Tag Archives: people

Digital Transformation in HE: A Munster Technological University TEL event

co-written by Lawrie Phipps

View across the river Lee to the abandoned St Kevin’s Asylum, Sunday’s Well, Cork City. Photo by Lawrie Phipps

Note: Additional commentary about this event can be found at Lawrie’s site.

Last week the TEL team at Munster Technological University hosted an event that they called “Digital Transformation and Digital Practice,” at MTU’s location in Cork city.  Lawrie Phipps and I both got to be there in person, in the physical room, the first such room I’ve been in since around this date in 2020.  

I keep saying the year is 2020, when I try to remember the date aloud.  

This was a hybrid event, and we had more people in the Zoom room than we did in our seminar room.  The idea, when Gearoid O Suilleabhain and Tom Farrelly were planning things, was that we have a facilitated conversation about what has been happening around education in digital places because of the pandemic, what were the things that MTU had already been doing before the emergency, and what we hoped would happen next.  We wanted for the people in the rooms to ask us questions and also to talk amongst themselves, so there were MTU TEL team members in the Zoom room to facilitate that conversation, and we had a coffee/tea break after our initial panel discussion to allow time for reflection and follow ups.  We were grateful for all of the people who showed up in each mode, it was an excellent crowd.

What I hoped to come out of the discussion was not any facile sense that we were “moving on” from the pandemic, but rather an opportunity to recognize and sit with the facts that 1) this pandemic (thanks to our governments and capitalism) isn’t going anywhere and 2) people have needed us to pay attention to what digital tools and places can bring to education and other public services for a very long time.  In addition, it was a chance for us to talk publicly about the research that Gearoid, Tom, and I have done at MTU around academic teaching practices in 2020-21, and for Lawrie and I to draw connections between that work and the research he and I have been doing on student and staff emergency remote teaching (and learning) practices.

There is an edited recording of the event on YouTube, and I’m placing it in this post for you to have a look/listen if you like.  

 Link to YouTube video of DX in  HE

I want here  to draw out the central themes we tried to address in the time we had,

  1.  Teaching staff at MTU were already well-supported in exploring and developing digital practices in their work, and told us that while they didn’t feel like they really knew what they were doing all the time, they also felt it was OK to try whatever was necessary because they already knew who to talk to and go to for help.  Sometimes the people staff said they worked with were the TEL and EDSU teams at MTU, sometimes they were colleagues who they already knew were confident and capable with a range of digital tools and places.  The important part was not necessarily being confident with digital per se, but being confident that someone (or more than one someones) would help and support them doing what needs to be done.
  1. Supporting teaching staff means that you are also supporting students.  Staff who are not worried about their contracts, compensation, and precarity can spend their energy on their work, on teaching, on connecting with their students, on recognizing when their students are struggling and getting help in figuring out how to make things better for students.  The staff experience is the student experience.
  1. The most precarious students, those who are from marginalized populations due to race, gender, and economic circumstances, tend to look for help from staff members who they recognize and trust as being “like them” (or at least, not the cis white men for whom the power structures of institutions like universities are traditionally aligned).  That often means that the most vulnerable staff members, staff who are Black, staff who are women, staff who represent “non traditional” populations in academia, are being asked to do more work on behalf of students.  When we interviewed white men senior academics in the UK about their students in the pandemic emergency, we heard “I haven’t seen/heard much from them, they are probably OK.”  When we interviewed early career white women we heard, “I haven’t seen many students, I hope they are OK.”  And we also heard from an early career Asian woman “I keep hearing from students, my inbox is full of one-on-one conversations, it never stops.”
  1. Digital Transformation is not about technology. The technology that is deployed at a university is a necessary first step to potentially transforming practice, but it’s only one thing, and might not actually be transformative if all you are doing is “digitizing” (s/o to Jim Nottingham for helping make that distinction clear to me–it’s a distinction I hear from library workers, too, pointing out that there’s nothing inherently transformative about digitization).  Transformation also cannot simply be “digital by default”–not everything needs to be done digitally, and thought and care need to be put into where digital affordances can help, and where they can actually do harm (as is the case for surveillance, predictive analytics, and relying on the chance-y promises of AI as a substitute for human labor and care).  Gearoid, in the conversation, offered MTU’s idea of “digital by design”–thoughtful attention to where their work as a teaching and research institution aligns with what digital tools, places, and platforms make possible.  It’s an approach that doesn’t just value the things they know they need to do with digital, but provides sandbox-y opportunities for staff and students alike to make connections between technology and their practices, to come up with emergent possibilities that no one expected. When any organisation starts on a process of digital transformation, they need the technology in place, but they need to make sure that the people are both resourced and supported, and only when we have alignment between the transformation we want, and people being supported and resourced do we see a culture change, a genuine transformation. This should always be an iterative process that centers people, not tech.

That last point chimed nicely with the message offered by Audrey Watters in her Digifest 22 keynote this week.  In the Q&A she advocated and hoped simultaneously for a future that was about people, not “the algorithm.”  In her talk she said directly:  “Hope is not in technology. Hope is in our humanity.”

In our discussion at MTU, we also tried to center people, their lives, and their needs, in a context when that can be alarmingly challenging.   And the work is far from complete.

Something about Networks and Connections

Butterfly amaryllis from my mother’s garden

I grew up on Air Force Bases in the continental US and moved around fairly frequently (though not as frequently as some!) in my childhood. My parents had met in their small Louisiana town, and started dating when they were in college at LSU.  I get to thank a hurricane–I think it was Betsy– for them spending a weekend on the phone together that made them realize they wanted to spend their lives together.  Once they had left their small town for Baton Rouge, they began building relationships that are still strong, friendships with my mom’s roommates (a woman who was sent from Cuba by her relatives, a Cajun woman after whom I am named) and their boyfriends (now husbands)–they remained close with those people, after leaving Louisiana, and we see them when we can, they are present in my mom’s life and mine.

They moved to Arizona for Daddy’s first posting and had me, and their social network grew to include the friends they made in Tucson, as well as their family and friends back in Louisiana.  That core group of friends knew me before I was born, and even though we knew we would not be in Tucson forever, those friends stayed a part of my parents’ (and my) life even after we were sent to Minot, ND, and then to Vandenberg AFB CA.  We sent letters, traveled to see them for Thanksgiving or Easter.  My parents had local connections, too, made friends (and kept many) where they found themselves, but also kept the connections they had made before.  

When things were hard where they were, if they were lonely, their local network was not the only one they had to draw upon.  

Local circumstances were not their entire circumstances , they were only a part, and the larger entirety of their lives, their scattered network of friends, made it easier to deal when tough times happened in other parts of their lives. 

When I moved from school to school, it was hard, but also gave me practice in connecting with new people.  My mother helped me in this because she knew I was a person who craved other people; she sought out kids for me to meet when we moved somewhere new, made sure I had chances to find at least one friend in a new place.  

When we left for a new base, I was sad to leave friends behind but because of my parents’ habits of keeping connections, I never really felt that they were gone forever.  We got Xmas letters, sometimes we would get to visit them, we were in touch and real to each other (even before the internet, which did eventually make that kind of thing easier).

When I was in high school I had a small group of very close friends but they were not all in the same place all the time at school.  I had swim team friends and speech and debate friends and in-class-with-me-friends and they were not all part of the same network.  So when (inevitably) there were fallings-out or misunderstandings or breakups in one group I still had the other groups.  It was never terrible all the time.

I realize that my circumstances were lucky, but also think that my parents were very deliberate in building that capacity in me, in modeling for me a way to have a kind of resilience (I know, I know) in my own personal life, so that when there were struggles in one place it wasn’t everywhere and didn’t make my entire life hard.  I had refuges, other places and people I could turn to for relief and respite and support.

I almost made the mistake of shrinking my entire undergraduate university experience down to one group, the anthropology department.  I knew I wanted to major in that from the beginning, and threw myself into everything anthropology my first year.  My friends, (including romantic partners) were in the department. My social life was in the department and when it was going well it was great.

When it did not go well I had nowhere else to go.

Almost on a whim, I decided my second year to live in an International dorm on campus, one where every room had one American student and one exchange student from a different country.  I roomed with a Korean woman, my suite-mate from LA had a roommate from Japan.  In addition to Japanese and Korean students there were Italian and British and French and Australian students.  

I had a fantastic year.  And when I had a hard time with my studies, or with relationships (yeah, still with anthropology students), I had this part of my life that was my dorm hall, and the friends I made there (and who I still have).

Living in that dorm meant that I decided to study abroad.  I went to Ireland for the following year and it changed my trajectory through anthropology, because up until that point I was studying archaeology, and I realized in Ireland that if I went to grad school I wanted to study living people. 

So when I did apply to graduate school it was to study folklore and anthropology and also as a newly married person (because living apart from my boyfriend for the year helped me to figure out that it would be nice to have him in my life all the time).  And I arrived in grad school ready to be a grad student but also not entirely dependent on graduate school to be my entire life.  

The friends I made, the network I built in graduate school was almost entirely independent of my studies.  I hung out with archaeologists (they are much better at being constructively social than socio-cultural anthropologists…) and so when I had a hard time in any given seminar, or conflicts with professors, I had somewhere else to go, other connections to draw upon.  And, not just there in the town where I was in grad school, but the connections I had built and my parents had built were still there, and I had multiple places and sets of people to ask for support when I needed it.  I had a partner (also an academic, so not completely out of the world I was in) and was an entire person independent of my graduate studies.

This helped me survive graduate school.  I would not have, if my entire world had been my studies.

When we moved to Charlotte, with our two young kids, we moved to be a part of the department of anthropology here, and that helped us have a local network right away.  But we were also moving to the state where my partner grew up, and so we had a personal network, too.  We had brothers and sisters and in-laws and cousins to be with, our life was not reduced just to the university, we had other options.  With kids in school we made friends with some of the parents of their friends, and that was good and also sometimes complicated, so it was (again) good that when that was hard we had other networks to rely on.  

I am repeating myself.  I am working through to see a pattern.

When I started working in libraries I did not leave my anthropology network behind, it was still right there with me.  When I was working in libraries I also built connections with ed tech and instructional design people, because it made sense and also because I made friends.  When I had to stop working in libraries, those co-existing networks helped me not to despair, or think that there was nothing else I could do.  

I was more than my job.  I was (and am) part of more than one network.  I am so lucky, I have so many kinds of people in my life.  

I worry about my students who seem to only have university-based networks, or who are isolated from their non-university networks in some way.  I am more confident for my students who already show up with strong connections to a supportive community, with connections independent of the university. I worry about colleagues who are deeply embedded in one organization, or attached to one conference, who don’t have a different place to go when things go wrong. Things always go wrong, at some point.

When I hear people in a variety of contexts talking about “building community” for students or colleagues (or, customers), I worry about that, too.  Is the motivation an additive one?  “Let’s give them more people to connect with and rely on?”  Or is it intended to be a kind of capture?  I think in situations where money is concerned (conferences.  tuition) it can too often be the latter.

I wonder if one of the differences, in professional networks, is if we are people or products?  Maybe that was the difference in grad school, too.  I connected with and kept people in my networks who were people to me, and who treated me as more than what my degree or career would or could be.  

When I returned to the anthropology department of my graduate program after the death of my child, the people who saw me as a person hugged me and asked me how I was.  The people for whom I was a (failed) product did not see or speak to me at all, even as I passed them in the hallway.

I have witnessed a lot of extractive networking. I’ve probably done my fair share, too. Extractive practices do not build the kind of networks that endure and support. I have long been wary of organizations or events that claim to “build community.” All we can do is make space, and do things we think might be useful (for ourselves, for each other). Whether a community emerges from any given organization or event or series of events isn’t up to us.

I am looking at 2022, when I get to start working as a Professor of Practice for a new MA on Climate Science Leadership at Virginia Tech, thanks to a grade school friend who is still in my life.  I get to work with Munster Technological University thanks to connections that have come to me via edtech circles but also my insistence on keeping connected to people in Ireland.  My daughter is getting married this year and my best friend, who I have known since I was 13 years old, will attend the wedding along with my mom who taught me over and over again the importance of keeping good people in your life, even across long distances and gaps in time.  

I remain here with questions, at the end of this ramble.  How are we people to each other, in our (ideally) various networks, offline and online alike?  How are we treated as (how do we treat others as) products?  What does that difference mean for our experience of our networks?