21 May 2020

What’s in a network?


Can you imagine if the coronavirus had happened before we had the technology that we have now?

HEFCW has been without an office since February, due to Storm Dennis. For the first month we also used space kindly loaned to us by the University of South Wales and Cardiff Metropolitan University. Because we are on eduroam, the international education roaming service, it meant that we were able to continue our work seamlessly.

It also means we have been doing a lot of homeworking, even before COVID-19. Jisc, which provides UK universities and colleges with shared digital infrastructure and services, as well as supporting us, has been essential in ensuring that we can continue to develop policy, liaise with Welsh Government, and pay institutions and staff.

Everyone is aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to significant challenges for higher education. Institutions are having to work at pace to meet the needs of students and keep the wheels turning from a distance. Staff are spending large parts of the day on multiple video conferencing apps in order to support continued collaboration.

Likewise, university governing body meetings are being held online for the first time, as are our Council meetings. It is crucial that effective governance is maintained in these challenging times, and it’s difficult to think how else this might have been achieved while social distancing!

Throughout all this we have been continuing to fund Jisc to support the sector. All institutions managed to move all their work online incredibly quickly – a testament to the staff involved, given the speed and scale of the task. However, given how quickly this has been achieved, practices will vary within and between institutions.

We are supporting Jisc to work with higher education providers to find and embed best practice, and to reduce the variability in the student experience, which will be particularly important if it becomes necessary for the 2020/21 academic year to be started online. Jisc has worked with publishers to enable electronic access to digital publications and textbooks, which is helping to protect the student experience. Cybersecurity remains a high priority, with more phishing attacks directed at staff than previously.

Jisc is also continuing to maintain the resilience and capacity of the superfast Janet Network in the current circumstances, to ensure the delivery of teaching, and secure the exchange of data.

In addition, some ‘business as usual’ continues – for example the Jisc/HEFCW collaboration on higher education analytics labs that will provide an overview of performance against the HEFCW national measures and information on student flows; and the work on Learning Analytics Cymru that uses technology to analyse data for the benefit of students. We encourage institutions to continue to talk to Jisc to see how they can most gain from the services on offer, and adapt to the current circumstances. For those wanting more information, the Jisc coronavirus support page and community of practice can be found at www.jisc.ac.uk/coronavirus.

So what next? We are not yet clear about what will happen in September – will campuses re-open at the start of term, will learning be online or blended for some time? What are the implications for new students, and will we find some students are digitally excluded from this way of learning?

It is clear that the pandemic has changed the perspectives of many organisations regarding working remotely. It’s likely that this will change the face of higher education in the longer term, as well as the short term.

Is this a good thing? Do we want to go back to how we were? What will (and should!) future higher education look like? This throws up a huge range of questions, and we will continue to fund Jisc to try and identify answers, in partnership with other higher education sector bodies. As every cloud should have a silver lining, this may include how the sector’s response to the pandemic could enhance the future learning experience in higher education.

What is clear is that there will be global changes in higher education, so it is essential for higher education providers in Wales and the UK to remain engaged with these changes, and the technologies that will enable them to occur.

Dr Cliona O’Neill, Head of Student Experience