Transforming infrastructure: Higher education leaders – Jisc podcast episode 4

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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.

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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…

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