Digifest18: Highlighting digital opportunities for educational institutions

Despite the potential of bad weather induced non-running trains and cancelled planes, Scott Connor and Ann Tilbury made it to Digifest18 – billed as “a unique opportunity to see, hear and share the latest thinking to inspire and prepare for the digital challenge ahead”. Held in Birmingham’s International Conference Centre, the event was opened by a joint performance by Royal College of Music and Edinburgh Napier – Digifest 2018 LOLA Opener – demonstrating the power of LOLA and the Janet Network. Celebrating how technology can move the bar!

Our successful application to present at Digifest18 was a fantastic opportunity not only to present our current work on personalised learning but also to hear about current thinking and approaches on the digital issues facing the sector. The conference highlighted real opportunities for educational institutions to develop innovative and effective approach to digital capabilities.

There was a packed programme, and with only two of us we aimed to attend as many sessions as possible. We have reviewed our notes, put our heads together and produced this short blog on our experience and impressions of Digifest18.

Digital transformation

How are HE and FE approaching digital capabilities

In 20 years 90% of jobs will require digital skills, therefore universities need to be preparing staff and students for this now. A range of universities shared their experiences of the challenges and approaches in transforming their institutions and building organisational digital capabilities. Among the key challenges identified were:

  • Lack of governance;
  • Changing attitudes to trial and failure;
  • Building capacity across the institution for all roles;
  • Embedding innovation into practice.

Potential solutions

University of Northampton

Professor Alejandro Armellini presented the University of Northampton’s large-scale pedagogic transformation to Active Blended Learning (ABL) evidence based. Their radical approach included dramatic reduction and reconfiguration of their real estate. With the removal of offices for staff; and the replacement of large lecture theatres with small classroom.

Active Blended Learning at University of Northampton
Simplified statement of intent – University of Northampton

The curriculum saw a redesign of 96% of their modules. Key to this was an acknowledgement of the current state of curriculum delivery, a deliberate and explicit direction of travel, and a simplified statement of intent.

Leicester University

Some institutions are putting a lot of resource to upskilling staff, for example Leicester university piloted with a team of 6 and a budget of £400,000 and now have plans to upscale with a new £2M – £2.5M budget. They put a lot of their success down to their digital champion and deputy pro-vice chancellor, associate professor Ross Parry, a renowned proponent of digital transformation in education.

Key features of successful approaches to embedding digital strategies

  • Strategic priority putting digital at its core;
  • Buy in from senior staff within an institution;
  • Compelling vision – University of Leicester’s Strong visual metaphor;
  • Senior staff leading by example;
  • Culture; policies and infrastructure support
  • Digital drivers creating a sense of urgency;
  • Alignment with HR strategies;
  • Creating relevant culture and vision;
  • Investment in staff skills to support digital transformation
  • Providing staff and students with time and space to learn new digital skills and build confidence;
  • JISC digital discovery tool – role profiles – 8 e.g. teachers- self-reflective tool
  • Setting up a disruptive media lab – experiment and fail
  • Create user profiles and allocate skills to these profiles – building capacity

Digital leadership

Digital leadership was another recurring theme across the two days – what it was; what it looked like; and the effects on digital transformation. The panel were members (Kerry Pinny, University of Warwick; Jason Boucher, North Lindsey College; Liza Zamboglou, Queens University Belfast; had one experience in common – they had all undertaken the Jisc Digital Leaders course at some point in the past. They were accompanied by Lawrie Phipps; Sarah Davies and Shri Footring from Jisc who were also keen to promote the next Digital Leaders programme to be held somewhere in Scotland as yet to be confirmed.

Defining digital leadership presentation

We heard how the programme had had a positive impact for participants and their institution. Through panel discussion, a number of aspects of digital leadership emerged. Key among these were:

  • Clear and strategic vision – distilled if possible into a short set of key points;
  • Define what success will look like – although it may not be the same for each faculty or department – one size will not fit all
  • Existence of other drivers – for example Queens University Belfast used the replacement of their virtual learning environment to scaffold digital capability drivers upon;
  • Digital champions, who model the behaviours around digital capabilities, are essential;
  • Use of the Jisc digital capability framework was increasingly used by higher and further educational institutions to “support discussions and build consensus about the capabilities required in a digital organisation” (Jisc 2015:1)

When it came to putting it all into practice digital leadership sounded a lot like any other kind of leadership. The panel members shared their experiences and pointed to the importance of changing behaviours to support the development of individual and institutional capabilities. The talked about starting small; incremental change over time and exploring integrated approaches which brought people to the table early on in the implementation stages. Jisc’s Sarah Knight summed up the panel discussion in her comment that “digital” has the potential to change organisations and digital leaders have the potential to lead this organisational change.

Personalisation of learning

Personalisation was a recurring theme at the conference and was discussed in relation to learning pathways; JISC’s Digital capacity toolkit; online dashboards and of course our very own session – Personalised Learning: Are you ready? Our whistle-stop presentation (in the Lightening Talks category) gave an overview of the self diagnostic tool currently under development within the EDU, for teaching staff to assess their abilities prior to becoming a writer on an EDU project. Our challenges strongly resonated with delegates experiences of learners (limited time to devote to learning; competing demands; difficulties in gauging / benchmarking ability levels).

Audience attending the Personalised Learning: Are you ready? presentation by Scott and Ann

Data analytics

Data analytics was the most recurring theme of the presentations at the conference – and the majority of vendors in the main conference hall. Every presentation highlighted the potential of data not only to measure performance and to encourage debate about what we do and how we do it. However many of the presentations went beyond this premise and advocated the power of data to inform policy and define institutional strategic direction.

How data can inform strategy presented by participants of Jisc’s Analytics Lab discussed dynamic data-derived dashboard portfolio service and highlighted the varied applications across their business functions.   HEIDI Plus “enables Higher Education Institutions to interrogate HESA data in depth and produce striking graphics, maps and visualisations. The ability to provide data in a format which supports and informs effective decision making was seen as a key benefit for participating institutions.

Access to data from other institutions was considered a key benefit for those institutions wishing to evaluate “what the competition was doing”. The Jisc presenters were particularly keen to highlight the growing interest in the data analytics at senior levels in institutions – they noted that five years ago no senior staff were accessing the HEIDI Plus data and now, five years later, they were the heaviest users of the data. In Jisc’s view, the use of data to not only influence by drive university strategy was likely to be a significant trend in the near future.

The potential of HEIDI Plus was clearly significant. The flexibility of the platform produced dynamic data which could support reporting and analysis in areas such as future careers mapping and research productivity. The presenters highlighted the potential the platform provided institutions with – it could be used to breaking down silos, produce a common language across disparate institutional departments, faculties, and schools and provide the momentum to collaborate across these disparate teams through a sharing and understanding of the data produced from HEIDI Plus.

In a separate presentation University College London’s Professor Rose Luckin discussed and explored EDUCATE – “a unique project bringing together entrepreneurs and innovators, with academics, researchers and educators, to deliver world-class EdTech products and services”. Her thought-provoking talk on Putting the learner at the centre – how people, processes and technology can help learners chart a path through their educational experiences. One particularly interesting aspect of her presentation was the potential of Artificial Intelligence to analyse data which would allow human intelligence to make the best use of the analysis AI produced. Professor Luckin highlighted a number of successful collaborations between academia; research and EdTech including:

  • Mathigon – adaptive mathematical learning
  • TuringLab – preparing digital learners of the future
  • CENTURY Tech – adaptive learning and assessment
  • Inspiral – developing global competencies

Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) presentation by Preston College


  • Steve Smith, learning outside the classroom manager, Preston College
  • Alison Humphreys, head of quality, Preston College
  • Frank McHale, e-learning developer, Preston College


A major theme of the conference was AR/VR. There were a couple of really good sessions on creating AR/VR artefacts for use in learning and teaching. Particularly interesting was the presentation given by the team from Preston College. Preston College had aspirations to introduce AR/VR into their curriculum but on investigation discovered that it was far too expensive. Having bought into expensive systems before and found themselves locked into proprietary products they were reluctant to invest large sums of money. At this point they enlisted the help of Matt Ramirez from Microsoft who introduced them to AR/VR on a budget. In the space of just 6 months they have gone from no AR/VR to being well equipped and skilled. What surprised them was the relative cheapness and ease with which this could be achieved. Assuming you already have an iPad all that is required is:

  • iPad structure sensor – attaches to iPad for 3D scanning in of artefacts
  • Samsung Gear 360 camera – sits in the middle of action and creates a 360 environment.
Equipment for AR / VR on a budget

Together these two pieces of equipment cost around £600 and getting to grips with them takes about an hour, subsequent roll out training takes about 30 minutes.

Hosting of the 3D images was achieved using Sketchfab and the images can be annotated with hotspots using Thinglink and viewed using a standard monitor or on Google Glasses for a fully immersive experience.

Factors contributing to success

  • Structured CPD
  • Creation of a learning lab – with on hand, just-in-time support
  • Staff encouraged to take risks
  • Present not as a gimmick but demonstrate use in pedagogy
  • Do the groundwork
  • Show how easy it is to get started

Applications of this technology

  • 360 assessment and feedback in performing arts or practical subjects
  • creation of virtual tours
  • creation of artefacts, especially those that are not normally allowed to be moved or touched
  • Avatars
  • Design of products
  • Tutor in your pocket style instruction for work placement students – instruction on practical subjects

Range of possible software tools

Range of possible tools

Other technology

Meta 2 headset – https://meta-eu.myshopify.com/

Google Cardboard – https://vr.google.com/cardboard/

And finally … the caveats

  • Does not work well in IE, better in Chrome atm
  • 360 footage still better than video in the VLE (Canvas) but Canvas are looking for a solution. May be different in Blackboard
  • YouTube app works perfectly
  • Choose and test platforms
  • Samsung 360 is a fisheye, make sure you position people close to it to avoid distortion
  • Health and Safety – Headsets can become heavy and consider spaces when using headsets…empty room, nothing to trip over
  • Remove the handle on the 360 tripod before filming or it appears in the video/images

Scott Connor & Ann Tilbury

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