From education to employment

Transforming infrastructure: Higher education leaders – Jisc podcast episode 4


Transforming infrastructure is the focus of this episode of the @Jisc higher education leaders podcast. Guests discuss what the campus of the future will look like and how these transformations present an opportunity to address digital inequity.

Managing director of HE Jon Baldwin is joined by Helen Milner, Group Chief Executive Officer of the Good Things Foundation, Paul Olomolaiye, Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of the West of England, and Harvey Dowdy who’s the Director of Estates at the University of Lincoln.

Jisc · Higher education leaders podcast: Episode 4

Jon:                 Hello everyone. Welcome to the fourth episode of the Higher Education Leaders Podcast. I’m Jon, Jon Baldwin, Managing Director of Higher Education at Jisc and I’m delighted to be joined once again by leaders from within and around the UK’s higher education community. Joining me today, I’ve got Helen Milner, Group Chief Executive Officer of the Good Things Foundation, Paul Olomolaiye, Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of the West of England with particular responsibility for equalities and civic engagement and Harvey Dowdy who’s the Director of Estates at the University of Lincoln. Today we’re going to be drilling down into the theme, ‘Transforming Infrastructure’ which is a key part of the post-COVID response that our universities have been making through the past 16 months. I want to start, if I can, with just a reflection from each of you on the pandemic or not so much on the pandemic but what lessons you’re taking from it. Helen, if I might come to you first, given the breadth of engagement you’ll have had and you’ll have seen, it would be good to hear a reflection or two from you as to what we’ve learned and what we can take from the last 16 months.

Helen:              Thanks Jon. I think the pandemic has massively exposed social inequality in the country and I think that happened in all walks of life and in all strata of education. Good Things Foundation, we’re a digital inclusion charity working gin the heart of communities with some of the most vulnerable adults and, over the last 10 years, we’ve supported 3.5 million people through thousands of community partners so we’re very much about deep impact at scale and although we’re focused on those people who can’t use the internet or who don’t have access to the internet, we’re actually a very digitised organisation so we were very well-placed, when the pandemic hit, to use digital tools but, having said that, all of those community partners, like universities, were delivering those programmes face to face before the pandemic and therefore had to very quickly learn how to engage people, how to support people, how to support teaching and learning over Zoom and using telephones, so there was that big transformation of how support for learning was delivered.

The other massive thing is the Good Things Foundation, before the pandemic, we had a few small projects around access to technology and the internet but, over the last 15 months, we’ve absolutely embedded into our strategy ensuring that people who can’t afford devices or can’t afford access to the internet, internet connectivity, can have access to that. I’m delighted that we’ve helped 20,000 people in the last 15 months but I’m also disappointed that we’ve only helped 20,000 people to be able to get access to those free devices and connectivity. As someone said to me earlier today, we actually didn’t talk about ‘data poverty’ 15 months ago but not it’s actually become part of our vernacular, like words like ‘lockdown’ and ‘COVID’! Data poverty is something that is there as food poverty is in our everyday lexicon.

Jon:                 Really good point, Helen. All those, but particularly that final point about the way in which digital poverty has become an understood term or perhaps a misunderstood one – we’ll come back to that. Paul, from your perspective as a PVC at UWE and given your experience, how’s it been for you? What learnings have you and your colleagues taken?

Paul:                I would say first that the rate or the quickness and how quickly we engaged, moving from a partial data environment to actually having to depend totally on technology to be able to deliver learning and education for our students, that speed of transition, just overnight, continues to ring within me that, so it is possible, so we can actually do this, because I can see maybe three or four years we’ll be discussing with colleagues, ‘No, I don’t want to do…’, we actually have most of the software we are using now, the digital, the MS Teams was there, the Zoom was there, the blackboard engagement which is our main delivery mechanism was there and we were having to [inaudible 5:14] colleagues, encourage them and those who were engaging were like supermen and women, they were our champions – we call them digital champions – and then overnight, all of us became champions because we had to do it. What I’m trying to get at there is that there is so much capacity within us which the pandemic actually releases, Some of the strictures we put on our ourselves are just there but with the crisis, we dropped all of them and we rose up to the challenge and so it made me appreciate colleagues much more, so we can do this and rise up to that and to ensure that educating our students continued and, to me, that… Where did the energy come from? How did we drop all those strictures? ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this.’. How did we just transform overnight? To me, it excites me about human beings, that when there is crisis, human beings come together. I’m so happy that, in the university sector, across universities, across the land, we were able to do that and for education to continue for the next generation for our students. I think that’s the most important lesson that I have learned from the pandemic.

Jon:                 Great passion, Paul, and you make some really strong points and certainly on that first one about pace and the pivot that universities made. Our Digital Experience Insights Survey which had 22,000 students’ responses was almost universally positive about the way in which universities had pivoted in that emergency period. I think it was harder this year as business as usual was sort of in people’s minds but we’ll perhaps come back to that. Harvey, let me come to you and get an impression.

Harvey:            Thanks. Yes, a lot of what Paul said resonated hugely. I think what I learned was that online worked and it worked very, very quickly. We’d already started to deliver more e-learning, we’d pretty much as standard started recording lectures, in particular, but we hadn’t, I don’t think, thought about the impact on the student of doing that in isolation, so they’re having to compete in their home environment, for time and space, for data, all of those things and things that Helen referred to. There were positives. We got some feedback from particularly international students to say that actually what we were doing helped them, they were able to get more out of the courses, they were able to revisit material that was online over and over again – we had some very positive feedback from students with disabilities to say they’d welcomed that opportunity to be able to revisit material – but overwhelmingly the feedback was that none of this was a substitute for the personal, the inter-personal between the learners and the interaction between staff and students, so any idea that you had that you could continue this indefinitely, I think, was wiped out both by the anecdotal feedback and by the surveys that we did. People still want that personal.

Jon:                 That’s really helpful, Harvey, and I want to build on that. Perhaps I’ll come back to you, Helen. What I’m interested in is: What you’ve all described and what we’ve all seen, how might that change higher education? Let me just frame that in a couple of ways: 1. There is a narrative in the media that, ‘Online is somehow bad, not value for money and on campus is good.’, and that’s a very hard narrative to break down, particularly in an emotive era where, in England, students are paying – well, that’s the rhetoric – £9k tuition fees. So there’s that narrative and then there’s that social element of learning that you hint at, Harvey. In some work we were doing with one of our universities, one of our members, we heard from students that they missed lectures but when we dug into it, that’s not what the students meant. It’s exactly what Harvey said; they meant, ‘We missed that social activity around the lecture – the chattering before we go in, the checking understanding after the academic’s delivered the lecture. Helen, how do you think, with all of that as a narrative, this pandemic and the changes we’ve seen might change HE?

Helen:              Well, first of all, I must say I hope it does change HE. I hope it changes all of us. One thing is the new normal has to be a better normal, right?! We can’t go through all of this, pivot in the way that we have, learnt all of the things that we have and then say, ‘Actually, let’s chuck all that to one side because everything was perfect before.’. Actually, it wasn’t and, as Harvey said, there are students for whom online learning is better – overseas students, students with disabilities, as two examples that Harvey brought up. I think the other things that we really need to challenge ourselves – and I’m really glad, Jon, that you brought up about the media, because this is like one of my ‘shouting at the radio’ moments. I’m going, ‘Oh my God, how is this not as good if it’s done properly?’. I’m very much into blended. I’m very much into blended learning and I’ve actually worked in online education for 30 years. 20-plus years ago, I was at the University of Sunderland helping them to revolutionise teaching and learning through flexible learning and distance learning programmes, so this is definitely something that has been a bit of a hobbyhorse for me and I actually think that COVID-19 has proven that it’s possible and that, when it’s necessary, that actually online learning is there. As both Harvey and Paul have said, the tools were there, the skills were there, the digital champions were there and everybody had turned into digital champions overnight, and that interaction with one another can happen. I mean, I’m sure we’re all in breakout rooms in Zoom and Microsoft Teams and even Google Hangouts has now invented breakout rooms as well, so you can design online learning in such a way that actually brings in that interaction that not just students, but teachers as well, really crave to make sure that there’s that conversation and there’s that opportunity to have that understanding. So I think we should really challenge ourselves and say, ‘How big a change do we want?’. Is it a little bit of change for all students, for all teaching and learning? Is it a lot of change but for a subset of students who choose to take this route? But I think what we absolutely have to say is that we have to say that this was all worth it and all of the learning that we’ve done as human beings and as adults must now come into our lives. It’s not about going back to how we were before because we’ve all changed so it would be great to see that our practice changes as well.

Jon:                 That’s really powerful. I hope it does change. And I’ve got to say that in the work we do, we are seeing evidence of what I would call ‘rollback’ where there is a hankering, particularly amongst the academic community, to go back to the normal that existed pre-2020 – not universally, of course, and I shouldn’t generalise but there’s a risk there. I’ll come to you in a moment, Paul, but Harvey, given you started this thread, do you want to reflect on that? Your feedback from students was really interesting. Do you think you’ll be going back or going forward?

Harvey:            No, I think we’re definitely going forward. I think we’ve done a lot of evaluation already which was trying to pick out the best of the best. We all have final-year students that we work with so we get a better understanding of what their lived experience is on the campus, so that’s all of the senior leadership team do that. My business and economics student in his fourth year had lectures that varied from ‘okay’ – the material was there, it was all right – and at the other end of the spectrum, we’d got lectures where you thought, ‘Wow, has an hour just passed? That’s the most exciting thing I’ve been involved with.’, and, generally speaking, that was the material that was delivered in one of our concept suites where staff can go in, they can use things like the Samsung Flip, they can work interactively with the students online, and I think what I’ve learnt there is we need, at a challenging time financially, to really make that investment in the infrastructure that allows that stunning delivery to take place. What we don’t want is staff stuck on the kitchen table, children next door in a playpen or shoved in a cupboard under the stairs – no, maybe not quite that – but wrestling in an environment that is not conducive to producing that magnificent teaching experience. We need to create a campus that is a destination for students. Okay, they’ve got the online learning but they need a reason to come onto the campus and we’ve been talking about in-person lectures as special occasions, so not something that maybe happens every week but something that perhaps looks a bit more like theatre. We can’t sustain that on a weekly basis so why don’t we have lectures maybe as special events? We’ve also talked a bit about having a kind of academic ‘Gogglebox’. Why don’t we create spaces where students can come together and effectively watch the telly? So they can watch their online content but then talk about it as it’s happening in a space that is, again, properly digitally enabled so they’re not just looking at a small screen, they’re looking at a large screen. We quite like ‘Academic Gogglebox’.

Jon:                 That’s a great idea, Harvey. I hope you’ve patented it! That’s a great idea. I’m not sure it’s a great idea for the lecturer always, but anyway! Very good, very good. Paul, as I come to you, I’m conscious that there’s much debate out there in the sector about this and I was reading a piece in the Guardian last week where a number of senior university figures were quoted, including the VC of Sheffield Hallam, and I’ve got it here. He said, ‘I’ve got letters from some students saying, ‘I don’t want to come back on campus.’, I’ve got letters from others saying, ‘I want to come back a lot.’’. The bit I think we’re struggling with at the minute is, ‘Where can we give choice?’. What are your thoughts and plans in the UWE context, Paul?

Paul:                For us, we want a hybrid blended as the way forward for us. Gone are the days when students just want education and just, ‘I want to be taught the laws of physics.’, because you can get that now by just googling. Students want this lively learning experience and they want to do that with their colleagues. Every 18-year-old has been dreaming of how to get out of [the moment 17:26] that’s closed and actually go to a university in another town. That is the social environment we are in. They want to go out, they want to be there, they want to make friends, they want to drink and they want to have what we call the ‘university experience’ which is around the education site. That is part of what we are seeing, that we need to be able to provide now a different kind of course and I think this is where it’s going to hit us and we have to all think [s.l. together on this 18:07]. How do we produce a sticky campus? That’s the word we have been using: a campus that is not just for coming to a lecture theatre or going to the SU bar, a campus that provides a different kind of learning and teaching experience that makes maximum use of every digital tool and every technology that we have. How do we do that? That is where I think the whole issue about how digital infrastructure comes in to us. How we do actually optimise that? How do we design lecture rooms differently? What are the tools in order for us to make [s.l. massive 19:00] use of it? What kind of rooms do students… We know that lecture theatres are gone now [s.l. from all we can be 19:07]. I think those are where we’ve got to produce this blended environment that is ‘sticky’ for students. Students want to come in, maybe they meet one another, share coffee and socialise and learn as they are going and those are the kind of university campus I think will survive into the future. Now, if you come into the learning and teaching environment itself, I’ll always challenge colleagues and I’ll say, ‘Well, if you were a theatre, would the students buy tickets to come and see you again?’. That’s a very serious question. What would make it so exciting? And that is the whole thing which Harvey was talking about, Gogglebox. Would they come, would they know the kind of character that I am? That is influencing the presentation of our lectures. [s.l. We are being challenged 20:10] because the students know which lecture has been well-delivered or has not been well-delivered in the online and choices are being made. What can happen in the future is that we have somebody who is so good at delivering Economics 101 the world over and if every university in the land needs Economics 101, we just tap into Economics 101 and it delivers a super one-to-one [inaudible/audio distortion 20:40] million people or to 1,000 people and every university in the land can [do 20:45] Economics 101. That could happen in the near future. If that could happen in the near future, each lecturer needs to sharpen up its game and deliver online in the best way that the student will want to come back. [s.l. But my joy 21:00] really is that if we look at the benefits of what has happened in the last 18 months, the level of student engagement in my university has gone up. They actually attend online lectures more than they were coming for the man-to-man lectures before. They actually come. Our attendance has gone up to almost 70/80% for each one. Each lecture we are able to play [s.l. several 21:29] times over which helps their revision for exams. It’s been beautiful so we need to continue to build that so that the students want to use that to enable their learning in a blended fashion and I think that is what we want to do and then to change our physical campus into a sticky place which is very different from a place full of lecture theatres like you and I possibly attended 1,000 years ago, Jon.

Jon:                 Paul, thank you. You make some very strong points and I think that student engagement has increased in most institutions. The Economics 101 reference is also very interesting and begins to get to the heart of the whole model, really, of HE delivery. We’ve got about 15 minutes to run. I do want to go back, if I might, to digital poverty which is where you began, Helen. There is no doubt that the pandemic has exposed a significant digital divide. Students face struggles with poor connectivity, lack of devices, other barriers. You were expressing delight and disappointment, Helen, if I heard you correctly – delight that you’d reached, I think it was, 20,000 people but disappointment that it was only 20,000 which is an interesting perspective. If we look at solutions, what are the solutions we can think through as this digital world – which requires digital leadership, by the way – becomes more prevalent? Helen.

Helen:              One thing we really need to understand and nuance slightly more is the different audiences, so different types of students, that I think actually online learning really does reach out. We’ve already mentioned overseas students and students with disabilities but also mature students, part-time students, local students and actually this last group of people are probably also going to be lower income and they’re part time because they also need to work. They’re local because they come from low income families. So actually some of those that could most benefit from this new hybrid way of working that we’re all saying should be the future are also most likely going to be the ones that are less likely to have good equipment, good connectivity. I think it’s important to look at devices and internet connectivity separately when we think about digital poverty. For devices, it’s really about what’s fit for purpose and the work that we do in communities, that an android tablet for £100 is actually perfectly adequate for people to connect with loved ones, to be able to shop online, to be able to order medicines online, to be able to apply for work, but actually when you come into a university setting where you’re doing a lot of your learning but also a lot of your assessments, etc., that wouldn’t be good enough.

One thing that we do at Good Things Foundation, we’re campaigning around data poverty, so that piece around connectivity, and we’re working with Nominet on a Data Poverty Lab with the ambition of working with partners to end data poverty by 2024.

This is, for me, the low hanging fruit; if you think that digital exclusion is about a lack of device, a lack of connectivity and a lack of digital skills and, of the three of those, it’s actually that data piece is probably the easiest and that we are working in partnership to see if we can create – not ourselves, but the market – create affordable solutions for people on low incomes and free solutions for people on very low incomes. We’re the fifth richest country in the world and it’s not okay that we have people living in digital poverty and data poverty, that the internet is essential – it should be a utility, it is as essential as electricity and water – and so we really need to make sure that’s it’s affordable and good quality for everybody. Social tariffs at the moment are very much looking… that’s affordable, low cost – good quality, but low cost – fixed line connectivity but at the moment they’re only available for people who are on the Universal Credit. So, actually, for many students, that wouldn’t be them so I think there’s definitely a campaigning piece to do and I think Jisc is on this one, to say, ‘What does ‘people on low incomes’ mean within the context of higher education students?’. And then on free connectivity, we’ve got a lot of work going on in the UK, which is brilliant, with mobile operators about the provision of free SIMs, of free 4G mobile Wi-Fi routers, and we’re working on something very exciting that I can’t tell you about that we’re launching next week for those people, including students, who are at a crisis point as they potentially have been during the pandemic where they just had no connectivity whatsoever, that we’re hoping to have something that would mean that they would be able to have access to that connectivity in the future for those moment of crisis. So it’s still a moving feast but the digital divide has been massively exposed during COVID and that means there is now action. Data poverty is very real in our country and we need to provide solutions and we all need to work together but specifically around data poverty, I’m feeling very, very positive. The others, around devices, I think that unless we can find an easy way to unlock all of those devices that people aren’t using – apparently there’s 25 million usable devices in cupboards and businesses… and then skills – let’s not forget skills because I think we all assume that once you’ve got to university you have all of those basic digital skills but there may well be people who are coming to university who don’t have those basic digital skills so let’s not forget that that’s also a really important part of this picture as well.

Jon:                 Helen, it’s good to get the update, actually, on the great work that you and the charity are doing, to hear of the progress and certainly, yes, we at Jisc are involved in some of that lobbying in the background and sometimes in the foreground but from an institutional perspective, Harvey, do you feel you’re getting to grips with these challenges? Do you feel you’re getting to grips with that, Harvey? You threw out some great ideas earlier about the campus as a destination, which I absolutely agree with, but if blended is the future, students have got to be able to access it, haven’t they?

Harvey:            Yeah, they have and we did put together an emergency fund from various different sources and we managed to get the device issue pretty much cracked. We do have a lot of first-in-family students, we have a lot of students who have come out of care, looked after children, and our priority was to make sure that they had the devices. Less easy for a university to tackle is the data and the connectivity and living and working in Lincolnshire – and I’m sat here now, I can see out of the window a remote 5G mast on a trolley that we’re testing for Agri-Tech and that’s great and I’ll be able to use it apparently in a couple of weeks’ time – but I’m also aware that a mile up the road, we’ve got a village where we know have students where they have incredibly poor connectivity and that is only three miles from the centre of Lincoln. So that bit about, we’ve got a lot of rural poverty in Lincolnshire, we’ve got very, very low wages, a low-wage economy, so everything that Helen says resonates massively and I think one of the next things that universities need to do is work in partnership with organisations like Helen’s to improve how our students get access. I think that’s really important. So, devices: cracked, connectivity: very far from it.

Jon:                 Yeah. Paul, just to add into the mix, one of the pieces of feedback we had: academics trying to do their very best were then creating content, perhaps, that needed high-end devices to access that content. So if you’re looking at real-time video and so on and so forth, your standard telephone is not great and yet the student might be forced onto the telephone because of their family circumstances. I don’t know what observations, if any, generally, Paul, about the whole digital poverty piece…

Paul:                You know, it’s been very concerning to us because we created a fund, we gave laptops away, people buy laptops, maybe literally thousands, which was the device side of things, but the actual problem really, looking at the social [s.l. end of it 30:50] is a massive problem. Then, the BBC in Bristol did something which actually challenged us about our civic responsibility.

They asked people in Bristol, ‘Can you please let us have your old devices?’, and in Bristol alone, it produced 15,000 laptops that were still usable within three or four weeks; it was championed by the BBC and it was specifically for primary schools because there were parents who were using just one phone for three kids or four kids. Then you say, ‘Okay, what is our own responsibility within that space and how can we actually enable or try to do more to address digital poverty, especially on the data side?’, and we haven’t been able to crack that, especially for students who are not on our campus and we have a lot of part-time students who are in the [s.l. society there 32:06] and who are actually struggling. We haven’t been able to crack that but it has changed our ethics or our civic responsibility within that space and I’m glad to say, now, that we are connecting with ASK Bristol which is helping as a conduit for different charities in order for us to be able to see what we can do with our old computers and work with them to be able to address digital poverty, [s.l. not just even 32:42] and far beyond our own students but I think every university should consider it as their civic responsibility and rise up on behalf of people in their area and their students and recognise it is beyond devices. Honestly, it is beyond devices. It’s a big problem and we are trying to [s.l. resolve 33:05]. That goes into the whole area of personalisation, for us. Do we actually know our students? Do we actually know our students by the time they apply to us to the time they graduate? Do we know about the challenges of where they are coming from? And how are we responding to those challenges? How are we enabling them within those challenges to actually overcome those challenges? And I think it’s all about personalisation, so we have something called, ‘Know your student.’. Know your student. Not every [s.l. honorary 33:43] student in a lecture room has come from one middle class family and has a super-duper laptop or are not disabled. Maybe some of them are deaf, some cannot speak. Do you know them? And if you know them, how do you present to them? This is what I’ve seen, that the online platform I’ve been able to address some of the diverse student population that we have; we can actually address them with the online platform and we are working on that. [s.l. On that central/essential theme 34:15], know your student; not every class [s.l. of 100 34:20] is the same and you must know that even within the social context. Some are struggling to come and you should recognise that in the way you engage with them and I think that is the main challenge for universities as we all move from what we used to do to a new digital blended environment.

Jon:                 Paul, thank you. We’re almost out of time, guys, but I just want one question – quick answer from each of you – I’ll start with you, Harvey, if that’s okay. As we move into the next academic year, what do you see as key for university leadership? Harvey.

Harvey:            Going back to something we tried a few years ago that was very successful, we need to go back to it urgently and that picks up on Paul’s points. We need to go back to our student as producer. We need to involve our students much more closely in helping us to develop their learning.

Jon:                 Thank you. Quick one from you, Paul?

Paul:                I would say that the university is no longer an ivory tower. We are not the source of every knowledge. We are not everything. We are now part and parcel of our student life and I think that will be our main message for our students and for our university [s.l. that is/this coming 35:44]. A university that doesn’t connect with its community, that doesn’t understand that there are two sides to Bristol, is not the University of the West of England. If we’re connecting, knowing our people, being able to be meaningful to their lives and transform their lives significantly, socially, I think that is the university we want to be and we know that online learning, a digital platform, will enable us to do that but we need to work hard.

Jon:                 Thank you, Paul. And last word, Helen, to you. I realise you’re not day-to-day involved in our university but you’re a more than interested observer, so a last word, please.

Helen:              I’ve been in many conversations in the last three decades about the university of the future and I would say to university leaders, ‘It’s here, it’s now, and this is probably a massive moment in all of your careers to say that innovation, the ideas, the lessons of the past year, let’s embrace those and take those forwards.’, and I’ve been delighted to hear what Harvey and Paul have been saying about some of your ideas and I hope that they continue. My last point, and that absolutely comes back to what Paul and Harvey have said, is that the universities don’t exist in… Universities aren’t just universities; they’re part of their local community, they’re part of the wider infrastructure and charities like Good Things Foundation are here to help but also we can also help to plug you into that local ecosystem where people can learn those essential digital skills but also get access to devices and data as well, so don’t forget that you’re not an ivory tower, you’re not an island, that you live within an ecosystem and there are charities like Good Things Foundation and others that are here to help you; it’s part of our mission that nobody gets left behind and that includes the people that you serve in universities as well.

Jon:                 Helen, thank you, it’s a nice way to end what’s been an absolutely fascinating and challenging conversation and thank you all. We’ve ranged far and wide, we’ve articulated, I think clearly, the challenges of data poverty, data inequality. We’ve talked about the impressive way in which universities pivoted in the crisis and showed that they can and we’ve gone on from that with innovative ideas: the idea of the campus as a destination, the idea of ‘Academic Gogglebox’ which I’m really taken by, Harvey.

Paul, your point: the ubiquitous nature of, e.g. Economics 101 and how that might be delivered and that might challenge the traditional models and to finish with a sense that the university isn’t an ivory tower, as you say, Paul, and that students are indeed active participants in their learning, not just passive recipients, and to know that we’ve got organisations like the Good Things Foundation that are there to help us is a really lovely way to end. So thank you Harvey, Paul, Helen, sincerely. And finally, for listeners who want more information about Jisc’s Higher Education Strategy, simply search ‘Jisc Powering UK Higher Education’. Thank you all for listening. We hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of the Higher Education Leaders podcast. Thank you.

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