Why people power is the key to successful innovation

Digital transformation remains a hot talking point worldwide, especially in light of current circumstances. But what affect does this have on teaching staff? Jisc’s Chris Thomson, subject specialist in digital practice, explains

Digital transformation, though a very broad term, can in some cases be considered a misnomer.

Many of the challenges and changes that come with it are in fact very much on a human level, with technology playing only an incidental role. As well as students being impacted by digital transformation, it is often staff that are put under increasing pressures and demands.

This was true even before the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19), but the rapid response by the education sector to move teaching and learning online has thrown this issue into sharp relief.

Why might digital transformation affect staff?

One of the biggest ways that digital transformation journeys impact teaching staff is by changing working practices at their core. For example, encouraging technical and pedagogical innovation can in turn affect fundamental processes, so you’re talking about major change.

This doesn’t just mean asking educators to use new digital systems, which brings its own set of challenges, but wider transformation that means the very way they teach may need to change. This can include methods such as blended learning, flipped learning and more interactive classes, rather than the traditional didactic model of one teacher standing up in front of the class.

If you’re leading that sort of change, you need to be aware of the context in which people are operating. This includes any stresses and strains they may already be under, including tight budgets, or precarious employment. These things will affect staff psychologically, and that will in turn impact the ways in which they engage with the transformation.

Naturally, teachers want to prioritise teaching, and are often measured on student attainment. Changes to organisational strategy and operations can distract from teaching, which can be disheartening and a tough balancing act too, considering their workloads.

Identity politics

Challenging existing processes can also introduce an element of vulnerability for educators. We work in a sector where the idea of expertise is paramount. So if educators are in situations where they are expected to do things that are outside of their comfort zone, such as using unfamiliar digital technology, their concerns need to be considered, and treated carefully. Any kind of change can be stressful, but is particularly acute when it’s a challenge to someone’s professional identity.


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Donna Lanclos, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, who was instrumental in developing our digital leaders programme, has worked on the introduction of new kinds of learning spaces. Where technology is introduced into the design of the room, and layout is changed to facilitate collaboration and increase project-based working, the change in space has really affected the dynamic between staff and students. For instance, educators who perhaps aren’t as au fait with digital technology are suddenly less experienced than learners and are having to concede a certain level of authority. The important thing here is not necessarily how to work these new systems, but how to effectively manage new relationships.

Making it work

There is an approach in corporate training developed by Cathy Moore, called action mapping, which breaks down change into manageable steps to facilitate implementation. The first two steps are key in terms of digital transformation in education:

1. Identify the business goal

2. Identify what people need to do to reach that goal, and why they aren’t already doing it

Step two is particularly pivotal here – if staff aren’t already working a certain way, there will be reasons for that. There are often situations where staff are resistant to new ways of working, and it’s important to understand these reasons and determine which are related to knowledge and skills, which are related to motivation, and which are related to elements outside of their control – i.e. their context. It’s also important to remember that people don’t react this way to be difficult, they’re usually trying to protect something. This comes back to educators prioritising their students and their professional identity, and not wanting to jeopardise them.

Leading from the top

It’s also essential for leaders to model the kinds of behaviour they want to see from their staff. If you’re leading a digital transformation, you need to think about what parts of the new practice might appeal to different people, and then work with them to find ways to balance their existing priorities with new ways of working. As a leader, you need to show you are listening to staff, and that you’re willing to work collaboratively, rather than just mandating change from afar. Your staff are the real agents of change, so it’s essential to work with them rather than against them.

The motivation to do something, or indeed not to do something, is really complicated, and shouldn’t be dismissed. After all, how people feel about the way change is happening will determine whether your transformation will stick.

Digital infrastructure is currently taking centre stage as many organisations are moving their teaching online as part of coronavirus precautions. Find our advice and guidance for members on our dedicated page here.

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