UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capabilities – Part one

I had the pleasure of attending UCISA’s Spotlight on Digital Capabilities last week, a two day event held at Media City in Salford Quays. The event explored how institutions can provide opportunities and support for students and staff to develop their digital capabilities, and featured a host of example projects from institutions across the UK.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to contribute to Lancaster’s Digital Lancaster project with staff from Lancaster ISS. It was great to be able to attend this event with some of those colleagues. There were definitely some great ideas for implementing and embedding digital skills development, including student partnerships, learner analytics and more.

There was far too much over the two days for me to recap every talk, but here’s a few to start off with. I’ll write another post later this week with a few more,

What a digitally capable institution looks like

Gillian Fielding, Digital Skills Manager at the University of Salford

Iain Cameron, Training and Documentation Manager at the University of Aberdeen

Gillian and Iain presented an overview of the recent inaugural UCISA Digital Capabilities Survey (the full report is available here). Lancaster University Library and ISS provided a joint contribution to the survey, so I was very interested to hear the findings.

The survey investigated how UK HEIs are developing and supporting staff and student digital capabilities. Institutions used broadly similar definitions of what is meant by “digital capabilities”, but there isn’t a standard sector-wide model or definition in use. Some responses recognised that capabilities or skills could vary widely between roles and disciplines (something that has been recognised in the Digital Lancaster project so far).

UCISA have proposed that they should “work with other agencies, such as Jisc, to adopt a standard definition of digital capabilities. We recommend institutions use this definition where they have none.” I think a shared definition of digital capabilties/literacies between professional bodies would be a great thing. Some institutions have created their own definitions and frameworks to fit their context (Cardiff and Bath are notable examples) but having a widely-held UK HE definition that institutions can adapt to their own contexts will, to my mind;

  • help increase the understanding of the spectrum of digital practices and behaviours among students and staff
  • help with benchmarking and the sharing of best practice between institutions
  • help students and staff moving from one institution to another recognise the landscape of digital capabilities support and development available at their new institution

A few other notable points:

Library/Learning Services strategies were reported as the second most important internal strategy for driving the digital capabilities agenda in institutions (second only to the Teaching and Learning strategy). Libraries were also noted for their innovation in supporting students and staff:

“Library services seemed to be by far the most progressive, most often making use of new communication methods such as Twitter, social media and videos, in addition to established communications channels.”

This picture was familiar to attendees from the Library sector:

Gillian and Iain offered a picture of what a digital capable institution looks like, based on the findings of the survey.



The full UCISA report is well worth reading for a picture of the support/development opportunities that are currently offered across the UK HE sector. The report will be supplemented by some case studies on different institutional approaches to digital capabilities, due for publication in Autumn 2015.

Building Digital Capability

Sarah Davies, Head of change, Student Experience, Jisc

Sarah’s presentation covered a range of Jisc services, some new, that are being brought together under the Digital Capabilities banner to help institutions embed digital development for their staff and students. At the centre of the service is a revised Jisc digital capabilities framework, a development of their “7 elements” model, which institutions can use to help students and staff understand the spectrum of digital skills and behaviours. This revised framework would be unveiled by Helen Beetham in a later talk (which I’ll recap in another blog post). In addition to the framework are two development programmes;

  • a leadership development programme for HE management staff, to help them understand and design effective digital capability development services


  •  a series of digital skills MOOCs, aimed at academic and professional staff in HE


Triangles were very on trend at this conference.

Rounding out the, er, triangle is a set of diagnostic tools to help students and staff audit their existing digital skills and identify areas for development. A suite of diagnostic tools sounds very useful, however, I can see it would be a challenge to implement on an institutional level.

Building on the previous talk, having shared definitions and tools will help drive understanding, and I have no doubt the materials that Jisc provide will be excellent. Implementing  and embedding digital skills development across a range of professional and academic roles and practices will always be a major undertaking, but this looks like a really valuable range of services to help institutions in this area. You can find out more about Jisc’s proposed Digital Capability services here, and follow the hashtag #digitalcapabilities.

Towards an integrated approach to developing digital capabilities in the curriculum: from theory to harsh reality

Joe Nicholls, Principal Consultant in Digital Enablement, Cardiff University

In the work I’ve done for Digital Lancaster, we looked at Cardiff’s Digidol project as an example of an institutional framework for digital literacies. Cardiff embarked on Digidol just as a new Education strategy was implemented. This Education strategy included “a commitment to “Learning Literacies”, comprising information, digital and academic literacies” so this has given strong strategic support at an institutional level to the Digidol project.

Joe’s talk discussed the challenges of embedding digital skills development for students in the curriculum. Cardiff University Library have seen real success in this area – there are embedded taught Library sessions in over 70% of undergraduate courses at Cardiff, although these sessions only cover a certain element of the digital practices identified in the Digidol framework (primarily centered around finding information, or other elements of information literacy).

Joe has been assigned to lead on Digital Capabilities and Enablement from a role within the Library service, to build on this success. Cardiff are seeking to achieve integrated development sessions in the curriculum, developed in collaboration between academics and a range of professional services (not just the Library), though he did mention that an example of this integrated approach could be seen in sessions developed by Library staff but delivered as part of the curriculum by academic staff. Here’s a really helpful post from Joe that explains the distinction between ’embedded’ and ‘integrated’ sessions in the Cardiff context. As well as taught sessions, Cardiff are creating OERs that can be adapted and customised by departments for their own specific digital contexts.

Joe recommended that digital literacies must be meaningful, authentic and situated in regards to people, roles and practices in your organisation.
This was a great talk, Joe is an excellent speaker and I think Cardiff are doing some really good work in this area. I would be really interested to see examples of the integrated sessions and OERs they have developed.
That’s it for this rather lengthy post. Thanks to all those whose tweets I’ve embedded here! Will be back later this week for a write up of some more sessions!

2 thoughts on “UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capabilities – Part one

  1. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your great write-ups of the conference and some really useful comments on some of the issues around uptake of diagnostic tools. We’ll be exploring this kind of issue with university and college staff over the next couple of months to see if we can develop an approach that feels supportive, actionable and user-owned. I certainly recognise the challenges you highlight!

    We’ll blog how we’re doing at http://digitalcapability.jiscinvolve.org/wp/, but we’re always looking for people to bounce ideas off!



    • Hi Sarah, thank you for the kind comment and your tweet! I’ve really enjoyed writing up my notes, ended up much longer than planned though! I’m sure you and all involved with the project are well aware of the challenges in getting people to engage with the diagnostic tools you are working on! Hopefully all the hard work you are doing on the tools themselves will mean that institutions can focus on any adaptations needed for their context, and the actual staff engagement process.

      I’m pretty sure that my colleagues are making sure that Lancaster are formally engaged with the co-production challenge, but I’ll certainly keep an eye on the blog and would be happy to contribute in any way I can. Nice to meet you and all the best!

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