Understanding digital in the context of a university

The term ‘digital’ is ubiquitous and has become a part of our everyday vocabulary – the digital revolution has impacted every aspect of our lives. And universities are no exception, digital transformation has brought significant change to the way we learn, teach, conduct research and work.

So, what does ‘digital’ mean in the context of a university? Rhiannon Davies, our Deputy Director of Digital Experience, shares her thoughts.

In higher education, as with every other sector, there is no one ‘right’ answer to this question. Most people understand digital as referring to the use of technology to enhance efficiency and experiences, with universities tending to focus on the learning experience, streamlining administrative processes, and facilitating research.

Here in the Digital Experience (DX) team we take a human-centred approach:
“Digital is applying the culture, practices, processes and technology of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations”
(Tom Loosemore, co-founder of the UK’s Government Digital Service),

Or to paraphrase, it’s not just about the technology and tools you use – it’s also (and I would argue, more importantly) about how you work to define and deliver the problems and solutions in a ‘digital’ world.

We can break down how universities are leveraging digital to achieve these goals:

Digital for students

  1. Digital Administration – using technology to streamline admin tasks. Digital administration not only saves time and resources, but it also allows universities to provide a more efficient and seamless experience for their students.
  2. Digital Services (aka Student Experience and Success) – various services through digital channels, for example accessing health services. Digital services allow universities to provide students with access to resources and support regardless of their location or schedule, or ideally their background or individual needs.
  3. Digital Learning (‘e-learning’) – using technology to deliver educational content. Digital learning has become increasingly popular in universities as it allows for greater flexibility in terms of when and where students can access educational content. It also provides students with personalised learning experiences, as they can learn at their own pace and focus on areas where they need more support.

To understand more about digital for students, we recommend reading Great State’s excellent Digital Experience in Higher Education report.

Digital for colleagues

  1. Digital Employee Experience (DEX) – not just how employees experience the technology, but how the University works to support them in completing tasks like requesting annual leave.
  2. Digital Research – the use of digital tools and technologies to conduct research. Digital research has revolutionised the way we conduct research, making it easier and more efficient to collect, analyse, and share data. It has also opened up new avenues for collaboration, allowing researchers from different parts of the world to work together on projects.
  3. Digital Leadership – supporting senior University leaders to be more agile, responsive, and collaborative, enabling them to make better decisions and drive innovation.

For reputation and brand

  1. Digital Marketing and Communications – the use of digital channels such as social media, email, and websites to promote a university’s brand, courses, events and other activities. Digital marketing allows universities to reach a wider audience, engage with prospective students in a more personalised and targeted way, and provides insights into effectiveness.
  2. Digital Social Responsibility and Development – the use of digital platforms to raise funds and awareness for charitable causes, civic and social responsibility activities.
A student looking at their laptop screen in an accommodation room on campus
A University of Bristol student studying on their laptop at their accommodation in Goldney Hall.

How Digital Experience (DX) connects and enables

Digital Experience (DX) refers to the overall experience that ‘users’ – whether they are students, faculty, colleagues, policy makers, or Bristol residents – have when interacting with the university digital channels. This can include everything from the ease of use of digital services (such as finding out when the library is open, or applying for research funding), to the quality of the online learning experience, or applying for a job.

A positive digital experience can help to improve engagement and satisfaction among students, faculty, and staff. And good experiences lead to improvements in reputation and brand.

Realistically, this experience is delivered by a huge network of colleagues across the university, from the Digital Education team, to Digital Campus, to Research IT Services and Marketing teams – all doing a brilliant job of delivering against their stakeholders’ often very ambitious goals.

As a relatively small team (there are currently 14 of us in post in the Digital  Experience team, with four more roles coming online shortly – so keep an eye on our job listings!), with an even smaller budget, our focus has to be on developing enabling frameworks and the best, scalable solutions and services if we’re going to make a dent in the quality and experience across the university’s enormous digital estate – our current estimate is that there are 400k pages of content across all websites and apps!

Alongside delivering key projects, we’re always taking every opportunity to develop the university’s capability in key areas, such as:

  • Understanding and serving our users
  • Digital design and brand consistency
  • Web content management and strategy
  • Developing scalable digital solutions
  • Managing and using the best technology

Digital has transformed the way we learn, teach, conduct research, market, lead, give back to society, deliver services, and experience university life! And, whatever context you approach it from, will continue to play a crucial role in the future of Higher Education institutions.

As such, it is essential for universities to embrace digital culture, practices, processes and technology, and use them to their fullest potential to provide the best possible experience, and make a positive impact on society.

What does ‘digital’ mean to you, in a higher education context?
Leave a comment below, or you can email me at rhiannon.davies@bristol.ac.uk with your thoughts.

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