From education to employment

Learning and leading: experts in higher education and technology share their experiences of change

In the third episode of @Jisc’s ‘HE Leaders’ podcast series, MD of higher education, Jon Baldwin discusses post-COVID culture and leadership with the VC at the University of Wolverhampton, the principal of Grimsby Institute of HE and FE, and the CEO of Century Tech.

Leaders must ‘live and breathe’ digital culture, says Debra Gray, principal of the Grimsby Institute.

Participating in Jisc’s latest HE Leaders podcast, she says: “Digital leadership is about enthusiasm, knowledge, passion, drive and ambition for your organisation, for your students, for your employers, and for your communities. It is interwoven into the fabric of everything we do.”

A planned approach

Also debating post-pandemic ‘culture and leadership’ – a key pillar of Jisc’s three-year powering UK higher education strategy – are the University of Wolverhampton’s vice-chancellor Geoff Layer, the CEO of Century Tech Priya Lakhani, and Jisc’s managing director of HE, Jonathan Baldwin.

As Layer reflects on lessons learned through the 2020 lockdown, he recalls: “It was very much an emergency response. Staff were doing their best, with different tech skills, to enable their students to participate and to learn. After that, we moved to a planned system, methodology, and set of curriculum principles around digital learning; a more consistent style.”

Today, Layer says, “That transition is still evolving and developing, because we improve it all the time.”

Leading by example

Gray echoes this, and says it’s important she recognises and shares her own learning, “so staff can see where I’m developing.” Growing together, she says: “We create a safe space to play and experiment with technology.”

Lakhani notes: “Digital leadership is not simply hiring a digital manager and leaving transformation to them, [it] has to be embraced by every leader across the organisation if you want it to truly filter through. That’s not about screen time, it’s about using tools and technologies that augment and help you with your particular goals.”

HE leaders podcast episode 3: Exploring the impact of the pandemic on university culture and leadership – Audio transcript

Jon Baldwin 0:08

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the third in a series of podcasts, where I’m engaging with higher education leaders. I’m Jon – Jon Baldwin – Jisc’s managing director for higher education, and I’m delighted to be joined once again by leaders from across the UK higher education community for this episode of the podcast series.

Joining me today is Geoff Layer, who’s the vice chancellor at the University of Wolverhampton; Debs, Debs Gray, principal at the Grimsby Institute; and Priya, Priya Lakhani, who is the founder and chief executive of Century Tech. And today we’re going to be drilling down into digital leadership, how we can create a culture that fosters and generates digital fluency.

Through our work on empowering higher education, we think that digital, data, and technology can empower transformative experience for students and staff. But that must be considered in terms of the long-term strategy of each organisation. How do we manage that successfully?

So – all my colleagues will introduce themselves as they speak, and I want to kick off, colleagues, by just asking you to reflect on essentially the madness of the last 15 months. It’s been crazy, and one forgets what it was like this time last year. Debs, if I can come to you first, and ask all of you the same question. Can you pick out a couple of key learning points that spring to mind when you reflect on this pandemic and the implications for your organisation and students?

Debs Gray 1:51

Thanks, Jon, that’s actually a really interesting question. One of the things that strikes me is that we were already quite digitally literate as an organisation. But we weren’t digitally fluent. We knew all of the stuff, we knew it was all in the right order, but we’d never exercised it properly. And so the key learning point for me has been, in order to develop the fluency, it has to be deployed and executed, it can’t just be done in the abstract. So, in some respects, the biggest learning point for us was that in order to become digitally fluent, you have to be living and breathing it all the time. The pandemic ensured we had to do that. And I think we were, perhaps, picking that up piecemeal before.

I think, as well, one of the things that that I will be taking from this is how well we’ve been able to deploy technology for non-academic purposes as well. So the pastoral support, the safeguarding, the mental health support to wrap around our students. I think, in terms of the flip side of that, one of the challenges that I think we’re still wrestling with is, potentially, the building of non-digital employability skills in students. So when all you do is digital, their digital skills develop fluently, very, very quickly and rapidly. But it’s sometimes at the expense of practical employability base skills that they need as fresh graduates to the market. So we’re still wrestling with that at the moment, as we come out of the pandemic.

Jon Baldwin 3:30

That’s really, really interesting and helpful, and a great start. Geoff, what about what about you at the University of Wolverhampton?

Geoff Layer 3:38

It’s always difficult to respond with a couple, isn’t it? Because you learn so much. I think one of the key things I learned was the amazing resilience and agility of staff and students who responded to an emergency situation with tremendous efforts and focus. And they’re all at different levels and different stages in terms of facilities available, etc – so the resilience and the agility of staff and students, I thought, was superb.

And then I think the thing that I then learned was that, you know, we went we went into a lockdown on March 23, like everybody else, and we were fortunate, I guess, in that we’d got Teams in place, we’d got Zoom – and I dread to think what would have happened 10 years earlier, and how fast we’d have had to develop then! But we’d got that, and we were able to respond. But everything in that first part of the academic year was really about a response to students and staff, and how we could do things. So it was very much an emergency response of a number of weeks of learning. How can we get the information to students? How can we get assessments to students? What can we do? And you had staff just doing their best, with different technological skills, to enable their students to participate and to learn. And we realised that actually, we’ve done that – but you can only do that once. And what we need to do is to move to a plan system, and a planned methodology, and a planned set of curriculum principles around digital learning. So you moved away from different types of styles into a more consistent style. And we set benchmarks, and we set what we thought were the right principles at that time. So it’s about that transition from an immediate reaction to one that became planned, and one that is still evolving and still developing, because we improve it all the time.

Jon Baldwin 6:06

Thanks Geoff, and we’ll come back to that, I think. You know, the embedding and the improvement of that emergency response is all part of that digital leadership, digital culture. So, we’ll return to that.

Priya, from your perspective, which is a different one, albeit very linked to the lived experiences of Debs and Geoff, in institutional terms, – what would be your couple of takeaways? I know, it’s hard to pick two.

Priya Lakhani 6:34

Yeah, it’s hard. We’re all still learning, that’s the key! I think that, at Century, we had a real shock last year, as everyone else did, but in a slightly different way; we had a 400% increase in the institutions that we were dealing with. And so you’ve got a situation where suddenly, actually, there’s a huge demand for what you’re doing. Because people have the Teams and they have the Zooms, and they have the Google Meets. But then they realised, well, that’s fine to replicate what you do manually, online – so to see your students, to host your lectures, to have your seminars. But actually, what we need is some sort of digital platform to host some of our content. And then, you know, people started looking at their digital strategy. Really, everyone was revamping their digital strategy last year. Even tech companies were revamping their own digital strategies. And really, there were two things I can point out. One is, as an actual business, at Century Tech, we had to scale up; we had to create a robust infrastructure that could deal with such demand. And that was a really big exercise and a big project that all of our engineers took part in. Because when you’ve got a university, and they have 3,000, or 10,000, people suddenly accessing your platform, they’re using all sorts of functionalities on it, they’re taking – you know, we’re an AI company, right? So we track every single data point, every mouse movement, every student, to figure out how to tailor their learning journey. That’s a lot of data. That’s an enormous amount of data. And they’re not only using it how they were pre-COVID – because pre-COVID, they might go on once a week, because that’s normal; you only really need to go on once a week to get that personalised learning pathway and then to, essentially, point out your interventions. But when you’re in a pandemic, actually, you’re on all day, every day, because that is your go-to. So creating that robust infrastructure is really important. And that is an important point for higher education. Because, as we all think about our digital strategies and move forward, people think about apps they want to develop, right? They think I’ve got an idea, I’ll create an app, I’ll create a piece of software. It has to be robust and resilient enough to deal with all of your students on it, all the time. And higher education institutions are really large!

The second point, which was throughout not just higher education, but throughout the world, right – whether we were talking about lifelong learning with adults, or whether we were talking about primary school children, or HE – digital’s got to be embraced throughout an institution, you know. You could see that digital was embraced by many, and I agree with Geoff completely in terms of the agility, the resilience, how proud we are, as you know, as a nation, particularly looking at how our teachers and our educators stepped up to the task – but there were some who couldn’t, for various reasons. Sometimes infrastructure reasons; they didn’t have the bandwidth, they’re in rural areas, they didn’t have the hardware. You know, there were all sorts of reasons why people couldn’t actually step up to take advantage of digital. And that creates a digital divide.

But also, if it’s not fully embraced throughout your organisation – you know, where you’ve got, for example, the sceptics, where they need to go through a change management process – that’s really hard. You can have a vice chancellor stand there with the senior leadership team and say, right, we’re going to do this – but how to ensure that it’s embrace and embedded, I think that’s, you know, very much coupled with Debs’ original point; it’s really, really important, so that everybody can take advantage in a way that suits them.

There are constant lessons, I think, being learned sector-wide about how to do that at scale. And we managed to put in quite a few large transformation programmes. But the big lesson there is, if you’re, for example, being supplied technology, or you’re building it in-house, the technology stakeholders, the ones creating the technology, don’t just produce tech and give it to you and hand it over. They are also responsible for the embedding and the embracing, they’re responsible for the change management programme that comes with that. And I think that’s absolutely crucial. And that’s one thing that we could do last year. But we saw how many people try to embrace technology, they were left alone with it, and it fell down. So it’s really about trying to tie in that positive impact you’re going to gain from the technology with the process of how you’re actually going to embed it.

Jon Baldwin 10:51

You may have almost answered my follow up question, Priya – so let me just stay with you for a moment, because what you’ve all said gets to the heart of digital leadership – it’s become a much-used phrase in the last 15 months, as indeed has digital strategy, as you’ve just said. But can you describe it, Priya? What does digital leadership, pithily mean to you?

Priya Lakhani 11:19

Yeah, what it’s not, I can tell you! Because this is the thing where people can say, oh, okay, maybe we’ve stumbled across something here. What it is not is, in your organisation, simply hiring a head of digital or a digital manager and leaving it to them. I’m not saying you don’t hire them, you absolutely hire them, you need them, right. But digital leadership is not simply delegating that and siloing it into some cool room with a bunch of whiteboards and nice Macs and computers and saying, right, off you go, go and create our digital strategy. That’s your job. We may even give you a couple of people to help you do it. That’s not it. Digital leadership has to be embraced by every leader in the organisation if you want it to truly filter through. If you want it to truly be embraced, this is not about screen time and everyone spending lots of time in front of screens, that is such a big misunderstanding about what digital actually is. It’s about using tools and technologies that augment and help you with your particular goals. Right. That’s really what it is. And obviously, in COVID, during COVID, that played a really big part. So digital leadership is figuring out what that strategy is for your organisation. Right? What does that look like? And then ensuring that in every corner of your organisation, every leader, so that they understand why is important, and they understand what it’s going to do. And you don’t need to be a coder to understand digital and technology. There are all these real misunderstandings of ‘Oh, I don’t really understand that, I’m not into that’. No, no -you just need to understand how it applies and where the benefits are and what the opportunities are. And it’s really interesting how, particularly in education institutions, there are so many people that cannot coherently articulate why digital is important in their particular department or institution.

And obviously, we’ve seen digital – COVID has been a catalyst to the adoption of digital – but true digital leadership means that you do also a risk assessment of your organisation: where is it not happening? You actually put in actions to not only identify those, but also to compensate for them, ensuring that everybody understands.

And this is just important so there is no one department, there’s no one area, where they’re not able to embrace digital. It’s not just about teaching or learning, which is what I focus on – what other tools and technologies can you do to grab the right amount of data in your organisation and in higher education so that you can figure out okay, well, can we predict dropout rates? Can we predict engagement issues? Geoff was giving an introduction earlier as to the demographic of his students – is there a particular way that you can measure, you know, how one demographic is performing or engaging compared to another? Digital is also about how to use tools and technologies – digital technologies – to capture some of that data. So having a full digital strategy is really important. But I would say digital leadership is ensuring that it’s embedded in your culture. It’s embedded throughout the veins of your organisation.

Jon Baldwin 14:12

Thank you, lots of food for thought there. Debs, I’ll just come back to you there because you made a rather lovely comment at the beginning about being, a year ago, digitally literate, but not digitally fluent. I thought that was really nicely put. And listening to Priya there, about embedding digital in the culture of the place, what is your sense of digital leadership? And is that fluency now – bigger, better, stronger in Grimsby?

Debs Gray 14:44

It is. But it doesn’t mean we’ve stopped our journey. Priya’s absolutely right. It’s the golden thread. It’s the fabric from which we are woven. And actually, it had nothing to do with COVID-19. We were already a digitally mature organisation, it just so happened when the pandemic hit, we were able to capitalise on that, to flip to online and remote learning within 24 hours.

And I would also support Geoff’s view on the work of staff. Because without them, we had nothing; they were the absolute glue that held our organisation together and in many cases held our students together.

For me, digital leadership is about enthusiasm, and knowledge, and passion, and drive, and ambition for your organisation, for your students, for your employers, and for your communities. It is not just one thing. It is interwoven into the fabric of everything we do. And my role as a leader in my organisation is to live and breathe those values. It is not to appoint an expert, who then goes and tells everyone else, it’s to make sure that I’m exposed for my own weaknesses. And that staff can see where I’m developing. So we create a safe space to play and experiment with technology. It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to try something. We have sandbox spaces where educators and business support staff can say ‘Will this work? Can we have that conversation? Can we play around with it?’. We’ve got spaces where students can do that as well. And we celebrate digital achievements. So when our staff become Microsoft-innovative educators, or innovative educator experts, we celebrate that. When our staff pass their Microsoft Certified educator course, we celebrate that. And all of our managers and leaders must also undertake that. So we never ask our frontline staff, either academic or support, to do something we ourselves are not prepared to do.

But I think it goes further than that. Digital leadership, for me, is about horizon-scanning. We are in the fourth industrial revolution; there is no doubt about what what’s coming towards us. And it’s an acceleration of all things digital; Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, the list is endless. That’s the world that our students will exit into for a lifetime career. If we don’t help them get a taste of that now, when we’re at the cusp of it, we’re actually letting them. So the whole journey that we’ve been on to become digitally literate in the first place was predicated on what would happen over the next 30 years. And how those changes in technology would radically change the professions and trades that our students were entering into. And therefore how must we adjust our delivery and our curriculum to match now to give them a chance in the future?

Jon Baldwin 17:53

Yeah, really powerful – and also linked to the point you made earlier about non-digital employability skills as well.

Geoff, picking up Priya’s point about culture, and also Debs’s point there about horizon scanning – you know, it’s always seemed to me, for example, that Wolverhampton University knows what it wants to be, where it wants to play, how hard it wants to play, all of those things. But university cultures are really hard to get to grips with. Power resides in strange places in universities. And why do I say that? Because I’m sensing from conversations I’m having across our members that there’s some sense of rollback right now, in that there was a digital explosion – because there had to be – there was an emergency, I agree, fabulous response. We got into this academic year, you know, a bit messy, da da da… and we’re nearly at the end of it. The country’s opening up again, we hope. And there’s this rollback, you know, ‘well, it will be back to what it kind of used to be’. What’s your sense of that leadership challenge in that space, Geoff?

Geoff Layer 19:00

I think it’s a really interesting perspective, Jon, and there’s a lot I share. I share a lot of what you’ve just said in the sense of what I see and hear. I just want to come at it in a slightly different way and get to where you were.

What we’ve done is, we said “Where do we want to be as an organisation in 2030? And what sort of things do we want to do?” And to get to digital leadership, one of the things we did was to say, “Well, actually, will digital exist in 2030? Will that concept, will that vocabulary, exist? And what is it we actually mean by it?” So you know, we house in our science park a 5G accelerator. Now, I’m out of my depth if you ask me what a 5G accelerator does. – I just know it’s faster than a 4G accelerator. I’m pretty sure that 6G’s coming down the line.

And I’m pretty sure that what you do on your smartphone today, Jon, is considerably and radically different to what you did five years ago, or what you even believed you could do five years ago. So will something have replaced digital by the time we get to 2030, was a conversation we had in the university. And we therefore talked about, rather than digital, we talked about what it is we want to do, and why. And that’s very much about students being able to access learning when they wish to access it. It’s very much about students being able to access a mode of learning that they wish to access. It’s about having different start dates and finish dates in terms of carousels. Somebody – I think it was Debs – picked up the issue around student support. The access to our counselling services, our student support services – students are using them more today than they were when it was face-to-face. And some aspects you can’t do a digitally, so you have to manage that. They’re accessing all the support systems, they’re accessing our administration in different ways. You know, when my washing machine breaks down, I’m into artificial intelligence with some organisation on what button I haven’t pressed correctly, etc. And that’s the nature of a lot of the ways we go. Our library’s moving to e-texts, etc, open e-tech. So there’s a whole thing about what is it that we mean and ‘digital’ is, to me, the shorthand expression that we all use, because it’s about how you want to access that learning and when.

In terms of is there rollback, I think it’s about those conversations you’ve got to have. And those conversations that we’ve had are “look, we expect a high degree of normality in the coming academic year” but our students are saying they want some of this to continue. Disabled students, which I’ve done a lot of work on, are now getting things in higher education that they’ve asked for for years and been told they can’t have. It’s now accessible to them in recordings, etc. I think you’ll see over the next two to three years, a form of learning – and this obviously is dependent on where we get to with a pandemic – but I think we’ll see students coming back to more and more face-to-face, but not losing the optionality of being online, not losing the recorded, not losing the e-textbooks, having greater digital ownership.

And, you know, we have to remember that a lot of a lot of our students in that first part of the lockdown, yes, they had a laptop – yes, they did have a laptop. Yes, they could, generally, connect. But by and large, the laptop was used by their kids to do their home-schooling. And a lot of our students have difficulty because of the sharing of that and the digital poverty that goes with it. But I think we will see greater flexibility, greater choice. And we will see different forms of learning, whereby students will exercise that choice in ways that we’ve always tried to control in the past. Because it’s simpler. I think you’ll see a massive shift around the use of artificial intelligence in the appropriate areas of a university’s infrastructure. So I don’t think we’ll ever go back. But I don’t think it’ll be all going forward either. I think there will be a period of time of coming together. And I think face-to-face teaching will be there for the vast majority of our students because that’s what they want.

Jon Baldwin 24:15

Really interesting. You know, in one of the podcasts, we had Chris Husbands – who’s the current vc of Sheffield Hallam – and he made a comment which was simple but powerful. He said, Jon, we thought we knew our students, turns out we’re going to have to get to know them a whole lot better. And I think that’s really powerful. And the ‘customer’ word, which a lot of people in higher education shy away from is really sort of, you know, important right now. I don’t know how it feels for you Debs. But, you know, I think students will drive change. And other vice chancellor said to me, though, we won’t be able to afford to offer the levels of choice that students will demand – and I think that’s a real issue as well. But any reflections, Debs, from you? And then I want to come to AI a little bit more because obviously we’ve got Priya who’s working every day in that field, but I sense its adoption in higher education is going to accelerate. But anyway – Debs?

Debs Gray 25:16

I think it’s not a genie you can put back in the bottle. And I’m not convinced it was ever in the bottle in the first place. We’ve been using technology in classrooms since the 1920s, in one form or another, and it evolves. And we think about it nostalgically. Before the podcast started, Geoff mentioned a Bander machine – and I remember those very distinctly. And I took huge pride in my overheads with my multicoloured pens. And then I took huge pride in my acetate slides, which I then transferred to PowerPoint. For the first time, we had interactive whiteboards. So, we’ve been at the forefront of using technology for learning for 100 years. It’s not something that’s new to us. And there are always push and pull factors. This has simply accelerated it. And the question is, should it continue to accelerate? Or should it stop, pause, evaluate, and consider what we choose to take forward in a more normalised situation, as opposed to an emergency situation. And I think those are the questions really now to explore. I think we will have no choice. Generation alpha is coming towards us in 10 or 12 years – and this is how they learn, this is what they know. And either institutions adapt, or commercial players in the HE marketplace, who do use the customer word, will come in and offer them exactly what they need, when they need it, for a price they need it. And who could blame them for that? That’s the nature of a marketplace. So I think either we get smart, and we recognise that what our students want now may not be what they want next year, may not be what the next generation wants in five years, and we evolve quickly – or we run the risk of being left behind and becoming outdated dinosaurs, actually, in our own sector.

Jon Baldwin 27:15

Yeah, thanks, Debs. I mean, our digital experience insights work has shown is that students, by and large, have enjoyed the blended approach. It’s given them the sort of flexibility you describe Geoff, you know, in terms of balancing, study, home, caring for elderly relatives or children, work commitments, and so on. But the social elements of learning are what people miss, and the blend of the two is important. We’ve also got to tackle the narrative that suggests that online is bad, and, you know, cheap and in-person is good and is worth the English tuition fee.

But Priya can I come to you. We’ve got maybe 5-10 minutes left. And let’s just segue a little bit into AI – not as a commercial for Century Tech but you know, I remember your Digifest address back in March, where you were very, very clear about respecting the educator, respecting the teacher in any use of artificial intelligence. But where will it make its most significant difference, do you think, in cultural terms?

Priya Lakhani 28:30

Geoff was right. And that’s in line with what I said, which is the educator and that one-to-one interaction between the educator and the student, the student and the student, you know, when they’re doing peer-to-peer learning, that is so important. If we all think back to, those listening who have been have been to university – I have – what did we learn? And what was the most valuable part of it? I think we sometimes forget to ask ourselves. Let’s remember when we went, you know, to college or school, whatever it was – what was the most valuable part? What do you remember? Is it reciting some passage from a textbook that you were asked to learn? No! Education institutions are not there simply, you know, for students to memorise, and then apply upon that some skills, just simply some learnings from textbooks and from curriculum. Yes, that’s a big part of it. But actually, it’s that social interaction, that experience. That’s why, you know, even the students that really liked the blended learning experience in the last year that was accelerated by COVID, what they missed was that interaction, didn’t they? I mean, how sad were so many of us when we thought, “Oh, my gosh, you’re not going to have a freshers week. That’s terrible!” Because I remember mine. And it lasted far more than a week, we made sure it did! But I think that, you know, what, Geoff said was right about that not replacing the educator – because I think that, if there are commercial entities that come to the fore and say, we’re thinking about the customer, this is the only experience that you’re going to receive, now there is some benefit in certain parts of the world where there is otherwise new access, okay, there is definitely a benefit. But where you can have that blended environment of technology, and online teaching and learning with the face-to-face, it’s really powerful. And then I’ll come on to why and answer your question about where is AI going to have the biggest benefit.

Firstly, as a leader of a higher education institution listening to this podcast, you need to understand what AI is. AI is not your standard learning management system. It is not your management information system necessarily. It is different. It’s a little bit like when people say, What’s blockchain, and people say it’s Bitcoin; they’re not the same thing. Right? So when it comes to technology, the first thing you need to do is understand what it is. Right? What is AI? And what’s machine learning? How does this actually impact higher education? Where are all the use cases for this technology in my institution, right. And so, there are a few – but I’ll stick to two that I think most people will know about, or at least it will be really valuable for you to know about. The first is, when you’ve got all of that academic data – for example, Geoff’s at Wolverhampton, so Geoff will have oversight over his demographics, his students, how they’re performing, their engagement, etc. You know, when they turn up, when they don’t, any particular issues. I mean, Geoff, you know, there’s all of this stuff that you have access to. So where you can play a part in terms of using AI technology, AI basically relies on big data, it learns by itself – a true AI learns by itself. It’s not a programme that has just been programmed by human. When you’re thinking of AI, think of the difference between AI and HI, artificial intelligence versus human intelligence, and AI will start to make decisions and analysis based on all of the data in front of it that is statistically significant. So arguably, an AI is far smarter and accurate and making decisions then, that a human is – or an AI can do something in a second, which would normally take humans maybe months and months to do.

In terms of academic analytics, there is some move – particularly in the USA – in higher education, in terms of using artificial intelligence to understand how a university may prosper in the future, using the analytics that for example, Geoff at Wolverhampton would have oversight over to say, What resources do I need to plug in where so that my university can do better in the future? That is called academic analytics. And there’s AI applied to that. Where I think, and where I can obviously see it making massive progress – and I do think Geoff and Debs both have a bit of a crystal ball here, because his answer, for example, when Geoff was speaking about using technology in a certain way, that is exactly what’s happening at the moment. And Debs was quite right; this is not about digital and AI, you know, coming to the fore now, this has happened for the last eight years, right? There are institutions, from primary schools and secondary schools to further education to higher education, that have been embedding AI in their teaching and learning.

Where does this make a difference? So, when we saw blended learning taking place last year, for example, and this year, and it will continue – imagine not producing the one-size-fits-all lecture for all of your students. Imagine having that out there, but having a technology that can then personalise to every individual student. So, rather than sitting in a lecture theatre and everyone receiving the same, people are receiving a completely tailored and individualised education, whether they’re teaching law, whether they’re teaching marketing or business, it doesn’t matter. It’s a completely personalised learning journey. This is where AI is really at its element, because it’s the perfect technology for this.

Imagine then having your seminar tutors. Rather than holding a seminar a week – you want the face-to-face in tuition, as Geoff was saying – but instead of sitting down in a seminar, having to do all the marking and assessing to basically treat a group of 10, 15, 30 individuals in the same way, imagine knowing before you walk into the room, every intervention you need to make for every single, individual so that they can perform better. And that essentially is what AI does today. And it does it in HE already. The institutions that aren’t using that sort of technology need to question themselves.

When you’re thinking about your customers, as you say, where would your customers rather go? To a university where they’re able to engage them in this way, where every lesson is relevant, every lecture is relevant, they are progressing and learning more, they’re getting that intrinsic value of learning every moment they have any interaction with your educators and your technology. Or one where you go into big old lecture theatre, there’s 200 of you, same old, same old. I remember that and I loved it – but today, technology allows us to do so much more.

So, AI will have a huge part to play in the teaching and learning process, but not taking away the educator, empowering them, making them more powerful with individualised learning, and also in the space of academic analytics. If you want to see academic analytics, in terms of where it can go with AI, there are some there are some HE institutions in the USA that have been working on this for the last, you know, over a decade, and actually they’re starting to see some really interesting insights that have helped universities with the engagement with their students, reduce dropout – all of those things that essentially stop vice chancellors like Geoff sleeping at night. Those things. Imagine having that information, so you can pre-emptively solve those problems before they actually become real problems.

Jon Baldwin 35:17

I can feel the energy and the commitment and the drive, Priya. Thank you. And, you know, there’s time for a quick comment from either Geoff or Debs as we move to wrap up. My sense in the UK is that adoption will be slower. We’ve got some use cases in the supporting areas with sort of basic chatbot technology and so on, but it is developing. But I don’t know – Geoff, Debs – whether there’s a quick comment on AI before we just moved to sum up?

Debs Gray 35:45

I think it’s a really powerful tool when used correctly. So in 2019, there was about $3.6 billion invested in AI startups, but AI maturity is significantly lower. And I think that this is one of the big ticket items now to look at how we can deploy things like machine learning, to help us know our learners better in exactly the same way you mentioned earlier that Chris had described on a previous podcast. We did think we knew our learners. And I still think we do. But I think this can help us know them better, and serve them better.

Jon Baldwin

Yeah, good point, well put. Geoff, anything?

Geoff Layer 36:27

Well, I know my students a lot better than I did, that’s certainly true – and it was quite an eye-opener! I think AI will be coming in, because our students will expect it in terms of our systems – but they’ll expect it where it’s appropriate for them. There’s not everything it will be appropriate for. So I do see a big drive over the next five years.

Jon Baldwin 36:52

Yeah, and you know, it’s one of the reasons for the for the creation of the National Centre of AI and, you know, the work with Priya and co. It’s exciting, it really is.

Colleagues, as we as we sum up, I’m going to ask you a kind of impossible question, really. But we’ve talked a lot about leadership, and about the elements of that, you know, cultures, expectations, customers, students. If I were to ask you – and I’ll come to you Debs, first – you know, what do you reckon will be the most significant the largest leadership question or issue that we’re going to face, you’re going to face, in the next 12 months? I’ll ask all of you – but begin with you Debs, thanks.

Debs Gray 37:31

Jon, this is a really difficult one. Because there really is not just one challenge that we’re facing – there wouldn’t be in education, even without a pandemic! There will be a whole sheaf of challenges facing all of us.

I think the question of how to balance what we want to keep, and what we did on an emergency basis. So what’s the what’s the shining beacon that we need to keep and build on that for the future? And what will that look like over the next five years or so?

I think, for us as well, now that we have got to a stage of fluency from being literate, it’s a question of now do we now need to revisit the strategy that took us to that point, because it’s accelerated five years in 18 months. And so it could be that actually, we need to rethink how ambitious we are being without use of AI, with our use of things like wellbeing analytics to tell us about not just our students, but our staff as well. What can we do to reduce workload, using technology, to make the teaching and the business support areas more effective, when we’re going to see cohorts of students move through into our higher education, who have had large chunks of learning happened in a very different environment. And I’m interested in how we shape that through, what September will look like, how we plan for that in the area of uncertainty – because the truth is, we all think we’re coming out of a pandemic, but we don’t know that’s the case. So when it gets to September, will we be facing a third wave? Are we then in another emergency year? And at what point does the emergency become normal? And how do we deal with that? And how do we keep staff morale boosted? How do we keep them strong, so that they can keep our students strong – and, culturally, that that is the thing that keeps me awake at night. Staff are tired. They are genuinely exhausted. They have given everything absolutely everything. How can I keep them going, as a leader? What can I do? What can my senior team do, to make sure that they are whole and healthy, and in one piece, and able to look on this experience not just as something to be really proud of, but as a really great platform to build on for the future.

Jon Baldwin 39:59

Thanks Debs. I mean, really powerful stuff – and what you said earlier about being in it with them, being with your staff, it seems to me to be a great place to begin to, to help them understand and realise your investment and respect for them, but yet understood. Well, I think, illustrates the impossibility of the question, Priya. But I’m going to ask you nevertheless, you know, what is the biggest challenge you think we’ll face? The leadership issue?

Priya Lakhani

But I get to cheat Jon, because I get to echo Deb – and say ‘and….’! I think the biggest leadership issue and challenge – among all the other things, like research funding, which goodness knows HE has had to cope with, with issues there in the post-Brexit environment – but I think the biggest issue actually that you’re going to face is the simple ‘what are we providing our students with?’ Our customers, if you like? Particularly when it comes to digital, and not just in the teaching and learning process. McKinsey forecasts say 55% increase in the importance of technological skills by 2030. A study from Australia found that digital exposure doesn’t simply translate into digital understanding. The University of Oxford in 2017 predicted around half the employment market in the United States is at a high risk of computerisation in the next one or two decades. So the ‘what’ in terms of what’s the product for the customer, what are we equipping them with so that when they leave our higher education institutions they are the competitive graduates that we need them to be, so they can go on and create opportunity and choice for the rest of their lifetimes. If we ignore the ‘what’ question, then we assume we already know the answer, and we provide all the solutions for the answer we think we understand it is – but actually we need to constantly revisit that question, and COVID has changed things even more in every sector of the world, in every environment. What’s the product that we’re providing? Is that fit for purpose? Yes, use AI and technologies to increase the efficiencies and help make better outcomes in teaching and learning and reduce the workload – that’s what I live and breathe! But the biggest question is what are you giving them as a whole? Digital, as Debs said, is not in a silo. It’s not just about digital, she said, it is about the whole fabric, it’s about everything. How does digital play into learning habits of mind, engineering habits of mind, analytical, problem-solving, leadership. That’s food for thought. Get that strategy right is what’s I’d say, and start to implement it and start to execute it, and we’ll learn from our lessons as we go. We can’t afford not to.

Jon Baldwin

Terriffic. Thanks Priya. Geoff – final word: your biggest issue?

Geoff Layer

I’ll come at it from a different angle because what’s happened over the last 15 months is we’ve sprinted, and now I think there’s a need to consolidate and run. One of the biggest challenges that I can see is, with all our great innovators, making sure you keep them motivated whilst your focus is on using the enablers to take the whole institution forward and to embed the work so the student gets a more customised programme and they’re comfortable in the consistency of the learning environment and the administrative environment. So I think we’ve got quite a lot of consolidation to do. And it’ll be keeping those innovators motivated when you can’t jump to the next stage.

Jon Baldwin

Understood Geoff. Colleagues, all that remains is for me to thank you all for your terrific contribution to a very lively and spirited discussion. We’ve covered some ground, and ending there with a focus on people, recognising the efforts that staff have made in extraordinary circumstances – and recognising they’ve paid a bit of a price for that. There is that tiredness, there is that need for reinvigoration and re-motivation, and that’s where your consolidation point gets real resonance Geoff, I think. But also people in terms of students. What they want, what we need – getting the ‘what’ right, as you said Priya, in your final answer, is clearly going to be very, very important. So thank you everybody. All I’ll say finally, for listeners who want more information about Jisc’s Higher Education strategy, simply search Jisc Powering UK higher education. Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll join us again for episode four, where we’ll be discussing transforming infrastructure.

Related Articles