On 6th-7th March 2018 I attended #Digifest18. The festival is hosted annually by Jisc at the ICC in Birmingham. Digifest embraces all things “digital”, highlighting how digital technologies and online services are used in the HE and FE sectors to support learners. The two-day event is free to attend and the conference programme features a mix of keynote talks, workshops, plenary sessions, panel discussions and vendor exhibitions. As an information professional working at a HE library, I find Digifest an interesting, enthralling, challenging and (ultimately) rewarding event to attend. The event keeps me up-to-date with emerging digital technologies on the horizon in the educational sector, invites interesting speakers to discuss current trends and themes affecting digital industries and provides delegates with a chance to listen to case studies of best practice and debate the opportunities and problems that arise with electronic services and strategies.
Here are a few of my personal reflections on the #Digifest18 event…
Developing student and staff digital capabilities
As per #Digifest17, developing digital literacies was a theme that regularly cropped up in workshops, plenaries and panel discussions over the two days. The #Digifest18 conference tag line was Harnessing the power of edtech: thriving in a digital world, so it was not surprising to see a lot of debate and discussion amongst speakers and delegates with regards this theme. A number of sessions focused on the need to support learners (and the staff that teach these learners) in an ever-changing and fluctuating digital world. Whilst digital technologies can potentially open up learning and education to many students, there are various challenges still to overcome – this could be widening student participation and engagement with digital systems (removing financial or social barriers to learning), valuing the mental wellbeing of both learners and teachers and providing a landscape of blended learning and mixed methods to encourage students and staff to embrace digital technologies (the online systems utilised and the learning spaces digital systems are used in). The passionate opening #Digifest18 keynote, from National Union of Students (NUS) President Shakira Martin, emphasised the need for organisations to provide flexible and adaptable systems in education to support learners of all ages. It was great to have a student-focused keynote to start the conference – it is vital for students to be asked what they want from their digital learning experience and for institutions to listen attentively and act on this feedback.
I came away from Digifest thinking that assumptions or preconceived ideas made by educational establishments can be often be misleading – we think we may know what the student journey looks like but students’ expectations and the technologies they use can change in very short time. This was echoed by some of the speakers at the event and attendees tweeting during the conference (for example, Ange Fitzpatrick’s tweet below):
Students are assumed to be part of an intrinsically “digital” generation (I heard the well-worn “Digital Natives” concept raised again at this year’s conference) but barriers to digital do remain in place. Some of the workshops I attended highlighted that not all learners are tech-savvy and not all learners have direct access to digital services and electronic devices. That raises the question of how do universities/colleges/libraries interact with students across the board and provide them with fair access to these digital products and tools?
The What do students want? workshop and Going where the wild students are! debate both highlighted a wider discussion around students’ feedback and provided several case studies to display how institutions/libraries can potentially address the development of student digital skills. Learning can take place in the gaps between formal learning (traditional lectures/seminars). Trips to the library, a coffee shop, studying in halls or at home are all a learning environment, whether studying independently or collectively. The need for flexibility and adaptability in learning spaces was voiced – the student experience is a wide spectrum and organisations need to cater for different student needs (within obvious financial and space limitations). The Going where the wild students are! discussion underlined that some students want the “wild rumpus!” of a busy group study learning space that they can customise and experiment with (students having autonomy to move different forms of furniture and employ different digital tech to support their learning). On the other hand, some students want structured learning spaces that they can use for quiet or silent study. These physical and digital learning environments should be “digitally-rich” with robust Wi-Fi connection (now a basic human requirement!), laptops to loan and plenty of sockets for students to power their devices! Institutions need to get their IT departments on board to remove access barriers and make the transition to tech as seamless as possible. Group spaces should encourage creativity, collaboration and be a safe space for students to ask questions about their learning. In terms of libraries, both sessions I mention above called attention to the fact that students can view libraries as a “home” (the social) or libraries as a “workplace” (learning, employment). Libraries and librarians add experience and a know-how in using resources, finding information and navigating learners through online content. The University of Liverpool pointed out how they move library services into less well-used spaces on university campus with their “Library On Tour” branding.
The What do students want? session emphasised that students like to feel valued. Creating a sense of “community” or “belonging” is important to learners. The session recommended that students should be involved in local conversations around institutional decision making and design – communicate with students in the digital spaces they inhabit and create conversations using different tools to engage. Social media was deemed very important in this conversation. There is increasing use of Snapchat/Instagram by younger, prospective students. The expectations of future students can change swiftly and innovations at institutions can often take a while to set up, so libraries and universities have to be agile, evolve quickly, speed up workflows to future-proof learning and their ability to meet students’ demands.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
Another topic that featured at #Digifest18 was resource accessibility and usability. Again, this theme fits in neatly with the opening keynote talk addressing the need for flexible and adaptable educational systems and spaces. I have been involved in some work at DMU Library looking at online resources access via smartphones/tablets and providing support for learners using mobile apps and sites. DMU have this type of work labelled as Universal Design for Learning or UDL. UDL views the learning environment as the disabling factor, not the individual learner.
The Infiltrating the systems – inclusive policies as a driver for effective practice workshop showcased collaboration between the University of Kent and Jisc as part of the OPERA project. The presenters stated that inclusive policies were a universal and positive concept (improve learning for all) but putting these policies into practice can often be difficult. I found this session to be very enlightening. The presenters demonstrated some useful ideas which provided lots of food for thought. Kent University have re-badged their assistive technologies as productivity tools for all learners – “Smarter tools for study”. These are online tools and apps that make learning better for all. The technologies remove or reduce barriers to online content for all students. A number of presenters throughout the event called for a much more holistic attitude at universities with regards student support. It is important for university departments to work closer together to help meet the needs of students.
The Jisc Digifest event will always be a celebration of digital technologies but I felt this year’s conference was more muted than in previous years. Maybe this was due to the current challenges facing the HE and FE education sectors – funding uncertainties, impact of Brexit and organisations being asked to do more with less. These challenges potentially threaten the ability of organisations to comprehensively support the learning journeys of their students but simple and inexpensive digital innovations can still significantly improve the learner experience:
The festival promoted the need for organisations to be agile, adaptable (yes that word again!) and to listen to their learners with regards their needs and requirements. A statement from Nick Woolley (head of libraries at University of Northumbria) resonated with me – the relationship between a student and their organisation is a fluid one. It is ever-changing, dependent upon the student’s need(s) at any given time. Students can be learners, partners, co-creators or consumers (the idea of students as “customers” was challenged several times at the event but most organisations do focus their front of house operations on customer service principles).
I am part of a De Montfort University Library working group planning a Learning At Work Week for library staff in May 2018. #Digifest18 prompted many ideas to take back to this group work. Engaging staff to develop their own digital capabilities and awareness is important I think in trying to support learners and ensuring staff feel as though they are contributing to a positive student learning experience. This engagement requires strategies that promote training, collaboration and skills sharing.
As ever, the Digifest event was a pleasure to attend and provided me with lots of ideas, content and material to make me reflect on my own work at DMU Library and to share with other library colleagues. The festival also provides a valuable networking opportunity to speak with peers and friends from other libraries/organisations who attend. I look forward to #Digifest19 and would recommend the conference to any librarian or information professional dealing with digital content and systems.