Durham University announces £50 million Digital Strategy

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Durham University has announced a new Digital Strategy for the years 2020-2027. The strategy aims to address technical debt and digital poverty, improve technical skills of both students and staff, and increase student involvement.

Over the first five years the digital strategy is expected to cost around £50 million. Every year the University will return to the Finance Committee and Council to consider annual spending. 

With the new strategy, Durham has a vision to become “A leader University offering a digital environment that enables and empowers people towards the extraordinary.”

The university will be introducing a myDurham application in order to simplify the timetabling system that has been a cause of complaint in the past.

Staff are to undergo digital skills training whilst the strategy commits to increasing the digital skills competency of every student.

Commenting on the importance of such change, John Hemingway, the University’s Chief Information Officer, expressed his belief that this will help students both whilst they’re at university and in careers afterwards. 

As part of the strategy, the University is also considering expanding the student liaison and student ambassador network and Hemingway was keen to highlight that the department has previously rolled out student led IT projects and hopes to continue to do so moving forwards.

As part of its plan to address digital poverty, the University has committed to providing students and staff access to personal devices for those unable to do so themselves.

The strategy identifies significant technical debt at the University and aims to implement significant changes to rectify this situation. Hemingway admitted; “We have some systems which aren’t fit for purpose which we need to replace, but we need to innovate.”

We have some systems which aren’t fit for purpose which we need to replace, but we need to innovate.

John Hemingway

The strategy also outlines plans to improve the University’s digital learning environment. This includes providing new equipment to facilitate smoother online education, to digitalise campus buildings, and to enhance the lecture capture system including the piloting of 360 degree ‘Owl’ cameras and microphones. 

Two new funds are being created in order to enhance the project. A new ‘Digital Innovation Fund’ will be established so that new innovative solutions to business problems can be explored and shared across the University where beneficial.

The process of departmental technology funding is to be overhauled. Departmental expenditure on software will be phased out and replaced with a centralised fund for which departments will bid for funding. Research funding will be unaffected by this change.

The University has made it clear that this is intended as an institution-wide strategy rather than simply an IT department overhaul. The initiative aims to focus on delivering tangible benefits to the student experience above simply utilising new technology.

In outlining the new approach Durham University has made the scale of this task clear: “Delivering this strategy is not a trivial undertaking. It will require a change in mindset as to how we approach Digital technology, how we work, and how we deliver transformation within our organisation.”

56% said they were not confident delivering high-quality practical classes remotely.

In planning the new strategy the University consulted with 2000 touchpoints; with 1677 responses to two staff surveys undertaken during the summer of 2019 and 2020, 48 stakeholder interviews, and 30 attendees at focus groups. 

In one of the surveys conducted over the summer of 2020, 57% of respondents said they have a preference for working remotely and 74% said that online meetings were somewhat or very effective.

However, in questions only asked of academic staff, 15% said they were not confident delivering remote lectures, 25% said they were not confident delivering high-quality seminars remotely, and 56% said they were not confident delivering high-quality practical classes remotely.

Although staff now have much more experience operating under Covid-19, the University has not conducted another survey to assess any potential change over time.

A main aim of the Strategy is to address these difficulties whilst, more broadly, facilitating effective face-to-face and remote learning in the future, even after Covid-19.

Speaking to Palatinate, Durham’s Chief Information Officer, John Hemingway, said he believes that student experience and engagement lies at the heart of this new strategy.

He said: “Historically, technology provision has been on the University’s terms […] What I’d like to do is shift the focus so we can ask ‘what sort of experience do we want our students to have?’, and create apps and systems or other solutions that deliver that experience.”

He described the new strategy as “An ambitious and carefully thought through plan to secure a bright digital future for Durham University.”

The project has been headed by John Hemingway, Chief Information Officer, and Dr. Simon Brownsell, Director of Strategy and Change.

Image: Durham University

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