Disruption – UCISA 22 Day #2

I have never attended the UCISA Leadership conference before, but after the 2020 conference was cancelled, I was given the chance to attend the 2022 event. This was the third in-person conference I have attended since March 2020.

This year’s much-anticipated UCISA22 Leadership Conference will look ahead at the future challenges and opportunities for digital leaders in education. The theme of conference is Digital Leadership in a Post-Pandemic World.

I wrote about day one of the conference in this blog post. This post is about the second day of the event. This was a full day of sessions, conversations, exhibition and networking. Certainly not enough coffee, but then again conference coffee is never anything to write home about.

For me the day started with the 9am session, From The Workshop to The Disruptor: Strategic Online Planning During the Pandemic which was delivered remotely by Adam Shoemaker, Vice-Chancellor & President, Victoria University.

In 2021, enduring significant lockdowns meant we had to be creative and authentic in the way we engaged with staff. This became especially significant during our new strategic plan development – as we wanted our staff to be involved in the process in a way that had never been done before. Utilising a crowd-sourcing platform that we named The Workshop, we harnessed people power and digital enablement to create something truly unique. This has led to a new way of imagining our senior leadership and designing our teaching, research and partnering future.

I did a sketch note of his talk.

Victoria University took a very different approach to their strategic planning. This was not a top down approach, the process initially involved nearly a thousand staff. This was a highly collaborative approach bringing in ideas, thoughts and visions from across the university.

They took an agile approach to the development of their strategy, undertaking a ten week sprint.

What I noted was how they moved from a command model to a model of command of teams, before moving to a team of teams model.

What this session got me really thinking about was how when we start talking about digital transformation, that transforming the existing hierarchy and power structures is rarely on the table. If you really want to break down the silos (or cylinders of excellence) then you do need to think radically about the structures you have and why you have them.

One aspect of the vision I liked was how they felt strategic pillars sent the wrong kind of messages, as being immobile and static, so they used the term strategic drivers instead.

They also were focused on removing redundant and unneeded processes, committees and other activities which didn’t add value to the student experience. They called it the anti-drudgery model.

They also moved to a block model of teaching. This is something that higher education in the UK have been looking at (or revisiting) more recently.

Back in the late 1990s when I was teaching business studies and economics, I was a programme lead for a level 2 Intermediate GNVQ programme for 16 and 17 year olds. When I took over the programme we had a long thin course design. Students would undertake different units simultaneously and then we had the challenge of all the assessment being bunched up at the end of the modules. This resulted in stress for students, poor outcomes and shedloads of marking for staff. So what we did was convert the course design into a programme of short fat topics. Students would focus on one thing at one time, but intensely. They would focus on that one thing and there would only be one assessment at any one time. It was challenging for staff, but it was of real benefit to the students. At higher levels, I think the in-depth immersion in a topic would be beneficial and most universities would have the flexibility to deliver this, however it does have implications for staff workloads and timetables as well. Something again I might think about especially as with the iGNVQ programme we did a lot of mapping across the curriculum (and the core skills) so that similar topics were “bundled” together.

The second session I was at was the panel session Changing culture – No going back – what do universities need to do to achieve digital transformation.

In this session current CIO’s David Telford ( University of Sterling) and Emma Woodcock ( University of York, St, Johns) discuss how universities can capitalise on the momentum achieved during the Covid 19 pandemic and the attitudinal shift that this brought, with recently retired CIO’s John Cartwright and Drew Cook. Together they will bring their considerable combined experience to explore emerging trends, the challenges they believe we will face and their hopes for the sector’s future.

On the panel were David Telford, Executive Director, University of Stirling, Emma Woodcock, CIO, York St John University, Drew Cook, Former Director of IT, University of Lincoln and John Cartwright, Former Director of Computing Services, University of Liverpool.

They discussed the role of the CIO on the journey to digital transformation.

I actually think much of what we saw over the pandemic, hinders future digital transformation, rather than enables it.

Much of what we saw during the pandemic was not transformation, it wasn’t transformative. It was much more about an emergency response. Remove the emergency, what do we have left?

The panel reminded us that remote and online delivery isn’t just about the digital skills. There is more to online learning than just the technical skills required to use the online tools and services provided.

What about the pedagogical skills? Designing the activities and interactions that students will do, beyond the pure transmission of knowledge.

What about the production skills? Thinking about the needs of the students, so reflecting on the video production, the quality of the audio, the slides (if the text is too small to read, then it is too small). Bringing all of this together into a single session or presentation. 

What about the creative skills? Yes you can stare into a webcam, but could staff be more creative in their approaches, be more innovative in their approaches to online sessions.

Who supports and helps staff with these diverse needs. You need a team with a range of skills.

Most academics picked up the technical (digital) skills in using the tools quite quickly. Did they use them well? Some did, some didn’t, hence the student dissatisfaction with “blended learning”.

The discussion moved onto strategy and teams. I did make me think about how challenging it can be for organisations to deliver on their strategy. We want teams to work effectively and given them autonomy.  However often people confuse autonomy with independence. The result is that strategy is seen as optional, or an inconvenience. Sometimes teams will arrive at their own strategies. Any departmental strategy should be derived directly from the corporate strategy. It should explain how the department or team will deliver the corporate strategy.

I enjoyed Reflections on a lifetime of leadership by Professor Robert Allison, Former Vice-Chancellor of Loughborough University or VC Bob as he was often called at Loughborough. 

Thirty-five years ago I wrote the acknowledgements to accompany my doctoral thesis as my career was opening up in front of me. Nine months ago, I was preparing an aid-memoir reminding me who to thank as I finally left higher education, departing Loughborough University as the Vice-Chancellor. The two narratives are surprisingly similar, as are many of the skills needed to complete a doctorate and navigate nine years leading a university as a Vice-Chancellor. Central to any personal success has been the benefit of working with and learning from other talented leaders. There has also been the challenge of working with and learning (albeit for different reason) from individuals that have been out of their depth. Throughout all, there has been one constant: inspirational colleagues and students, who have made it all tremendously enjoyable.

I really liked how he engaged with students and staff from across the university to ensure he knew what was going on and what the issues they were facing.

Next up was What’s your narrative? Building a compelling vision and dancing in the field with Mark Simpson, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Learning & Teaching, Teesside University.

This session will provide a brief overview of Teesside University’s digital journey, including some thoughts about the future direction of the sector. Against this backdrop, the main focus of the session will draw on experiences of developing both a digital strategy and the required support. I will talk through some practical steps that can be taken to develop followers by building a compelling narrative. Following this, I will be joined by a panel of experts to explore their thoughts on the future of the digital landscape in HE and reflect on their experiences of developing and implementing digital strategies.

I think this was one of my favourite sessions from the conference and like some other sessions I did a sketch note of the talk. The focus of the talk was very much about the focus on the end game, what does success look like. You can tell Mark covered a lot by how busy my sketch is.

Teesside had a pedagogy first approach, but then built on that by encouraging and building a base. They recognised early on that enthusiasts do not necessarily always make the best champions. Something I recognised from my work in embedding learning technologies in the 2000s. Enthusiasts often want to focus on developing their own practice, and can also be off-putting to others when it comes to embedding new practices. The role of a champion is a difficult one, and I often think that the concept of champions as the core of a roll out of a new technology fails to recognise that this can be a flawed approach, it doesn’t take into account the needs of all the potential users. Champions don’t always drag others along. Teesside recognised the importance of building digital capability in their staff and students.

They found that students preferred physical books over e-books, which isn’t too much of a surprise to me, I did a lot of work on ebooks ten years ago and one thing which hasn’t changed much is that the ebook experience doesn’t quite recreate the experience of using a (physical) academic text book. Students rarely use an academic text in the same way they would use a fiction book. They also had to fight the (digital natives) assumption that students have the necessary digital skills to utilise academic online and digital tools effectively.

As with many universities Teesside had challenges with assessment and staff recruitment.

One final lesson from the talk was about listening to the students, ensuring your work is informed by the student voice.

Next up for me was Sustainability and the climate emergency: how can IT be part of the solution and not part of the problem?  A conversation with Mike Berners-Lee. A quite scary presentation, well the climate emergency is scary.

As we launch a Sustainability group in UCISA, take this opportunity to listen in and participate in a discussion with Mike Berners-Lee. Mike is a leading expert in carbon metrics for organisation, Mike is also author of two books, “There is no Planet B: A Handbook For The Make Or Break Years; How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything and co-author of The Burning Question. He is a professor at Lancaster University’s Environment Centre, where his research includes carbon metrics and sustainable food systems.

Like the previous session I did a sketch note. 

I think that the key lesson for me was that everything we do has an impact on the environment, but to measure that impact is challenging and hard to do.

We were reminded that carbon offsetting is a one-off hit and isn’t sustainable in the long term. The key is carbon reduction.

I didn’t enjoy the final session of the day on bouncing back, but then I have never really been a fan of motivational speakers. However others found it inspiring.

The evening saw the conference dinner in the Midland Hotel. I haven’t been to a conference dinner like this in years. The food was okay, but the noise levels were almost intolerable.

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