

If culture change is an enabler, the outcome of a successful digital strategy is the change in service delivery. The emerging university business model will be driven by shifting market conditions – a combination of growing demand and growing competition – and the need to meet a different and more varied set of student expectations. To make progress, ask:

  • Over the short-term: What is the role of the campus play in the student experience and how can we approximate it (including a sense of community) in the context of digital delivery?
  • Over the long-term: How are student recruitment practices likely to change over the next decade and do we have the digital marketing capabilities to keep up with best practice?

Delivering on these goals will require an accurate assessment of the barriers presented by legacy IT and the investment required to overcome them. Universities face a unique infrastructure challenge in the need to balance a consistent baseline experience for staff and students against an IT environment that is much harder to control than in an enterprise setting. To make progress, ask:

  • Over the short-term: What internal processes would we need to change for new technology systems to work effectively?
  • Over the long-term: What is the ratio of investment in digital technology vs campus estates, and what should it be to achieve our 2030 vision?

Working with startups

To get their answers to these questions right, senior leaders will need to tap into fresh thinking and look for inspiration to their governing bodies, peers, staff, sector organisations, and external experts. Here, startup founders have an invaluable opportunity to help the sector see where digital solutions fit within university value chains.

In the context of long-term digital strategy, startups can be a valuable source of insight and best practice across a range of areas. It’s best to see today’s early-stage companies as ‘weak signals’ of the future: not all of them are successful, but collectively they represent a range of possible paths. In the meantime, startup founders can be a source of inspiration, check and challenge for university leaders. By questioning the status quo and giving universities tools to experiment with new approaches, startups can help reduce the uncertainty around ‘unknown unknowns’ and formulate the questions that will shape digital strategy.

Over the next weeks, as part of the learning and teaching reimagined programme, we will continue to explore these issues with senior leaders from across the sector. We hope that the framework, when published this autumn, will help the sector understand and, in time, fully realize the potential of digital technology to be more than simply the automation of existing in-person learning and teaching.

This blog is the second in a series of posts based on conversations with dozens of senior leaders from UK universities. You can find the first post, which includes the list of contributors, here.

The sum of all parts: how edtechs are helping universities improve the student experience

11 August 2020

There is no doubt that the landscape of higher education is changing. As addressed in our Step Up summit in May 2020, university senior leaders are beginning to really think outside the box when it comes to choosing tools and providers that will  continue to and improve on the delivery of high quality education and services to students, particularly in the post-covid world.

At Step Up we know there are  advantages of utilising edtech startups to help solve some of the current challenges of higher education. Startups often have smaller, more focused teams, can re-iterate their solutions faster than larger companies and are often much more likely to be able to deliver and adapt their solutions in tune with institutions, providing quicker and more focused results.

In our recent research report The Start of Something Big? we identified that providing the best, most equitable student experience is one of the top priorities for universities. As student populations diversify, so must the range of support services, and ease of access to these services. Universities must be more focused on providing preventative measures when students are struggling and offer targeted support where needed. The student experience is fast becoming a key differentiator for many universities, and the ever-present issue of ensuring student wellbeing and good mental health means decision makers cannot allow this to slip as a top priority.

One Step Up company determined to address this issue is Vygo. Ben Hallett, CEO explains how creating a strong ecosystem model of tools is helping to address this. 

“Previously, the general outlook of education institutions favoured monolithic software that claimed to facilitate all parts of the student experience. These software packages would come with hefty price tags, long procurement cycles and long contract lengths. This model discouraged  education institutions from changing providers and dissentivised software providers from continuously optimising their platforms for students. The fallout of this model often left staff and students with clunky software standing in between them and their potential. 

As an alternative approach, Vygo’s aim is to address student retention by improving access to support services. Ben says; “After witnessing too many of our friends at university dropping out after failing to meaningfully connect with the institution’s rigid support services, we decided that we needed to solve this. When analysing the problem, we found a number of issues: a lack of clear signposting of where to go when you needed help; analogue support services with long waitlists; over-burdened administrators and; inequity of access. So we built a mobile and web platform that allowed universities to aggregate all of their support services and put them meaningfully at the fingertips of students whether they were on-campus or off campus.”

One particular example of this is Vygo’s recent work at Coventry University. They have been able to help deliver continuous online support and peer connection to Coventry’s students wherever they’ve been isolated across the globe during the COVID-19 restrictions.

One of Coventry University’s peer mentors, Asqa, has been able to support a number of her peers during COVID through the platform.

“I am absolutely loving this platform. This has been really helpful for new students who are away from the university campus but still, they have access to learn through Vygo App. This also helps students to interact with people and make new friends as well. I am having a really good time by working as a mentor; it has been such a great experience for me.”

The wider discussion of how universities are evolving to meet the needs of students is most certainly underway. Along with Vygo, edtech startups like Aula, Bibliu and UniBuddy are working together using learning analytics and personalisation to help create meaningful student experiences which match up to expectations. Through greater personalisation universities will deliver more consistent, better experiences for all students including distance learners, part-timers and those  from disadvantaged backgrounds or underrepresented groups. With the modern wave of edtech startups there is a fundamental shift towards providing platforms that go deep on a specific niche of the student experience, and interact with each other to provide the most seamless, high quality experience for the student as possible.

To find out more please visit our Step Up insights page.

Step Up members rise to the challenges COVID-19 poses to higher education

18 May 2020

The realisation that we are living in unprecedented times is now a fact of life. COVID-19 and the subsequent global lockdown has meant the higher education sector needs to adapt its technology rapidly. Universities are working to minimise the impact to existing students while preparing for a new cohort. 

Step Up is a community of Jisc-assessed startups with the shared goal of increasing innovation to support change in UK education. At no other time has the edtech industry mobilised so rapidly to meet the demands of a sector in transition. The Step Up community is rising to the challenge. Working at the chalk face, startups are in a unique position to be able to move quickly. Agile teams and creative approaches mean faster engagement providing more focused solutions.

The transition to on-campus study remains uncertain and international travel is unlikely in the coming months. Retention and recruitment of international students, for example, has never been more challenging. Delays are creating challenges that could mean processing of thousands of applications in a much shorter timescale. Enroly provide the tool CAS Shield and have been working with the University of Greenwich who have reported a reduction in their processing time from 9 to 2 days with less staff time needed for help with basic tasks.

UK medical schools are experiencing the disruption of bedside learning opportunities. They are developing new strategies to manage progression requirements which maintain academic integrity. Many are considering using open-book exams or delaying their assessments completely. Open Campus provides campus management support and has been quick to respond. They have developed a new app which provides remote-invigilated exam functionality.  This supports the continuation of academic activities, particularly students’ assessments and progression.

It is obvious that one of the main concerns at this time is assessment. Step Up companies are working hard to react to the move to online. Synap is a platform providing exam preparation that uses personalised learning. They have been working with institutions in law and medicine to support examinations now taken on their platform.

During this period of isolation it’s crucial that the student experience remains central. Unitu is a student voice platform where issues can be raised, discussed and voted on. Unitu reports that 85% of its students have engaged in the last 30 days. They also report that most issues are resolved by staff or reps within 2 days, a much faster turnaround time than usual providing reassurance and alleviating anxieties. Vygo provides a platform for peer mentoring and student support – straight to students’ smartphones. They are working hard to achieve fully online delivery of all student support services at a time when they are needed most.

Startups can also provide tools for staff, with long-reaching financial implications for institutions.  COVID-19 has made conferences impossible for the foreseeable future. Morressier digitizes conferences and provides workflow tools to showcase research. Academics can still get credit for their research and attract new commercial or publishing partnerships which can secure much-needed revenue streams.

It’s important not to underestimate practical help available for students and institutions. Handshake is launching a series of 15+ virtual events from companies still hiring graduates. They are covering all the costs associated with hosting these events. Many companies in the Step Up community are giving away free access to their resources. Handshake is giving free access to UK students and free periods to institutions. Vygo is offering strategy support whether the institution uses their platform or not.

The message is that edtech startups are a vital source of innovation now more than ever. They are able to address issues and turn development around quickly – removing traditional communication barriers and allowing institutions to make faster decisions. Without the complex internal structures of larger providers, support and troubleshooting can be easier and faster to access. Step Up members have been successfully ‘Assessed by Jisc’ and are ready to work with institutions. Is now the time to think differently? It could very well be.

GESA at Bett awards 2020

31 January 2020

There is never a dull moment in the world of edtech startups and this was more apparent than ever at the The Global EdTech Startup Awards (GESAwards) in January. Part of the Bett conference, the awards which are now in their 6th year, celebrate the best innovations in edtech from 17 countries around the world, taken from thousands of applications.

Expecting the typical monotone presentation ceremony, I was pleasantly surprised. The nominees came bounding onto the stage with infectious enthusiasm, accompanied by an upbeat music soundtrack pumping out during the links.

Innovations specific to schools – over 40% – make up a large portion of the nominees with reading skills still being a major focus for edtech. Of the rest, higher education made up 18% of the nominees. 

Undoubtedly the stars of the show were Spanish company Genially who have taken the sector by storm creating a platform which brings content right up to date, bringing any document or message to life. Genially came first, winning a substantial $20,000 of Google cloud credits and also won the People’s Choice award on the night.

It was great to see UK-based nominees and Step Up members, Blackbullion, bag two awards – one for generating social mobility, as well as being awarded overall runners-up on the night. 

The clear priority of these awards is that companies have a particular problem to solve, and this was a running theme in all the presentations from founders which made up the bulk of the evening. Founders spoke with passion about how they were compelled to start their companies because there was a gap in the market that they felt they could fill, and a real problem they could solve through technology.

The message is clear – global edtech is very much a thriving and dynamic sector and brimming with ideas so – as ever – watch this space. It was great  to see a celebration of global technology and hats off to those presenting. I’m sure the major issue for the winners and runners up on the night must have been – ‘how do I get this gigantic cheque onto a packed tube?’.