University of Melbourne

A returning Masters student’s view on digital environments

On Thursday I took part via online conferencing in the European Commission’s Digital Competence Day 2014. I was asked to talk about the digital experience going back to University. Due to the somewhat intermittent nature of Aussie broadband (or maybe the instabilities of the conferencing system) I got frozen out at the end, and I’m not sure how much anyone really heard of it. So I thought I’d write up the main points I was trying to make.

I was last at university in 1993. We didn’t have email then. There was an internal messaging system called the Vax that we used to send ridiculous messages within our group of friends – I think I still have the print-outs in a box somewhere. There were a few computers with the library catalogue, but loads of card catalogues still around. I typed up my essays on a word processing machine (a sort of glorified typewriter that saved the text).

Now the university experience is completely digital. Your interaction with the university administration is completely through the online portal. You enrol, register, get your timetable, pay your fees there. All information about your classes is sent via the Learning Management System. Most lecturers ask you to submit essays through TurnItIn, a system for checking for plagiarism. The library catalogue is online, you can request books online from other libraries, renew online and pay your fees. Pretty much any article you want from an academic journal is available online. You can get serious research done without going near the university. You can send things for printing from home, and access them once on campus by swiping your student card.

You have no option about this. This is the way things are. Digital by default indeed. But there is a lot of help. The library has a student-run IT help-desk. There are Twitter and Facebook accounts to help you and they reply very quickly. The library has an online chat function, which I have used and is incredibly practical. There is even a phone number to call if you need advice or assistance!

The other interesting element is the focus on BYOD – bring your own device. Obviously for a university, the provision of equipment is not a resource option (though there are of course workstations in the libraries that you can book. Online of course!). Space is at a premium and teaching spaces take priority. So the university sees BYOD as an opportunity.

Wireless is available to staff and students in all buildings of the university. There are higher levels of security than logging on to wireless in most public spaces. Each student has an allowance of 1GB of data per week from external (non-University) websites. It is clear what the rules are (no copyright infringement etc) and there are sanctions for breaching these rules, such as a loss of access to the network. The system is designed assuming that most people will play by the rules, and builds in how to deal with those that don’t, rather than designing it so that no-one can break the rules, but making it unwieldy and hard to use.

Of course, a university is different from a workplace. For one thing, work is much less collaborative here. (Something I found when applying and being asked to provide examples of my writing: if I hadn’t had the blog I wouldn’t have had anything to show that was me.) Also, this is a place of ideas, free-thinking, innovation. They can’t lock us into certain processes or tools as that would shut down the very freedom and creativity they are trying to develop in us.

But I do think there are lessons to learn.

Firstly, people work in different ways so providing one way of doing things is counter-productive, in the literal sense that it will reduce people’s productivity. Creating an environment that recognises and allows those differences will, I believe, be positive for the organisation.

Secondly, the leadership challenge is in helping people to adapt to the change. It isn’t good leadership to allow them to avoid or bypass it. That is self-defeating for them personally and for the organisation as a whole.

When I look at the change in the Commission’s digital mindset over the time I have been involved in this, I think we have a lot to be proud of. But we also have a long way to go and I hope we can learn from outside experiences such as this.

3 thoughts on “A returning Masters student’s view on digital environments”

  1. Thank you antonia, I posted it to our internal platform ! Please continue to share your experience, it is highly interesting for us

  2. I also left university in 1993, but ours was already a connected campus (though wired rather than wireless, of course) with BYOD, and we had the opportunity to witness the birth of the world wide web firsthand.

    I did a Masters at Boston University’s Brussels campus a couple of years ago and was really impressed at how much digital collaboration was stressed. We had specific courses on dealing with the cultural and technical challenges when collaborating with distributed worldwide teams. In one of our projects we were even encouraged not to speak about the project in person at all and carry out all work online (in our case one of the project members was living a different time zone, so we got the full experience!). A really great way to get people ready for working in the modern virtual workplace.

    I agree that the Commission still has a way to go. What seemed to come out of the Digital Competence Day was that we needed to change attitudes and limiting beliefs about collaboration in general rather than digital in particular.

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