Many elements of higher education demonstrate an incredible willingness to embrace technology and be part of the digital age. Teaching, especially, has shown enormous advances in the use of groundbreaking technology, whether that’s lecturers using Screencast to record and enhance their lectures or the PebblePad electronic e-portfolio system used at the University of Wolverhampton’s to increase support for students and enhance learning.
Yet, other areas remain resolutely locked in an analogue era, unable or unwilling to update practices according to market forces. Look behind the scenes in many universities across the UK, and one might see operations that have not progressed much in decades, with archaic filing systems, inefficient processes and a lack of the technological tools that have so enhanced the business world and areas of the public sector.
What is behind such an apparently old-fashioned approach, and which areas of HE could most benefit from embracing digitisation more fully?
A lack of digitisation
First and foremost, there is an issue of expertise and resource. Digitisation can feel like a big change for any organisation, and a university may feel it lacks the budget and the internal know-how to even get started. Risk aversion is another factor to consider. People stick to the ‘tried and tested’ and can bury their head in the sand when it comes to new approaches.
Involving those with more understanding of technology can help bring others into the digital age
One way of addressing this is to include younger, more digitally savvy employees on certain operational groups. Involving those with more understanding of technology can help bring others into the digital age. It can also be productive to look to your peers and see how they are deploying digital technology.
Finally, it is unrealistic to expect a university to embark on an organisation-wide programme of digitisation. Doing too much, too soon, will put people off and could stop a digital project in its tracks before it has had much chance to progress. Identify one particular area of inefficiency within the university, that would really benefit the most from a digital approach, and begin there.
HE meetings – stuck in the 20th century?
One such area is meetings, which still follow pretty much the same process they have always done. They can take too long, they frequently lack focus, attendees don’t always have the required information with them, no-one can remember the action points from the previous meeting… the list of faults could go on and on.
A typical university will have many meetings, depending on the structure of that particular university. It will usually involve three levels of governance bodies before you even get to faculty meetings, health & safety and other operational committees. While there is a legal requirement for many of the meetings, and an operational necessity for others, there can be little doubt amongst those that have attended any of these that they could be managed better. In worst case scenarios, poorly managed meetings can feel like a blight on the working lives of those involved, often coming at the end of a working day, when time is precious and highly valued.
The whole process, from planning and preparation of materials to attending and disseminating of information in the meetings, is flawed and unsuited to the demands of modern higher education. eShare conducted research in 2016 that revealed that, on average, office workers spend around nine hours each week, preparing for and attending meetings. This is an unnecessary drain on the time of administrators, lecturers, governors and trustees alike and is something that could and should be addressed by smarter use of technology.
Application of technology
Universities, irrespective of country or location, face many of the same operational challenges. Accessing the right information is of huge importance to a board of governors, a number of which will come from different organisations and be based at different locations. So, meetings are an area within a university that is primed for digitisation.
No one needs reams of paper, so any meeting materials should all be accessible via tablet or smartphone, so people can read through in advance, rather than carrying sheets of paper everywhere with them. Printing out agendas and meeting materials is not only costly, but it takes valuable time for support staff to prepare and print everything, especially for a meeting with lots of attendees.
Online meeting tools allow attendees to collaborate and annotate documents during the meeting itself. Furthermore, actions can be easily agreed and captured so you don’t have to rely on an attendee’s faulty memory to refer to what was discussed. This means users can be more transparent in all elements of meeting administration and universities can benefit from the improvement in information flow that aids decision-making, as well as better collaboration and a smoother overall meeting process.
This is just one example of how digitisation can improve operations within a university, and there are many others that could be just as impactful. Universities have been innovative in their use of technology for teaching and it is high time that approach was taken for the operational side of higher education too.
Alister Esam is CEO of eShare, providers of BoardPacks and MeetingSquared