The yin and yang of digital transformation and digital wellbeing

This week I attended the Jisc Digital Capabilities workshop in Edinburgh. It was a really good, free to attend event. These kind of events are really useful for the community and I hope that Jisc continue to support them, so many thanks to all involved in organising the day and sharing their work. This post is just a few thoughts on some of the bigger themes and issues that have been going round my brain.  

Firstly digital transformation. The day started with a keynote from the University of Edinburgh titled “Becoming a digitally capable organisation”. Part of the presentation was around notions (and current practice/developments) of digital transformation.  We were presented with a 3 step model starting at digital competence, moving to digital literacy and then digital transformation.

It was really heartening to see that people were at the heart of much of the ongoing work and the development of their new digital ecosystem.  But, and there’s always a but, surely there is another step?  I couldn’t help thinking how do you know when digital transformation has actually happened?  Is it when digitally enabled and data driven services just work for everyone, anywhere on any device? Or is there something a bit more terms of development of people’s critical capacity to understand and be empowered not only to use these services but also be part of an ongoing dialogue to critique and question the context of why any technology is being used?  

When I asked the question how do you know when digitally transformation has happened? I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction and replies including:

That said, there is an undeniable logic in improving some basic functionality like accessing timetables which does seem to be ridiculously difficult. Digital isn’t always “simply better”,  particularly when we know that many digital systems are built, then collect and use data in biased ways. What is the emotional and human impact of digital transformation and how can, or indeed should, we measure it? 

In the afternoon, there was a session around digital wellbeing. The Jisc Digital Capabilities Team have just published some extended briefing papers for both individuals and organisations.  Their definition of digital wellbeing is “the impact of technologies and digital services on people’s mental, physical and emotional health”.  

For every positive aspect of digital technologies, there is a negative.  Whilst many, if not all universities and colleges are going through some kind of digital transformation, the day to day life of our staff and students is increasingly being pushed and pulled by the yin and yang of digital technologies.

During a time of industrial action as we are currently in here in the UK, digital technologies and platforms allow a way to share and communicate, but that also brings many pressures.  Lorna Campbell and Tony Hirst have written eloquenty about this. Yesterday I also heard many similar stories and ones of pressures of getting grant proposals in during strike action. Oh, the irony of being on a short term grant and a funding application deadline being slap bang in the middle of industrial action around pay and conditions! As well as decisions around going to graduations of students you have supported for four years. Whilst all the time you know your inbox, marking, wanting to support your students, and everything else are piling up.  


Where is the space in digital transformation plans have meaningful conversations around what are institutions are transforming into?  Where is the discussion on how we could transform our curriculum and our notions of care and support for the wellbeing (in its broadest sense, not just digital) of all our students and staff? Call me an old cynic, but somehow I don’t think that  the noise around education 4.0 going to address that. These issues are at the heart of my recent book.

Earlier this week I also participated in a Virtually Connecting Session about the Digital Pedagogy Lab that is taking place in the UK next April.  Now if we are talking about transformation, Virtually Connecting is a hugely transformational digitally enabled space and more importantly community. The difference it has made to allow people to connect at conferences and events globally is apparent not only in the joy that is always found in the sessions, but in its sustained growth.

It’s all community driven, no Digital Change Director needed.  We need to have more spaces in our institutions for this type of staff and student development. We need to have more recognition for this type of of activity as being valid and recognised CPD.  In terms of digital well being, personally speaking I can’t begin to explain how good being part of a VC session makes me feel.

So back to the yin and yang. I think in terms of digital transformation there definitely needs to be more attention to (digital ) wellbeing and consideration of how the  services and technologies (both institutionally provided the non institutionally one we all use) impact on individuals and our larger institutional communities, be that departments, schools, directorates etc.

There needs to be ongoing space (both digital and physical) provided for people to come together to develop collective understandings of what needs to be done and what needs to be changed. Channeling Paulo Freire, staff and students need to be able to challenge and change what needs to be challenged and changed.  Maybe then we can actually start creating narratives, evidence of digital transformation that are shared and commonly understood. You never know by doing that, universities could actually disrupt business and get their CEOs and staff thinking, why can’t we be run more like universities.

Sharing more about how I am untethering my practice with #InVinoFab podcast

Last month I had the opportunity to take part in an #InVinoFab podcast episode. Laura Pasquini, one of the hosts and founders of the series and I had been having a bit of a twitter conversation after she announced she was leaving her job – something I had done a few months earlier. Anyway after a few DMs and a skype call Laura asked if I would like to share some of my recent experiences, my decisions to do what I am doing now.

It was such a stimulating, fun and quite indulgent opportunity for me to talk about, well me! One of the things I really like about the #InVinoFab podcasts is the range of voices shared on it. There is something so powerful about just listening to someone speaking in a relaxed, but considered, safe space.

I really enjoyed the experience, and hope you can find time to have a listen to our wide ranging conversation encompassing work/life balance, making big changes, ALT, #femedtech , Margaret Atwood and gin.

Open leadership – reflecting on my role as Chair of ALT (4) – The strategic role of open #altc

In this, my 5th in the my reflections on my role as Chair of ALT , I wanted to share some of my reflections as we develop our new strategy.

This week I chaired another quarterly meeting of the ALT Board. The meeting took a slightly different format as the main focus of it was the development of our new strategy.

screen shot of strategy development timeline


The development of the new strategy started in September at our annual conference (add links) and we have had lots of community feedback through the Assembly meetings and our online suggestion box ( feel free to add your suggestions).

In preparing for the meeting, Maren Deepwell (CEO of ALT) and the staff team have been collating and mapping what has been achieved in the last three years.  As I have been reviewing the progress that has been made, it really struck me how openness has impacted on our core values from open licensing to open governance to open participation.

This openness has in turn proved to be a very successful way for us to grow as an an association and also to measure progress. Now, perhaps because the board were very “open” to the idea of open and open practice there wasn’t a huge debate about including open as one of our core values. ALT had already been openly licencing many of its outputs and had just incorporated the OER conference into our conference portfolio. So, we didn’t have to spend a large part of the last three years developing any new open procedures, or policies. Instead the last three years have focused on ALT becoming a fully independent charitable organisation. That is no mean feat in and of itself which I’m sure I will reflect more on too as part of this series.

Rather, taking an open approach first allowed our work from our governance structures and reporting to our openly available conference recordings, to be open and accessible in the most relevant way. 

Maha Bali recently wrote a really powerful post about openness and permissions. It’s really rich post but the notion of permissions really resonated, particularly technical permissions such as copyright versus the human aspect of open educational practice.


Open Educational Practices as a human endeavor is so much more than a technical permission. And I wish we would push this aspect of it to the background of details and instead foreground the other aspects relating to social justice, connection, and co-construction of knowledge in potentially equitable ways, for the interests of diverse people, and on their terms.”


I see the human endeavour, the connections and co-construction of knowledge as something ALT is really getting to grips with and succeeding with. Fundamentally we are all about supporting people, and developing our community. Whilst we endeavour to be as equitable as possible, there is still a lot work to be done. Part of that work is to recognise the cultural context of any UK based organisation, our colonial history, and our current realities in relation to discrimination, lack of diversity, that is part of our educational landscape.  That said, over the past three years I think the diversity of our conference keynote speakers speaks for itself.   

screen shot of ALT  conference keynote speakers


Our members are at the heart of what we do. That may seem like “stating the bleedin’ obvious”, but in many membership organisations there can be a gulf between members and management.  One of my key drivers as Chair is to make sure we keep that value at the forefront of all our work, so that everything we do shows value and supports the work of our (paying) members.   

Having open-ness as one of our core values has allowed us to operate and report really  effectively over the past three years.  We are sharing an ever growing set of resources with our members and beyond. At the same time the human aspect of our community continues to thrive through the work of our member groups, now working so well together through the ALT Assembly, and of course our conferences/events, blog, journal and mailing list. 

What is particular satisfying for me is that our open business model is something that has evolved and grown without us ever having to debate the value or risk of openness.  Through our working openly our staff benefit, our community benefits and it is providing us with a really secure foundation layer for our next strategy, the next 3 years and beyond.   

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose . . . Jisc Staff Digital Experience Survey

Jisc has published its report of staff version of their Digital Insights Survey.   Over 6,500 staff from across FE and HE in the UK took part in the survey so it provides a very rich picture of current practice and attitudes towards digital learning and teaching.

These large scale reports are really useful to give an overview of what is happening across the sectors. I know if I still worked in an institution I would be citing the report “all over the place” to help justify more sustainable resources and time for CPD around the effective use of digital technologies for learning and teaching.

screen shot of response rate from survey

However, I do find it quite depressing that the key issues still don’t seem to be being addressed. Time and more recognition for staff development around developing digital capabilities come up again and again. They featured highly in our 2018 ALT member survey too.  There is great work going on in the sector, but it still seems to be just in pockets.

In terms of digital infrastructure and  technology provision, this jumped out at me?
Teaching staff may have more opportunities than students to know how things could be better, so it is important to involve teaching staff in discussions and initiatives to improve the digital environment.

It is so important to involved teaching staff in decisions around technology provision. I see so many missed opportunities around deployment of software simply because no-one has thought to ask about the teaching applications it might have.  Similarly with teaching spaces. Sometimes less is more. You don’t need to stuff rooms with every new, shiny thing and as many tables as possible.  Think about how the space will actually be used, the noise levels, the time it will take to get everyone “seemlessly connected”, the impact on wifi connections and signal . . . 

Again, another familiar conclusion – more CPD and training are key to improving teaching staff confidence and expertise. I know I am biased (and full disclosure, I am the current Chair of ALT) but CMALT is a great way to provided motivation, recognition and ongoing development.  

The new pathways offer opportunities for those newer to working with technology through the Associate level, and for more senior colleagues through the Senior level.   As all levels are portfolio based and centre on personal reflection of practice, they provide an excellent way for colleagues to share their experiences of what makes an impact/difference, what doesn’t work and how we learn from those experiences.

Too often we aren’t allowed to talk about failure (which the report does highlight), but it is a fact of life that things go wrong. How often have you not been able to get onto online during a class, despite the fact that everything was working five minutes before your class started?  How many plan B, C, and D’s do you need?  Where do we have the safe spaces in our institutions to talk about these issues? How can teaching and support staff work more collaboratively to address the issues that really do make an impact on using technology in learning and teaching?  These issues can’t be addressed by training alone. As the report highlights:


“too often teaching staff are offered single sessions with no follow-up or support. This may be enough to grasp the basics but it does not allow staff to explore how new techniques can be applied in practice. It is not enough to provide resources and opportunities – there needs to be encouragement, recognition and motivation. Approaches that harness peer support are an effective strategy here, especially when this is built into organisational culture and modelled by senior managers.

Developing digital capabilities is a cultural as well as a technological issue. It has to become embedded in practice and not seen as some kind of add on or one off training activity. Like many, I’ve been saying for years, we need to invest just as much in people development as the shiny, new technology. Online learning is still touted as the future, or education 4.0 perhaps! But as the report highlights:

Teaching online is currently a minority activity that requires time and consideration to develop and scale up

I’ve been fortunate this year to be involved in developing a CPD resource specifically for online teaching at the University of Edinburgh. There has been institutional recognition that staff do not have experience of teaching online, and that they need to be supported, not just how to use a different VLE, but in understanding the principles of community building, online engagement, how to develop online teaching presence (more info here).

Let’s hope that in coming years, the findings from the tracker, and other surveys will have less of the new, old headlines and that support, practice, confidence and capabilities do actually start to make significant changes for our staff and students.