From education to employment

Digifest 2023: Celebrating Innovation and Collaboration

Robin Ghurbhurun, managing director for further education (FE) and skills at Jisc

In this article Robin Ghurbhurun calls for the sector to drive innovation by fostering community and industry collaboration.

We’ve just hosted our annual digital teaching and learning event, Digifest (7-8th march) – the only dedicated digital conference for the tertiary education sector in the UK. 

For more than a decade we have welcomed creative minds from across the sector who are looking to share their digital transformation journeys and learn from others. And this year we introduced research for the first time as a stand-alone learning track to widen the net even further in terms of innovation and collaboration. 

At the start of day one I was asked what I was most looking forward to at Digifest.  

I said, “I’m looking forward to being inspired by the digital innovators, the disrupters, the movers and shakers.”  

And I’m pleased to say I was spoilt for choice. 

Addressing 21st century challenges

The opening keynote from technology pioneer and AI scientist Inma Martinez, which highlighted the growing pressure to innovate, set the bar high. As Inma points out, we cannot address the challenges of the 21st century using 19th century mindsets and 20th century business models – and I think this point resonates strongly with what we see across the tertiary education sector. 

It was also great to catch up with colleagues across FE and see how they are creating new solutions to old problems through digital transformation. 

USP College demonstrated how they are successfully blending physical and virtual spaces through their virtual reality (VR) campus and immersive rooms to deliver blended learning that not only tackles the challenge of teacher shortages but also truly elevates the learner experience and prepares them for work in a digital world

Activate Learning, winners of the Jisc-sponsored Association of Colleges (AoC) Beacon Award, presented their innovative new approach to understanding the digital capabilities of both teachers and learners. Their digital competencies framework has the potential to be replicated across the FE sector. 

Using data to support student wellbeing

Throughout the event we also looked at issues affecting the sector right here and now, and what education leaders and supporters can do to promote positive change.

I attended a truly thought-provoking round-table discussion on data-supported student wellbeing in tertiary education. Jisc is working with student support champion Professor Edward Peck and Northumbria University to shine a light on how better use of data can improve student services and support student wellbeing.

The session began with students from Plymouth University sharing their insights and pleas for institutional leaders and the system to do more to support student wellbeing. Common themes that clearly emerged included what to do with student wellbeing analytics data, how to evaluate what works, what are the limitations on responsibility and how to prioritise support and intervention with limited funding.  

Inspiring future generations

Day two of Digifest coincided with International Women’s Day and gave our speakers and attendees the opportunity to reflect on inequalities balanced with some truly inspiring lived experiences of women within the technology sector. 

We know the UK technology industry is heavily male-dominated, but the balance is shifting with more women going into tech roles every year. The Office for National Statistics reported in February 2021 that 31% of UK tech jobs are now held by women. However, only 10% are in leadership roles, so it’s important to continue growing this number and inspiring future generations of women to consider a career in technology.  

Jisc sets a great example here: I’m very proud to be a member of an executive team which is 50% women – including our CEO and COO. 

In her session, “If I can do it, so can you”, our keynote speaker Dr Sue Black, director of equity, diversity and inclusion in the computer science department at Durham University, talked us through the highly successful initiatives she has created, TechUpWomen and TechMums, which focus on helping women from disadvantaged and under-served communities get into a career in tech.  

Dr Black urged us all to take action and be the drivers of our own ambitions – a theme that ran throughout Digifest 2023.  

It’s abundantly clear that in a post-pandemic, perma-crisis world, educational leaders must embody courage and innovation, and they must take responsibility for disrupting their own institutional models of teaching, learning and business operations.  

Creating safe spaces for experimentation and being open to new ideas that challenge the traditional will be critical to the success of our education system in preparing learners and citizens for living and working in an increasingly digitally enabled world.  

Only we can build a future that serves the needs of our citizens today. 

Working together 

Delivering the closing address to our fantastic in-person and on-line audience, I asked that they work together with Jisc to: 

  • foster sector, community and industry collaboration 
  • ethically improve digital inclusivity and sustainability 
  • be open to adaptability 
  • learn more, do more and become more – for themselves, their institutions and the communities they serve 

As the dust settles on Digifest 2023 I am already looking forward to next year’s event and the opportunities for collaboration and innovation it will bring. 

By Robin Ghurbhurun, managing director for further education (FE) and skills at Jisc

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