Digital capability Institutional capability

Institutional digital capability and digital fairy dust

Galaxy Blue - coiled plastic filament

. .. from your perspective what are the institutional enablers and blockers when it comes to growing the digital capability of an organisation?” asked James Clay in a recent post on this blog. I rather flippantly posted a comment to James’s post saying “Culture is a big issue, but I think over reliance (or expectations) that technology alone will somehow wave some magical digital fairy dust and everyone and ergo the institution will be “digital” and digitally literate.” This post is my attempt to elaborate that comment.

We know that systems alone will not alone won’t make a difference. But there still seems to be hope (or perhaps more accurately there is still a lot of commercial potential) in pitching and selling systems using the magical “d” word. Over the past couple of years in the context of unpacking the notion of the digital university, I have written a number of papers with Bill Johnston and Keith Smyth called “moving from e to / We used this title to reflect the change we have observed around the move from things have an “e” in front of them to now having “digital” as a prefix. Is there really a difference between “e-learning’ and ‘digital learning’ or indeed just “learning”? Digital is an incredibly powerful and at the same time ill defined, meaningless word. That said, there does seem to be something of the zeitgeist around digital that is pervading all of society, not just education. So how can we harness the power of the “d” word to actually make a difference and impact institutional/organisational capability?

Every institution is the sum of its parts, so individual capability is key. I, like many of my peers, find the work Jisc continues to support around developing digital literacies, digital student engagement incredibly useful to share and use in a range of ways with staff and students. I’ve used the digital literacy framework with students as part of a business and management module. I’m going to be using the digital capability benchmarking toolkit in a staff development workshop later this week, and am in discussions with our Student Association about how we could use and develop the toolkit in terms of our student engagement work. I think the principles and the measures could really help to give students and staff more confidence in terms of gauging their own digital capabilities. As I work in a staff facing role, I can also see great potential for the toolkit to help staff articulate the digital opportunities they already provide, as well as help them work towards doing more. The terms, first steps, developing, developed and outstanding, are pretty user friendly too. Perhaps if we could review all our modules we could get one view of how digitally capable our learning and teaching provision was. That could be one indication of our institutional capability.

But what of our digital systems? Even in the very user friendly toolkit, there are implicit assumptions around systems and infrastructure. Having a robust framework for using any type of technology is a key factor of institutional capability. I do find it encouraging that many University digital strategies are bringing together people, culture and processes with platforms and products. Digital strategies need to be more than IT implementation plans. They need to be people enabling plans too and be driven by the core learning, teaching and research needs of any insitution. The need for robust yet flexible infrastructures has never been so important. Having spent so much of my career supporting system interoperability I’m not going to stop now. We need connected, rhizomatic systems. The institution providing the core roots with students and staff able to connect and disconnect when appropriate and grow out of a common support structure.

All of this takes time, and sometimes I think that gets forgotten. Being digitally capable at an organisational level might also mean being confident and capable enough to make adequate time provision for reviewing and developing of processes as new systems are introduced. It may take two months or two years to see any measurable impact.

Capability needs some kind of measurement. This is where I hope that increased data and analytics provision can help us to continually make better sense of how we are actually using (digital) systems. Having a real time view of the digital interactions on our campus is still a shiny dream of mine.

Digital capability, just like digital literacy is not and will not be static, it will evolve. So we need to ensure that we don’t just assume that we as individuals and institutions will be digitally capable by default simply by putting pre-fixing everything with the “d” word.

Sheila MacNeill is a Senior Lecturer in Blended Learning at Glasgow Caledonian University where she works as part of a team who work collaboratively offer strategic direction, pedagogic guidance and practical support to staff in embedding blended and online learning across the curriculum.  She regularly blogs about her adventures and musing in and around the use of technology in education at

Image: Galaxy Blue – coiled plastic filament (CC BY 2.0)

By sheilamacneill

Senior Lecturer, Blended Learning, Glasgow Caledonian University.

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