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Digital education

Digifest 2023, Digital Transformation and Digital Confidence

22 June 2023
Digifest 2023 conference logo

David Crowther, Learning Technology Support Officer, Digital Education team within the Learning and Teaching Academy, tells us about the JISC Digifest conference he recently attended.

My experience at Digifest 2023

Back in early March this year, I attended the JISC Digifest conference in Birmingham. Since joining the Digital Education Team in 2020 during the covid pandemic, all the conferences I have attended have been online. Whilst I like the convenience of attending a conference online from the comfort of my own home, I do find it difficult to focus. Sat in front of my computer with multiple monitors, it’s easy to get distracted by other things such as emails, Teams messages, and other work. This year’s Digifest was my first opportunity to attend a conference in person and I was very much looking forward to it.  For two full days I would be in full conference mode where I could be present, focussed, and attentive.

This was my first time attending a conference of this kind and I was very impressed. The conference was incredibly well organised, ran like clockwork, and the venue was superb. I was quite taken aback by the scale of it.

After arrival and registration, I took the time to orientate myself and explore the main conference room. There was a bewildering array of activities going including lightning talks, fireside chats, product demonstrations and more. Despite being a little overwhelming, the main conference room was well laid out and easy to find my way around. The catering at the conference was excellent, with a wide selection of food to suit all tastes.

After a light breakfast and coffee, my colleagues and I headed off in separate directions for our first talks of the day. I had a packed itinerary planned for the two days, attending talks and discussions on a variety of technology and digital education related themes covering everything from AI, authentic assessment, VR, innovation and inclusion, digital confidence, student-led learning, hybrid teaching and more. It was impossible to retain all the information from the various talks I attended, but I came away from the conference with a few takeaways in relation to my own practice as a digital education professional at Cardiff University.

One talk entitled “Everyone’s an innovator – facilitating the growth of digital confidence to realise new approaches to learning and teaching” particularly resonated with me, especially in the context of my role as a learning technologist supporting teaching and learning at Cardiff University through digital technologies. This is especially the case now as we go through a big change to our digital education offer through the move from Blackboard Original to Blackboard Ultra courses, where we’re trying to encourage course leaders to do things differently, change their digital education practice, embrace digital technologies, and innovate.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we have in encouraging change and innovation in digital education practice is a lack of digital confidence. We work with academics and professional services staff across the university, who have varying levels of confidence and skills when it comes to educational technology. It can sometimes be difficult to convince someone to change their practice and try something new if they are afraid that something might go wrong and that it might reflect badly on them in front of their students. We need strategies and approaches that can help foster digital confidence and support innovation. How can we achieve this? There were several useful suggestions from the talk that I have noted and will try to bring into my own digital education practice.

  1. One method to help foster digital confidence could be to suggest to educators that if they want to try something new, they try it in a low stakes space where the risk of failure is less of a concern. For example, encouraging different forms of formative assessment that can support learner attainment. If student expectations are managed, this can be a useful way to try something out. Even if it goes wrong, it can be a useful experience to learn from. Having that safety net can give people the confidence to experiment in relative safety, and such activities can support digital confidence. To drive innovation, I think it’s important that we foster the mindset that although things sometimes go wrong, recovery is possible, and hiccups are normal, but it’s also a good idea to have a plan B when things do go wrong. It’s important to focus on the learning and teaching that needs to go on in those times when things do go wrong and think if there are other ways of achieving that.
  2. It’s also a good idea to try and get behind people’s rationales behind trying things. As digital education professionals, if we are encouraging educators to try new things, we should follow up and ask them how it went, what went well, what didn’t, and encourage reflective practice. Fostering self-reflection, spotlighting good practice, and sharing experiences can be a powerful tool to encourage innovation and give people confidence to try things for themselves. It can often be a case of “Well if they did it, why can’t I do it too?”.

Digital confidence vs Digital skills

I think there is a relationship between digital confidence and digital skills. We need the digital confidence to be able to go through digital transformation and achieve our goals. When we think about digital confidence and how it relates to digital skills, we could perhaps ask the following two questions as an example:

  1. Are you a confident user of xyz software?
  2. Are you a competent user of xyz software?

We must ask ourselves if a lack of digital confidence leads to an unwillingness to acquire new digital skills, and gain digital competence required for digital transformation.

In addition, trust in and reliability of the digital tools used for learning and teaching can sometimes be a barrier.  If we’re not confident that the tools are safe or will work well, will we be willing to use them?  It can also be easy to get stuck in a “If it isn’t broken, why fix it?” mentality where you think “Why do I need to use this new tool now? I wasn’t using it before, and everything was fine.”  As learning technologists, it’s part of our role to help educators see the value in adopting digital technologies for teaching and learning. We do have to consider carefully though, the rationale behind encouraging adoption of a specific technology for learning and teaching.  There needs to be a good reason why we are suggesting to educators that they try something, and we should ask ourselves some important questions:

  • How does the technology impact on the staff and student experience?
  • How can digital technologies improve things?
  • What are the problems that need to be solved? Are there even problems that need to be fixed in the first place, or are we just inventing them to justify using a new technology?
  • How can digital improve the on-campus experience?
  • Will that expensive, ‘sexy’ new tool really have a significant impact on teaching and learning?

Resistance to adopting digital technologies for learning and teaching is not uncommon. We should think about why that is, why some educators may be against it, try to understand where they’re coming from and why they might be reluctant.

The pace of change may be perceived as too fast for some people and can make them fearful. This was particularly the case during the covid 19 pandemic when learning and teaching rapidly moved online. Everyone suddenly found themselves in the same boat, being asked to do things they’d never done before, and figure things out as they went along.  It’s no surprise that people found the sudden change a little scary, just wanted it to be over and for things to go back to how they were before. The pandemic was simply something that accelerated change that was already taking place though. As we have moved past the pandemic, that change continues, and there may still be fear and reluctance that as learning technologists, we must think carefully about how to manage.

It’s important to remember that it’s people that do the work, and digital tools simply help facilitate that.  But how often do we consider people when developing strategy?  Strategy and policy need to consider people.  There needs to be proper resourcing and development of our people to implement strategy.  We need to develop and train people. People don’t want more pressure and workload and senior leaders need to consider how change effects real people.

I’ve mentioned the term ‘digital transformation’ a few times in this article. We should try to understand what digital transformation means to people as everyone will have a different idea of what it is.  We need to build trust, confidence and take people with us to enable change.  People need to know the reason for change, why are we doing it, why it is important, and what difference it will make.  This needs to be understood at the top, with change not just simply being imposed from above.  It must be clearly explained why we are doing something.  We should set out a clear vision and rationale for doing something with digital transformation. Clarity, transparency, and communication are important.

How do we encourage people to innovate and adopt digital technologies for learning and teaching in ways that make an impact on students?  How can we build their digital confidence, see the value in digital for teaching and learning, and encourage a culture of digital transformation?

One way could be to frame policy and strategy in such a way that makes what we’re asking people to do seem valuable to the people we’re asking to implement it. To give people the confidence to implement change though, there needs to be solid underlying infrastructure and resources available. One of the key principles underpinning the work we do is that of keeping it simple and getting the basics right. It’s important that core systems and data are robust and of good quality. The basic infrastructure must be there and be reliable. There needs to be a strong foundation on which to build and innovate from. Getting the basics right, building a solid foundation, and providing necessary resources can help enable digital transformation.

With a strong foundation on which to build, we need to support people to innovate and experiment, acknowledge that some things won’t succeed, and encourage managed risks. We can make good use of data such as analytics for student learning, engagement, and wellbeing for interventions that can help us make better decisions, improve the lives of staff and students, and ensure success. We should include students in the process and build a culture of innovation and experimentation where people can try things and fail in a safe environment. This will help build digital confidence and foster creativity, innovation, and trust.

Beyond getting the basics right, we should consider how we can support people’s innovation to go beyond their individual practice and be ‘disruptive’ to their wider institution and have a wider impact. We can use digital transformation to create a richer, more engaging space where there are less boundaries between the intersection of the digital and real worlds. Ideally, we should aim for a situation where the transition from one to the other should be almost seamless, not either or.

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