Step Up Summit – in review

21 May saw the first online Step Up Summit: 2030 tech vision in six months. Sharing best practice for the world after COVID-19. This event had been scheduled to take place at the University of London, but was moved to a more condensed online format due to COVID-19. This did not affect attendance – with over 100 organisations joining, including 50 higher education institutions, and many Step Up companies.

The event was chaired by Mary Curnock Cook, former CEO of UCAS who sits on several higher education boards. The main focus was on the current acceleration of technology in institutions. Discussions were based around the short-term reaction to COVID-19 and longer-term change in the sector. Other speakers included Jisc’s CEO Paul Feldman, Universities UK Director of Policy Chris Hale and Alison Johns, CEO of Advance UK.

One of the highlights of the session was the keynote speech from Brian Fleming Preparing for 2030 in 6 months. Brian is Vice-President for Innovation and Strategy at Southern New Hampshire University in the US. He shared many insights from his experiences at SNHU and began by framing the discussion with the VUCA concept – the volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous nature of the current situation we are in. Brian asserted that institutions need to expect and plan for more uncertainty in the future. He addressed how universities must re-evaluate the way they embrace change to be ready for a future which will continue to challenge. ‘Don’t be afraid to be ridiculous’ was one of his closing comments.

Jisc and Emerge recently launched a series of research reports with the first identifying key challenges faced by UK institutions; From fixes to foresight: Jisc and Emerge Education insights for universities and startups. In-depth reports on each problem area are currently in the works, and the breakout sessions at the Step Up Summit focused on the first three challenge reports to be tackled – Digital Assessment, Employability and Diversity and Student Recruitment. Digital Assessment, report recently released, was led by Chris Cobb of the University of London. Employability by Quintin McKellar of University of Hertfordshire and Student Recruitment by Katie Bell of Middlesex University, both reports to come later this summer. There were many other sector experts as panel members, from QAA, Advance HE, edtech startups and university senior leaders.

In the Assessment session, Chris Cobb explored topics like the importance of digital assessment being reflective of the learning process, and the challenges faced in upholding standards. The discussion focused on the difficulties of connectivity and ensuring a seamless provision for all in a global context. The term ‘Pandora’s box’ described digital assessment and the current disruption of the education landscape. Many of the speakers in the Assessment breakout session also contributed their sector expertise to the Assessment Rebooted research report. 

The Employability breakout session saw many insights on how higher education is coping with the shifting landscape. Quintin McKellar talked about the acceleration of digital skills in preparation for the changing workplace. There were also discussions around how the traditional method of lecturing students in a lecture hall is out of date, and how new technologies are being used to better support student learning.

The Student Recruitment group was led by Katie Bell and it’s clear that COVID-19 is having a major impact on recruiting students. There were contributions from Lucy Everest of Heriot-Watt University and Helen Pennack of University of Nottingham about how universities are having to be creative in how they ensure current placeholders stay engaged. Teams and Facebook chat are being used to do this among other things. Jonathan Tinnacher from Unibuddy and Jeffrey Williams from Enroly both talked about the view from the solution side. Jonathan highlighted the development at Unibuddy in creating live events. This contributes to reassuring students when making difficult choices. Jeffrey talked about how Enroly is removing hours of admin tasks, easing pressure on admission departments. 

The summit ended with a panel debate with many of the previous contributors and a summing up. There is a general conclusion that COVID-19 is just the beginning of the ‘NNN’ or New Normal Now as mentioned by David Maguire of Dundee University. Most agreed that this is the time to seize the opportunity to accelerate into advanced digital transformation. However, there is still much work to do. Collaboration between institutions and support organisations is crucial. There were contributions from Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor of Portsmouth University, Jane Armstrong of Salesforce and several edtech founders. There were closing comments from Steve Masters, Jisc’s CTO, on the growth of the Step Up programme and the mission to bring senior education leaders and edtech startups together.

Like any engaging debate, this summit made clear that there are always more questions than answers, but due to COVID-19, we’re seeing higher education technologies and approaches shift faster than anyone could have predicted.

Learn more and register for our next event in this series, Step Up Summit II on 8th July 2020, HERE.