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The Digital Department


Developing digital literacies for teaching administrators


Archive for the 'Background' Category

Summer school: Technology and Change in Higher Education

By Clive Young, on 20 July 2013

summer_schoolLast week with colleagues Martin Oliver and Cat Edera from the Institute of Education (IoE) Stafanie Anyadi and I ran a very successful summer school entitled ‘Technology and Change in Higher Education’. Both the IoE and ourselves have related projects under the JISC Digital Literacies programme and we were keen to explore some of the issues around emerging practices, roles and identities related to the changing technological environment.

On the first day Stefanie and I focused on the issues that had been highlighted by our The Digital Department project and the work we had done around the CMALT programme. We were fortunate to have a very lively group of participants; academics, support staff and administrators who were very happy to share ideas and experiences.

We first explored the notion of changing identities, how rapid technological and institutional change resulted in a fluidity of job roles, often expanding quite extensively from the standard job descriptor. Individuals seemed to be creating their own ‘operational space’, often moving flexibly between ‘academic’ and ‘administrative’ or support roles. This was not exactly the ‘third space’ professional enviroment that Celia Whitchurch [link to Celia’s paper] described – although some of our participants identified themselves as such – but a more adaptive professional environment in which previous academic/support boundaries were blurred. This fluidity was not without its problems. Several challenging issues were discussed.
  • Authority had to be self-generated instead of being inherent in the job role
  • Individuals had to create their own networks of influence.
  • Professional development and career progression routes were less clear
  • The boundary-jumping aspect may be ‘transgressive’ and challenge institutional ideas of identity and affiliation
  • It might be difficult for colleagues and the institution to relate to fluid roles and recognise individual expertise
  • This may result in border or ownership issues of issues that can be manifested as barriers
  • Recruitment and induction into these ‘personally-constructed’ roles can be another problemThe group noted that restructuring if well implemented could be way of providing a ‘snapshot’ of these dynamic changes and route for the institution to accommodate them.
summer_school_groupThere were many positives. Such adaptive roles could help students navigate though existing ‘chains of support’. The importance in this respect of the Teaching or Departmental Administrator was mentioned several times. Technology could play a large role in providing a breadth of support for students and staff but often a human ‘broker’ was still much appreciated.

We completed our session by exploring the important role of new pedagogies in this process, how as e-learning had become mainstream it needs a wider group to support it. More communicative designs (using forums especially) also encouraged changes in the types of e-learning support needed and this was particularly evident in distance learning and high-tech blends of campus learning, which often took on aspects of distance learning anyway. Indeed the complexities of the increasingly rich digital environment needed skills in how to ‘signpost’ students, how to engage students in communication, how to ‘align’ their activities with the learning outcomes, but also how to support them in the wider range of digital literacies required.


Enabling innovation and change – Part 1

By Clive Young, on 24 June 2012

At the ICA Network conference: Educating the Net Generation in the Life Sciences at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano last week one of the main themes was how universities can support innovation in today’s fast moving and emerging educational environments characterised by social media and cloud services. This is undoubtedly a challenge. I gave a keynote on our The Digital Department (TDD) project and how we were beginning to uncover a complex pattern of digital literacies and identities that needed to be developed and supported to enable any significant change in this area. I admitted this could be overwhelming but TDD also points to a community-based model of change which might help us achieve our ambitions.

I started by reminding attendees of an older model of change the MIT90s transformational model which was used a few projects in UK HE in the early 00s both to describe and benchmark where universities were in a technology change process.

Basically this model any innovation always started with localised projects then became co-ordinated in some way before becoming integrated with mainstream workflows in a transformative stage and eventually were embedded in the processes of the university (review, quality, finance etc). Only then could innovative change really occur at an institutional level.

Like any reductionist model MIT90s has its limitations but it does highlight the problem of moving from local to institutional innovation. Essentially it emphasises there are a number of steps to go through (whatever you call them) to enable this to happen.

To understand the steps better we can now apply the familiar Rogers 1962 model of diffusion of innovations. Rogers provides the human perspective of change and you can usefully align MIT90s stages to Rogers to see which groups of staff might be involved in each stage. In short the innovators initiate localised projects and but it is only when change becomes coordinated  and then transformative that the majority of staff become engaged.

It is now well understood to ‘break out’ change from the innovators to even the early adopters (i.e. go from localised to co-ordinated) is challenging first identified by Greoffrey Moore (1991) as the ‘chasm‘. Over a decade ago Jamie McKenzie (1999) noted that the chasm occurs because  ”the characteristics of late adopters are profoundly different from those of early adopters” and – after Moore – “crossing the chasm between these groups…requires a mammoth campaign that includes special attention to the vastly different needs, perspectives and demands of the late adopters. He concludes “what works for pioneers does not work for the later group“.

To me this begins to explains the ‘chasm’, why processes of change are slow in universities and the  persistent problem throughout the HE sector of why so many very good educational innovation projects fail to become mainstream and fade away as funding dries up.

In the next blog post I’ll suggest how these insights may be combined to provide a more sustainable, practical and perhaps productive approach of change drawing on what we have been  doing with TDD and other initiatives.

Credit: Rogers diagram


Project background – Why ‘Teaching Administrators’ (TAs)?

By Clive Young, on 20 September 2011

As the complexity of teaching and learning in Higher Education has grown we have seen the emergence of a cadre of academic managers and administrators, perhaps 30,000 individuals across the sector (Morgan 2011). While this trend is lamented by some as an increase in ‘pen pushers’ (e.g. Grimston 2011), there is also a growing recognition (e.g. Gordon and Whitchurch 2011) that especially in increasingly technologically ‘blended’ learning environments administrators and other support roles have a very positive contribution to make to the student experience.

As a consequence in recent years a range of responsibilities have shifted from academic to support staff. In many departments Teaching Administrators (TAs) now have wide responsibilities for admissions, quality management, programme and course coordination and planning, VLE course management, student advice etc., and digital literacy underpins all these activities. TAs are also closely involved in the student feedback processes e.g. via questionnaires and Staff-Student Consultative Committee meetings and have a pivotal enabling role in supporting distance learning.

The growth of new roles is closely connected to the growing use of digital technologies. Like most universities, at UCL this is now policy: “the use of online technologies is an essential component of the way in which students access and engage with the curriculum at UCL” (Institutional Learning and Teaching Strategy 2010-2015). It is becoming clear that for this high-tech, high-touch vision of the modern university to be realised the digital literacies of support staff must be developed as a strategic asset and in developing this project we recognise the partnership between academic and non-academic staff required to achieve the highest standards in our academic mission.

The ambition of The Digital Department is therefore to professionalise the digital literacy of education administrators in order to enhance the teaching and learning environment. This is not simply the development of a specific group of staff; we see the digital literacies of students, academic colleagues and TAs being interconnected via the digital learning environment (see diagram top right).



Grimston, J. (2011) Pen-pushers outnumber professors at university The Sunday Times, 10 April.

Morgan, J. (2011) A starring role beckons, Times Higher Education, 14 April.

Gordon, G. and Whitchurch, C. (2009) Academic and professional identities in higher education: the challenges of a diversifying workforce, London, Routledge, see also summary paper.