Girls under trees

Because universities are more than just girls under trees

I’ve started working with a university again. This week the team I’m working with were introduced to the university’s new Head of Digital and CX. This is quite a new position for the university  and a key part of the role is to help provide the framework for a digital strategy for the university. It was great to be able to hear the current thinking behind the strategy and to have the opportunity to provide some input.

I’m not going to discuss the strategy in detail here, however their thoughtful presentation to us prompted me to consider what a university digital strategy should look like and how it should be formulated. I suspect that this is something that is being done at many universities at the moment and it’s worth considering what a digital strategy for a university should look like.

From my perspective the absolute starting point for developing any strategy is understanding what a university actually does (or at least, what it should do ideally). Now of course you could use the old joke and ask three academics what a university is for and you’ll get four opinions. Once you start to add the other interested parties; students, professional staff, teachers, sessional academics, politicians, industry partners you get many, many more opinions.

The role and purpose of universities is therefore, clearly, a contested space. [wiki]Clark Kerr[/wiki] once described this as a multiversity in that the idea of the university varies widely according to who you ask.

Unfortunately university strategists seem to tend to avoid this complexity and instead they reduce the idea of the university to being one that says that universities are actually about recruiting students, teaching students and then maintaining contact with students. As a result of this reduction they, furthermore, constrain their strategies into those strategies that support the current model of recruiting, teaching and maintaining a relationship with students. The strategies that get developed are those that maintain or improve the effectiveness of the current model.

Now don’t get me wrong, teaching students is a core function of a university but for me personally universities are about much more than that. At their heart they are communities of scholars or learners at different stages in their learning. These communities can be virtual, physical, blended. They can be in any form; what is important is not the space but the ideas.

Now this is important because if we step back to that level of thinking then it allows us to be much more flexible in how we strategise about not just the student lifecycle but the whole student experience. It also allows us to think about the way universities carry out research, how they disseminate knowledge, how they communicate with the wider community and other organisations.

For me, all of these things are crucial in any sort of university strategy and must be even more so in a digital strategy. The possibilities for re-shaping the relationship society and academia are enormous and have come about because of digital technologies.

We now have a capability to build porous, transparent, edge-less institutions of learning where knowledge is both generated and disseminated.

One part of that dissemination will be through teaching (or facilitating learning). Increasingly you would expect learning to be engaged in smaller chunks by learners (often in the workspace) throughout the course of the their life. Undoubtedly there will still be girls reading books under trees on campuses (and there’s nothing wrong with that) but this will not be the university experience for the majority of learners (at least for most of their learning).

None of these ideas are new. We need to make sure that they get included in university strategies that are being developed right now because otherwise universities will continue to miss out on their digital potential.

What other things should a university digital strategy include?

Addendum (2016-02-08)

The title of this post is not intended to be a commentary on gender or age. It is simply a commentary on the idea of the university as portrayed through a common meme entitled “girls under trees” which noted the common use of stock images of young women sitting or lying under trees on campuses as part of university advertising.

Feature image – (CC BY 2.0) by Always Shooting

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