Policy approaches and institutional responses to digital transformation - Summary of the webinar

The recent Covid-19 crisis forced European Higher Education Institutions to deliver their educational offer entirely on online platforms, accelerating the digital transformation that some institutions were preparing for or were experimenting with. During the webinar, four panellists presented how institutions responded to this challenge in Hungary and Ireland and discussed how policy makers can guide this digital transformation in the future.

Laura Sinóros-Szabó is Head of Department for Higher Education Strategy and Institutional Development in the Ministry for Innovation and Technology, Budapest. She is responsible for developing strategic interventions in the field of policy and development programmes, as well as developing action plans for higher education strategy and assuring strategic synergies in the policy field. Her research field is efficiency measurement. 

Krisztina Lénárt is Head of Education Management and Talent Support Department of ELTE. She has a Master’s degree in Andragogy and has expertise in coordinating and promoting the use of digital technologies and innovative teaching methods, and using skill development programs and financial tools to support talented students. Her department assists in the work of the Talent Management Fund of ELTE. She contributes as a coordinator of ELTE in CHARM European University and participates on behalf of ELTE in projects on credit recognition, internationalisation, student dropout patterns and talent support.

Ruaidhri Neavyn is currently employed as a Special Advisor on Higher Education with the Irish Higher Education Authority and advises on HE policy and programme development activities. Ruaidhri has 30 years of experience working in Higher education, and during his career he has been appointed to numerous senior management roles in Higher Education institutes, including being appointed as the President of two Institutes of Technology in Ireland. He is also very active in international collaborative activities and is currently a member of the EU’s HEInnovate Expert Group, of the OECD’s Group of National Experts on Higher Education, of the steering committee of the Regional University Network of Europe and a member of the Coordinating Council for Science, Research and Higher Education in Portugal.

Terry Maguire is an Irish educator and senior manager who has pioneered flexible and blended approaches to teaching and learning in Ireland and Scotland. She is committed to lifelong learning and student partnership. Terry has led the development of Ireland’s National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education since its inception in 2013. The National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education is the national body responsible for leading and advising on the enhancement of teaching and learning and is regarded as an essential component of the national-level infrastructure for higher education in Ireland. The vision of National Forum is to develop a valued and informed teaching and learning culture in Irish higher education.

Laura described the rapid reaction of the policy makers in Hungary to the Covid-19 crisis. On March18th, within a week of the beginning of the lockdown, the Department for Higher Education Strategy and Institutional Development in the Ministry for Innovation and Technology provided a set of recommendations for higher education institutions to follow during the emergency. The department also surveyed human resources and technical infrastructures in the higher education sector and aked the institutions to develop their action plans for providing distance education at two points: right after the lockdown and in April. The survey and the action plans helped identify the gaps and real needs of the institutions, which informed the national response to the crisis. The Ministry committed to supporting the higher education institutions with the provision of skills training, ICT equipment and bandwidth (where needed). The policy approach of the Ministry also included a timely collection of good practice across the institutions and student- and higher education organizations, which started on April 30th 2020. The good practices of higher education institutions and organisations were shared in a webinar-series, which provided an insight and deep understanding of the Hungarian higher education COVID 19 experience. 

Positive reactions to the early ministerial recommendations, the survey, the actions plans and the timely collation of examples of best practice made it possible to prepare an evidence-based strategy for the 2020-21 academic year.

Krisztina illustrated what the e-learning was like before and after the Covid-19 lockdown at ELTE UNIVERSITY in Budapest, Hungary, where the set goal was to keep the student experience as high as it was before the Covid-19 emergency. This presented some challenges which included staff members not having adequate digital skills. In the initial phase of the crisis, rather than impose a single online platform and methodology, ELTE responded by providing teachers with a range of online platforms for them to choose from, according to their different communication needs, and level of familiarity. This technical solution worked rapidly and efficiently and made everyone comfortable; after this initial phase of learning, staff members found it relatively easy to then adopt Microsoft Teams which was subsequently chosen as the dedicated platform next to Moodle and Canvas as a substitute of face to face teaching and learning. Technical training (based on findings from teachers’ surveys) for teachers and administrative members of staff has now become one of the set priorities of ELTE university.

Krisztina also mentioned the acknowledgment that the key to the success of the digital transformation was to become more sensitive towards teaching colleagues, students and administrative staff members. For instance, online mentoring was highlighted as one of the options to develop.

Ruaidhri and Terry elaborated on which policy approach should be developed to successfully deliver a digital transformation in Ireland. The Higher Education Authority consulted with stakeholders to create a shared vision for a digital transformation framework and committed to developing it in order to deploy further digital technologies. Items on the Irish digital transformation agenda include: an analysis of the current state of play in terms of available technologies and associated initiatives, a review of examples of good practice, establishing timelines and a list of responsible agencies, definition of areas of action, the monitoring of policy implementation, the measurement of the output and impact of the digital transformation framework over a 5-year timeline.

Terry explained how Ireland is shaping a way forward in developing a valued teaching and learning culture, by working with students,higher education authorities and representatives of associations of different types of institutions. Data is used as a tool to co-design and build evidence-based policy, with the Irish strategy being informed by the question: What lessons can we learn from these stakeholders? 

This strategy had already been initiated before the Covid-19 crisis and this previous work with the sector was relied on during the crisis. During Autumn 2019, Ireland conducted an online survey to take stock of where both staff and students were with the digital transformation of teaching and learning, collecting this baseline data for every higher institution in Ireland.  The findings indicated that nearly 60% of staff wanted more digital technology to be used and nearly half of the 25,000 student responses said the same. Preparatory work also consisted of conversations held between national policy makers and representatives of higher education institutions about what makes a good transition to the digitalisation of learning: “We work with policy partners to ensure that policy informs practice and practice informs policy”.

Some of the questions asked by participants were whether distance learning would maintain its momentum after the pandemic, whether indicators were used to measure the success of the implementation of distance learning so far and whether there was an expected impact on lifelong learning. The panellists explained that indicators had been set to ascertain the impact of distance learning but that, in this learning phase, it was important to become aware of what works online as opposed to what does not, in a reflective mode rather than in a quantitative mode. This is because it is important to disentangle which elements of the implementation were merely an emergency response and which elements enhanced the quality of teaching and should therefore be maintained. Sustainable elements should be used to develop a hybrid form of learning and teaching which is expected to be especially beneficial to lifelong learners because it provides students with time flexibility and a choice of learning formats.

A key silver lining that emerged from the Covid-19 crisis is that teaching and learning has become a household topic: students, parents, politicians, and teachers all talk about it and give attention to this in a way that has never happened before. However, it was pointed out that it is often the variety of online platforms that dominates the discourse, rather than the pedagogy. 

The contributions brought together in this webinar highlighted how the Covid-19 emergency has acted as a fillip to digital transformation in higher education, pushing policy makers to accelerate the transformation and commit to investments, and steering higher education institutions to concentrate resources on training and on setting up listening platforms (such as surveys and mentoring schemes) in order to turn the online platforms into active learning environments. 

The recording from the webinar can be watched here.