Digital leadership framework

Last year I wrote a quick post proposing a simple way to manage high level discussions about digital. This came from my involvement in digital strategy discussions which often slid across thematic and organisational areas, ending up with a scattering of actions which looked like a troubleshooting list and a desire to ‘get involved’ with new technology. The framework I jotted down simply proposed that discussions should understand their location within three areas: Digital Culture, Digital Medium, Digital Service.

For a recent talk I was asked to give by the Leadership Foundation on Digital Leadership I refined the framework and illustrated it with categories which sit within each area. I started with three headlines which set the context for the framework:

Digital is not the future: An idea the formed the basis of www.futurehappens.org with Peter Bryant

To harness the digital at an institutional level we have to focus on the present and not place digital in that the-next-big-thing-will-save-us category. Clearly we need to keep an eye on the horizon but I know our students would thank us if we prepared them for the digital ‘now’ not an unknown and variously utopian/dystopian imagined future.

The digital and physical coexist – something I’ve written about as ‘coalescent spaces’

I’ve written about this before but in summary – we need to respond to the digital as one part of the ‘real’ world not as a separate entity. Digital and non-digital activities flow in and out of each other.

Digital is too big

It’s an element of almost everything we do and not a viable starting place for a discussion, hence the framework.

Culture – Medium – Service: A digital leadership framework

Clearly the subcategories are not exhaustive and some of the have an Art and Design twist but I hope they show how the main areas differ. What’s interesting is how decisions in one layer effect activities in the others but as institutions we struggle to make these connections. So for example we might install new technology in the service layer but neglect to discuss how this might affect teaching and learning in the Medium layer. We might make bold assertions in the Culture layer but struggle to understand the implications for the Service layer etc. This is why I think the framework is useful, assuming you can get the right mix of people from across the institution involved in discussions. Before I go any further I’ll quickly describe the layers as I see them:

Service

In a digital context this could simply be IT. It’s the layer students are most likely to comment on if asked about ‘digital’ because when most people think of digital they think the technology itself rather than their practices within digital contexts. If this layer isn’t working then the other two don’t stand a chance. There’s not much point in trying to develop a digital identity if the Wifi is down.

Medium

This is where most of our day-to-day activities take place. It’s where the digital has become the location for our work and the place where we connect with each other. This is where the real work of the institution is done, for example, teaching and learning. It’s also the layer which is often least discussed strategically as discussions swing from the need to buy more 3D printers to the risks of Social Media use and not much in between.

Culture

These are the high level principles which inform the character and direction of the institution. As is always the case with culture these are often implicit or assumed to be shared values. So, for example, in my institution we have a culture of creativity and the desire to help students develop their own creative practices. How this is expressed in the digital should be an ongoing negotiation. It’s also of note that emerging practices in the digital and new forms of access/connectedness shift culture or call aspects of it into question.

You could take the framework and use it with a second axis such as scale. So we could take teaching as a subject and consider what is needed in Culture, Medium and Service terms, mapped against Individual, Course and Institution. Or to be more specific we might take a particular question from the National Student Survey in the UK such as “My course is intellectually stimulating” and consider what is required to ensure this within that grid. Or we could map against the student journey of Pre-arrival, Induction, First year, Second Year, Third year etc. These are the kind of discussions I’d like to frame at my own institution to develop a better shared understanding of the digital which cuts across traditional structural areas such as IT, Teaching and Learning and Senior Management.

The framework was well received at the Leadership Foundation event I presented at. I hope it proves to be useful. Thanks to the many colleagues who listened to me as I was formulating the framework and offered useful feedback and advice.

 

What is the value of a library with no content?

This piece was written as an editorial for UKSG, an organisation “connecting the knowledge community and encouraging the exchange of ideas on scholarly communication”.

I don’t work in libraries but I often get invited to speak to groups of library staff about my views on the influence of ‘the digital’ in higher education. My role is teaching and learning focused and I argue that in the digital era academic libraries need to become a home for learning rather than content. Don’t panic, learning necessarily involves content.This is about emphasis, not a dualist polemic on throwing books away and making libraries into wifi flooded barns (those are known as coffee shops).

CC - Scott Library York U - https://www.flickr.com/photos/7883660@N05/466221141
CC – Scott Library York U – https://www.flickr.com/photos/7883660@N05/466221141

Many incoming students are caught in a trap. On the one hand they have been led to believe, sometimes explicitly, that knowledge captured in a physical form such as a book is good quality, or the home of ‘truth’. On the other hand they find much of the information they need for their studies out on the web in a number of different guises. The information they find rarely lets them down but they fear that much of it isn’t academically viable. Often they are right but this commonly has more to do with the strictures of academia than the nature of ‘non-library’ sources.

The trouble stems from our cultural love of certain forms of publishing and expertise over and above the substance of information we discover in any of the many forms it might take. For example, I remember a conversation with a publisher a few years ago in which he got excited about a near future when e-books could include videos, quizzes and be connected to the internet. I didn’t have the heart to point out that what he described was a website because I was pretty sure he wanted to sell ‘books’. . .

The other trap we fall into is confusing academia for learning. For the researcher or the postgrad these territories might naturally flow into one another but for an early-stage undergraduate the mechanisms, rules and culture of academia can often seem strangely abstract and obscure. An early-stage student I interviewed for a research project was struggling with just this when she commented that she had been told not to use Wikipedia because it ‘wasn’t reliable’ even though she had never found that to be the case. Her conclusion was that her institution wanted learning to be ‘difficult’ (but not in a good way).

Access to content ‘beyond’ the library is what’s new here and it’s at the root of these tensions. Unfortunately instead of responding to this new abundance of information by evolving and extending what it means to be a library some prefer to put effort into defending the purity of library content and historic, academic, ways of working as distinct from the web. This isn’t an approach that incoming students readily understand.

Many of our new students have a queasy sense that what Google points them to might not be the ‘best’ sources (without even knowing what ‘best’ means) but don’t yet have the academic tools-of-the-trade to discern or to harness the value of library-based content. Perhaps instead of showing incoming students how to use the library we should first be discussing why they should use the library or any source of information whether we ‘own’ it or not. So this brings me to the title of this editorial because rather than getting caught up in a discussion about the relative merits of digital and physical sources I prefer to ask, “What is the value of a library with no content?”. The simple answer is “expertise”.

In this era of information abundance what students desperately need is guidance not more content. A librarian should be an expert at navigating content, not owning it, and by extension they should be adept at helping students to navigate. This process is fundamentally a form of teaching which positions the library as directly responsible for learning rather than a ‘service’ one step removed from the pedagogical activities of the curriculum.

In addition to supporting what it takes to gain a qualification, a focus on learning, rather than content, is also required to foster digital capabilities which support what Leo Appleton described in an earlier editorial as ‘digital citizenship’. Here there is a clear opportunity to enrich students’ sense of self and empower them to influence the environments they find themselves in rather than simply working at becoming as employable as possible.

There are a number of challenges involved in moving any library towards this emphasis on learning:

  • there is inherently a huge amount of process based work in keeping a library running, leaving little time to help students navigate
  • it’s difficult to form meaningful teaching and learning based partnerships with academic staff are who are often too busy to engage beyond handing over reading lists
  • things have changed rapidly and many people chose to work in libraries because they like to commune with content and prefer strictly defined ways of connecting with users
  • libraries are not always in the habit of making the their staff visible to students as experts (see previous point)
  • current roles and responsibilities don’t necessarily reflect the emerging forms of engagement (off and online) that libraries now need to foster

Forgive me, this is my view from ‘outside’ the library and is somewhat reductionist but possibly not unrecognisable? On the positive side I see academic libraries as having the flexibility to continue to adapt within an expansionist higher education sector. Some of the most vibrant thinking around ‘what it means to learn and to produce knowledge’ in the digital era has been nurtured by libraries.

There is pressure on curriculum to respond to a growing set of policies and external measures which risks dehumanising the core of what students experience. Given this it’s crucial that libraries present opportunities to engage with expertise in a friendly and person-centric manner. In a time where students can Google their way to almost any ‘answer’, access to content has become less important than access to people who understand what that content means and where to head next.

Visitors & Residents – navigate the mapping

Myself, Donna Lanclos and Lawrie Phipps are delighted to release a facilitators guide and slides for running the Visitors and Residents mapping activities (a workshop format for reflecting on, and responding to, various forms of digital engagement). These resources were developed for the Jisc Digital Leaders Programme but can be edited and adapted for different audiences. For example, a version of the individual mapping activity could be run with Students and/or teaching staff while the group mapping activity could be adapted for course teams. This post from James Clay is a good example of how the mapping can be adapted.


‘Vanilla’ version of the slides with detailed notes – designed to be edited and adapted. 

The thinking captured in these resources has been developed over a few years and refined each time we have running the mapping activity. If you have experience of running workshops then the resources should give you what you need to facilitate a mapping session.

I was once told that you had to be “Dave White” to run the discussion parts of the workshop so there is a large section in the guide which highlights themes arising from individuals maps that have been recurrent across workshops and how they can be constructively discussed. If I’m honest then the only mapping sessions that have proved challenging to run have been those with educationalists (if that’s the right term). They tend to enjoy deconstructing the principle of Visitors and Residents and the nature of the mapping rather than doing the mapping itself. I enjoy those discussions and have found them helpful in developing the work but time is limited in any workshop and sometimes you have to encourage people to get started on an activity and then discuss it’s pros and cons.

One of the strengths of the workshop format is that it is not attempting to cajole participants towards a specific set of responses:

This workshop will not hand any participant a bullet list of things to do. The intention is not to build skill sets, but to provide a space from which intentions and objectives around institutional policies can emerge. The list of things to do next will necessarily emerge from the participants, not be given by the facilitators.”

This did vex someone who asked me “what do people learn in the workshop?”, to which I replied “It depends on who they are and what direction they want to take things”. In this sense the workshop format is completely in keeping with the designers pedagogical philosophy of providing the conditions for reflection and strategic thinking without being perspective about the ‘right’ way to do things.

If you do run a Visitors and Residents mapping workshop then (if you feel moved) please let us know by using the #VandR tag in Twitter.

Digital as… Culture, Medium, Service

As “The Digital” becomes a headline theme in many institutions I have been thinking about ways in which it can usefully be split into high-level areas so that various lines of activity and discussion don’t become confused. For my institution, the University of the Arts, I’m proposing the following three areas which I believe map quite well to existing groups/units/services within the university (although there are healthy overlaps). I was tempted to neaten this into a nice diagram but thought it was better to capture it before succumbing to the desire to squeeze out the blurry edges. The result is three key areas:

Digital – Culture

A set of spaces and behaviours
  • “Resident” online behaviours – co-presence
  • Teaching and learning
  • ‘Open’ scholarship and research
  • Identity and visibility
  • Discursive – collaborative – communal

Digital – Medium

A set of techniques and practices
  • Digital as a medium for expression and critique
  • Digital ‘making’
  • Design – graphic, fashion, architecture etc
  • Video, photography – ‘native’ practices
  • Digital in the context of the disciplines
  • Both “Resident” and “Visitor” modes

Digital – Service

A set of tools and transactions
  • “Visitor” modes online – leaves no social trace
  • Infrastructure
  • Access – connectivity
  • Information
  • Storage – curation
  • Entertainment
  • Commerce

I’ve arrived at these three areas by bringing together the perspectives of colleagues who are invested in differing aspects of the digital. So it’s a group effort with a modicum of ‘clustering’ added by me.

Overarching these areas for me are two principles which I believe should be fundamental to all of our digital activities:

  1. How does the activity proposed foster belonging?
  2. How does the activity proposed reduce anxiety?

Both of those could be condensed into “increase confidence” and both of them apply to students *and* staff. Obviously there are many nuances hiding in these principles, such as the idea that good pedagogy will often require all involved to take risks. Having said that, I feel that anxiety is now a default state and we need to reduce ‘bad’ anxiety before we can be constructive with risk taking.