- Anne Trefethen – Pro-Vice-Chancellor (People and Digital)
- David De Roure – Director of the Oxford e-Research Centre
- Richard Hobbs – Head of Department, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences
- Stuart Lee – Deputy CIO, IT Services
- Rhona Sharpe – Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning
- Martin Williams – Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education).
Anne Trefethen outlined the opportunity to think about digital technology and services needs across the University – to improve the student and staff experiences, improve our services and share our collections beyond Oxford. During the pandemic, colleagues have done a great job of shifting to digital, and this has also identified areas in which to invest. Cyber security issues increase alongside our use of digital; we need to make sure we’ve got the tools and technology to navigate that.
Anne invited colleagues to contribute to the phase of the next six months – to identify what does and doesn’t work, and where we should prioritise.
The following presentations were shared
Strategic plans for digital education
Martin Williams outlined the objectives taken from the 2018-2024 strategic plan. He clarified that the primary mode of teaching delivery will remain in person, with the tutorial model at the heart of it; but that we can learn from digital support during the pandemic.
Rhona Sharpe described the vision for digital education
Its themes are: inclusivity, innovation and global reach.
- Provide students with a core digital offer
- Sustain development of a holistic and integrated learning environment
- Enhance the physical infrastructure
- Share digital resources
- Develop governance for online courses
- Develop student digital capabilities
- Develop staff roles and capabilities
- Adapt to meet changing needs.
Stuart Lee introduced the framework for iTransform. The programme will include:
- A clear vision for digital transformation at the University
- A phased approach over several years
- A preliminary proposal for June 2022 to develop foundations for transformation.
Stuart detailed the plans for working with an external organisation, PA Consulting, and the forthcoming ways in which staff can get involved.
He also outlined next steps: staff and students can contribute views through an ideas platform between 21 March and 14 April. The iTransform team will then take those views forward.
Digital Transformation in Research
Dave De Roure noted that the four ambitions for this work are rooted in the education goals of the Strategic Plan.
- Research Data Management Review
- Priorities for advancing R&I culture at Oxford
- Reproducible Research Oxford – a University-wide initiative focused on advancing the open research agenda at Oxford
- DiSC – Digital Scholarship at Oxford.
Has the University now accepted that a significant investment in IT is required?
Anne confirmed that it had; opening up opportunities to innovate and improve will require investment.
The consultation period coincides with UGs being on Easter break
Stuart noted that it’s not the only opportunity to contribute – there will be a further opportunity in Trinity term.
Anne noted that at a session with students yesterday, there were consistent messages about some basic things that need to be sorted, such as joined up student systems in a hub rather than multiple separate ones.
Our digital world is fast moving with technologies and digital resources becoming quickly outdated. Will the strategy recognise a need for continual development ie for this to be accepted as business as usual in the future?
Richard Hobbs noted that this was an important and well-recognised point. One of the key reasons for viewing digital transformation as a big initiative is that it needs to encompass the way that we make decisions in the future, as well as what we invest in now. It is as much about people and skills as it is about technology and kit.
Can you foresee if new professional roles will be needed to implement iTransform in the short term? Will there also be opportunities for staff career development?
Anne replied that we will certainly need new skill sets for the future.
Is the University willing to support open source software that staff can build and grow, instead of licensing from large corporations?
Stuart noted that we do need a balance of these things and that we’ll seek the best solutions for each requirement that the University has.
How will we ensure equality of access to students from, for example, lower income countries?
Rhona replied that during the pandemic the COVID hardship fund has provided support; new kit has also been purchased. Martin added that we are conscious of the issues of digital access, and we are willing to provide resource in order to address this as much as possible.
Will the basics include better Wi-Fi provision across campus? I hear of a lot of students complaining about Wi-Fi in colleges, libraries, etc.
Anne replied that we have a problem at Oxford with Wi-Fi provided by different University and college entities, and that we do need to grapple with these basic issues.
Having a grand plan for Digital Transformation is all very well, but I think the University needs to get the basics right first, particularly when it comes to upgrading current systems such as Oracle R12, which has suffered from constant performance issues since being upgraded and in my opinion is worse than the previous version.
Stuart agreed that we have to get the basics right. Underpinning this is a recognition that basics can be about securing the resilience of systems.
The University is creating lots of research outputs and data. What should we be doing about supporting the life cycle of data?
Dave noted that we’ve made good progress on this, with Bodleian staff bringing great expertise to open scholarship. It’s important that we bring things together rather than introducing something new and additional.
In terms of getting the basics right. I think the first thing to note, is that communications is key. The communications on the Oracle project was/is poor which caused a lot of frustration for people. Will the communications on this initiative be inclusive across the University?
Anne replied that this is certainly the aim. Communications is complex at Oxford – you can think you’re doing a lot, and then you find someone who hasn’t heard about it. It’s absolutely the aim to be inclusive in terms of communications and in terms of engagement. If you feel we’re getting it wrong – either through the nature or amount of our communications – please send me an email so we can address it.
What will be in place to ensure process, skills and technology can, and do, evolve at an aligned pace, stakeholders are available to collaborate at the right time, and there is smooth handover between temporary initiatives and ongoing operations?
Martin acknowledged the problem of introducing new initiatives within education where there isn’t enough of a snagging phase built in to ensure smooth transition, and that this is something we need to learn from.
Whilst Oxford's 'devolved' nature is a great strength...and colleges, divisions and departments have a lot of independence...does there now need to be an acknowledgement that if we're serious about digital transformation, in relation to a more consistent experience across the University, that there is going to have to be much more of a 'one best way' approach that standardises key process and solutions across the collegiate University as a whole (and which ALL parts of the University 'sign-up to')?
Richard agreed that this is an issue, alongside the benefits of Oxford’s devolved structure. We do need a system across the University that is suitable for everybody. That doesn’t preclude some innovative local digital provision – either in scale of processing, storage, or that they integrate with particular groups or systems.
Our big problem will be if people seek solutions that will be entirely independent – not least for cost reasons. Overall though we probably do need more of a common solution approach – this will involve tensions, but if the overall gain is worth it, I hope people will be prepared to accept a joined up approach.
Anne added that it became clear at the student session yesterday that their experience can be awful, with many different systems to contend with.
For getting the basics right, it would be very good to properly consult with colleges, tutors active lecturers and researchers. When is this going to be done with a schedule notification periods that can be easily accommodated by most academics? I'm afraid that this can't be said about the present forum and forthcoming workshops.
Anne noted that there will be more outreach and deep engagement with colleagues in order to get this right.
How will we ensure that the outcomes of projects that improve or provide new services are sustainable? Will there be a commensurate increase in funding to services, whether to central IT Services or to IT support within divisions and departments?
Stuart responded that this points to a disjoint in how we fund IT projects; it’s an ongoing discussion and relates to the current finance white paper under review.
In terms of 'lessons learned', I was under the impression that there was a central IT Services system that included experience from past projects. If that does exist, would this initiative plumb itself into that system and also make it available to people outside of IT Services so there is no reinventing of the wheel?
Stuart confirmed that there is a lessons learned log in IT from previous projects, and that it would be good to share that best practice with other colleagues across the University.
During the pandemic, central IT solutions designed to cope with teaching remotely etc were generally restrictive (understandably in the circumstances)--e.g. not supporting VLE platforms other than 'University-approved'. I-Transform and the DES consultation appear to support innovation in principle.
So would innovation (which is often 'off piste' by definition) be encouraged and supported in practice? How would resources be allocated (cf Richard's question re 'how decisions should be made')?
Rhona noted that having centrally-supported systems in the pandemic that could scale up was very helpful, but it’s not the case that this should be the only solution, and stifle innovation. Ideas include creating spaces and networks for learning about options, and learning from other institutions, to allow innovation to occur.
Martin added that there is a real tension between the student need for a consistency of provision and facilitating local autonomy. We do have a responsibility to provide consistency in our student experience.
David noted his strong support for innovation, while acknowledging that there are reasons why we sometimes need to take a centralised view – such as compliance, and information security.
Rhona added that digital accessibility is something we have a regulatory responsibility for.
Please take into account cost of migration of data, training of users
Anne agreed that this is critical.
Doing consultations during terms is really unhelpful to anyone teaching.
Anne noted that there will be plenty of non-term time engagement with people, and that consultations will need to fit around when people are busy.
I would favour a bottom-up approach
Anne noted that this will be taken through the ideas platform consultation over the next few weeks.