We Can be Better Than This. Part 3

I keep returning to this theme, but since I have a role in academic enhancement, and specifically to look at ways of improving the attainment of individual students, with the resultant impact this should have on institutional success, then it’s really key for me.

Firstly, we now moving into the league table season (ignoring the THE World Rankings, as like most chippy northerners in million+  we don’t trouble them too much). The data is all in and is being counted and manipulated by the various compilers. Looking at some of the data through Heidi, then some of the work we did last year seems to be paying dividends. The next step really would be to be able to model all of the parameters used in the various tables, and develop some predictive tools, which will allow us to target specific areas, either academic subjects, or aspects of finance or staffing..

Secondly, we need to reinforce this message of student attainment and institutional success across our institution. I’ve given talks and presentations  on league tables and student attainment to 10 out of our 12 schools, where we look at how the input of academic practice impacts on league table performance,.I always ask where in a league table do we think we should be. The answer has never been lower than 70th. This is a huge strength we can tap into – we have a university plan that clearly states our ambition in this area, and we have huge numbers of staff who believe we can be there! We should not underestimate what a powerful engine for change this can be, if harnessed properly. To help reinforce the message, then this years Staff Fest Learning and Teaching Conference is on 1st July, and is all about student success. This is an area that everyone should be engaged in. A success for me will be if there are too many attendees for us to fit into the lecture theatre – take that as a challenge!

Thirdly, we could look again at some of the messages Gordon Tredgold proposed in his recent leadership workshop on FAST (focus, accountable, simple, transparent). Linking this to work on improving student and institutional success  means cutting through complex action plans, strategies, pilots projects etc and making a simple statement – “we want to be a top 50 university”, and then making sure our actions all relate to that, for instance:

  • focus on student success to improve degrees outcomes and help individual students to attain their goals;
  • recruit the best students possible – this might be a virtuous circle if we move up a league table
  • improve employability of our students mainly by making sure they get good degrees and ensuring our graduate attributes have a real impact
  • make sure we make favourable data returns
  • ensure we investigate and provide remedies for the outliers in the data (as always there are some)
  • develop an aspirational portfolio of undergraduate and postgraduate awards – top universities teach certain subjects
  • use portfolio perform ace measures to decide the shape of the portfolio, not just market information

We’re at an interesting time – the changing rules on student number controls, possible future changes in fee caps, consolidation of our campuses, changes in technology and estate redevelopments mean that now should be the time to have a clear focus and simple target.


After all, as Lou Reed sang, you’re going to reap just what you sow.

Hacking the University

Student as Producer

“Hacking the University” was the title of a talk I went to at #digifest14, by Joss Winn of University of Lincoln, which covered among other things the idea of “Student as Producer”, originally envisaged for Lincoln by Mike Neary. This came out of an HEA funded project, but has now become the Learning and Teaching Plan for the university – concise, simple and understandable.

Joss talked about the role of a university and reflected on how in the 19th century, research and teaching were combined together, but that since then the two had drifted apart, and n some cases a forced binary divide created.

With the new teaching and learning plan, all new validations had to show how the idea of student as producer was being embedded. This was therefore happening slowly, rather than as a big bang approach, but it was suggested that the ideas were clealry manifest in the curriculum. This was then a low burn approach but Joss suggested there was a lot of lots of senior engagement through conferences etc. The fact that Lincoln were given lot of publicity through HEA also mean that they were being watched which gave everyone encouragement to keep going.

So what did this have to do with hacking the university? Well simply put, this was a new set of ideas that gained traction and had impact across the institution. The question is how far this can be taken, and whether there are other ways of challenging and changing a university.

Can we hack our university?

In any large organisation, it’s easy for innovation to be stifled, or worse, for it to become a paper exercise where success is measured in the production of a paper for academic board or senate, a policy document, or a set of guidelines (actually this list could go on and on).

Is there another way of creating and supporting a drive for innovation, such as the skunkworks idea? A place where innovators, creative thinkers can be brought together free from the constraints of discipline?


So here’s three ideas which sort of link to what we say we are doing in our various strategies, but might be another way of seeing some output and impact more quickly.

1.  As previously written in these pages, the digital future is going to be so much bigger than the digital past. But how does a university address this issue? Is it something to have a locus in an IT services department? In an education development unit? In a business planning and forecasting group? How do we harness the existing knowledge and horizon scanning within a set of constraints that do not reflect what the future will hold? I’m going to be working with a couple of key people to identify some kind of digital manifesto for us

2.  Working with the students as producers idea, we also need to encourage further the idea of teachers as producers. Academic staff who are research active in the traditional way can easily publish. In a teaching led organisation though, we need to consider a broader range of scholarship and outputs. We’ve gone some way towards this but can we make another step change?

Everyone has 22 days of self managed scholarly activity,and we are working to  make sure we see outputs from this. One way we could support people could be to use our university blogging tools more creatively, in the way that the LSE do. We could create easy forums for staff to present and share their ideas.

3.  And finally. Well,  I’m not sharing my final idea for hacking the university, but here’s a challenge. If we want to encourage student co-production of learning, and encourage staff scholarly outputs, then we in management and leadership roles could set  a different example.

I write this blog and talk at external events, so my challenge is this – for everyone on my weekly email list to produce a guest article for this blog. 500 words on a topic relating to HE policy, digital futures, university developments – it should be easy!


#digifest14 – What happens next?

The closing speech at #digifest14 was by Ray Hammond, a self-styled futurologist. These are my notes, more details can be found on the Jisc website.


Hammond suggests that we have no language for the future, that the lack of language may inhibit our thinking, for instance the idea of a “mobile phone” does not begin to describe what such a device does today. It is also not useful in explaining future of where the device is going and blinkers us to what it might become. Lack of language makes it difficult for us when new technology arrives. We might have a word but no shared mental model. How can we best exploit a technology? What are downsides?  A lack of common language means we cannot understand implications

Today our lives are mediated by technology. Future of education will be shaped by technology but does not take away human component. For instance we are now building an “always on” network. Form of connectiveness that can’t be described easily, so what is this digitally connected place?

Hammond proposed 6 drivers of change

1. In our students’ lifetime there will asymmetric population growth. Most in sub Saharan Africa. Another 50% of people will need fresh water and food.

2. Continuing climate change.

3. Ongoing energy crisis. Because of population  growth and greenhouse effect. Need cleaner and more sustainable energy when demand could increase by 100%

4. Continuing modem globalisation. Truth lies between between 2 poles of viewing globalisation as evil or as an opportunity for unfettered capitalism. Globalisation if ethical and sustainable is greatest force for good.

5. Triple medical science revolutions: DNA decoding and profiling; stem cell medicine and nano scale medicine, eg drug delivery. This could lead to personalised medicine, and increasing lifespans for those in the rich world and who could afford. Who wants to live forever?

6. Accelerating exponentially technology development. Causes dislocation and problems with understanding. For example,  kids who  want to build apps. 6 years ago they didn’t exist! (or at least the term didn’t).  What will we be talking about in 5 years?


I’m not sure these ideas were revolutionary – I remember having conversations in the 1980s about teh challenges of population growth and food and water security.

But there is no denying, the rate of technology change is accelerating in a non linear manner.

4 years ago no-one had an iPad, and no-one could have described how they might use one. To find out how long iPads have been around, I spoke to my iPad, and Siri told me the answer.


At this conference nearly everyone was using a mobile keyboard-less, wireless device to take notes, photographs, share messages, collaborate, engage in debate, contribute, check references, read, listen, etc.

Here’s my prediction. In 10 years we won’t be carrying a recognisable tablet computer. If I knew what we would be using, I’d be working somewhere else.

So what does this all mean for us in higher education?

A later blog post will return to the ideas of #digifest14, and try to create a manifesto for change for a university, which considers all the disparate developments in a digital world: in business intelligence; in learning and teaching; in the ideas of hackerspace and skunkworks; in responding to changing student needs and expectations; changed student populations; in changing staff abilities and identities and finding a way of encompassing this at the heart of an organisation

I’ll tell you something else about this future – it’s a going to be lot more than buying and installing a few new components for a VLE or a student information system.

Hang on, it’s going to be a fun ride.

Leadership – should you be like Cnut?

After Gordon Tredgold’s talk at the University recently, I have been struck by the number of colleagues who attended, who have really enagaed with his approach, FAST – focus, accountable, simple and transparent. it’s great to be working with people who taken this on board and there have been lots of comments and conversations on Twitter and a lot of follow-up activity. So here’s my contribution – lead like Cnut.

Cnut_the_Great_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VI(from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cnut_the_Great_-_MS_Royal_14_B_VI.jpg)



Cnut (also known as Canute) was a king of England in 1016 and King of Denmark in 1018 If history had been slightly different he could have laid the foundations of a major English – Scandinavian alliance, but for his sons dying early and those pesky Normans invading England.

Wikipedia states:

Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th-century chronicler, tells how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet “continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again “to the honour of God the almighty King”.[95] This incident is usually misrepresented by popular commentators and politicians as an example of Cnut’s arrogance.


If I chose to willfully misunderstand the story or myth, I’d be writing to say that as leaders we can operate in such a way that ignores the environment in which we are in, and blithely carry on, thinking that we know better. Some of the big challenges that face all universities are: the neo-liberal funding regime; the current debate on immigration; the changes in technology for learning and teaching; the accessibility of open data to make judgments about institutions by students and other stakeholder and the rising tide of social media that cannot be stopped but must be harnessed, to name but a few..

But to represent Cnut correctly, he is aware of the ” tide in the affairs of men”, and recognises he has to respond, and sharpish.

Leadership is being able to recognise those tides, the changes and the challenges “which taken at the flood, lead on to fortune”.

Linking this back to Gordon –

Can we identify exactly what our focus should be in a rapidly changing environment? Cnut knew – it was to recognise the greater forces around him and to respond quickly.

Leaders need to hold themselves accountable. Cnut knew he had to take responsibility and get out of the way, but more importantly he had to show his courtiers, his team, that he was able to move and make a change in response to his environment..

Can we make our message about how we are dealing with complex changes, simple and easy to understand? Cnut made his point, but his legacy is of being misunderstood – maybe he needed to do a bit more on the messaging front.

Are we being transparent about what we are doing?  If we are focused on the right things, people will become more motivated, especially if we can ensure that the attractiveness of success is greater than the resistance to change. Resistance to change for Cnut meant getting wet feet. Cnut wanted his team to focus on moving quickly from the incoming tide and  to show that we need to respond to our environment.

I’m fully aware of the running joke in this piece – it’s deliberate. You’ll remember it better this way.