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Technology plays an important role in supporting the core business functions of universities and colleges. Ensuring staff and students are digitally capable is therefore essential and leaders will want to ensure that the organisational culture and ICT infrastructure support and facilitate core activities.

The summary below gives gives more information on our organisational digital capabilities framework and explains some of the key concepts.

Organisational digital capabilities framework
Developing digital capability: an organisational framework (this work is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA)

Organisational digital culture

Organisational digital culture expresses how the organisation supports the development of digitally capable people (staff and students) through its core strategies, administrative structures and processes such as strategic planning, quality enhancement and estates management and through cultural features such as its leadership, governance, approach to innovation and the way it engages students and staff.

The organisation’s digital culture also determines its style of internal and external communication and its approach to issues such as digital safety and well-being, innovation (versus security), openness and inclusion.

When building a model to suit your needs we encourage you to ensure that opportunities for students and staff to explore what this means to their areas of practice are an integral aspect of the development process.

When we were looking at the Digital Lancaster strategy we considered whether people would have the skills to undertake what we were expecting, and above and beyond that, did they have a culture that encouraged them to actually do it?

Rachel Fligelstone, head of IT support, Lancaster University

Four core areas of activity

Digital capabilities have the ability to enhance all areas of organisational practice but we know that digital capability requirements vary. We have identified four core areas of activity particularly pertinent to educational organisations and looked at the digital capabilities these require - offering a digital lens or perspective for you to consider.

These areas of activity may be quite separate from one another structurally, but common digital issues create opportunities for staff to collaborate and to share ideas and know-how. Sound digital leadership is essential in each of these areas, as well as across the organisation as a whole.

Shifting roles and responsibilities

Every member of the organisation now needs to be their own information specialist, managing content and issues appropriate to their role. They need to be able to deal with issues such as search terms, metadata tagging and intellectual property rights (IPR) that may previously have been addressed by librarians and to be able to interrogate, monitor, manage and use multiple data sets and possibly even learner analytics.

Everyone needs to have an increased awareness of what they are learning from their analytics and how to apply them back. We need to grow these skills across the organisation but we still need to rely on specialists as well, particularly in areas like IT where we really need to build something meaningful on the back of the data we have.

Will Woods, head of learning and teaching technologies, the Open University

Emergence and evolution of specialist roles

Effective management of information and data is critical to the functions of large organisations such as colleges and universities. Even work that is not obviously information-related is likely to be represented, organised, managed, monitored and evaluated in data systems.

Information and data specialists are emerging in many roles. Role holders may have acquired these responsibilities and skills gradually over time and as the need has arisen without being formally recognised as data specialists. Knowing where and how to collect, share and interpret data appropriately is of growing importance and there needs to be clear understanding by all institutions and their staff of their responsibilities.

Dual roles - managing mastery of own specialism and supporting others

Librarians and other data specialists will find it necessary to continuously update their own area of specialist digital expertise and, at the same time, are likely to be supporting others to acquire skills that were once regarded as being the responsibility of specialists. Human resources (HR) and continuous professional development (CPD) strategies must take account of this shift from specialist only roles to expecting all staff to own and use a degree of what was formerly regarded as the responsibility of specialists and reflect this by updating job roles and specifications as well as recruitment, personal development and review processes.

Research and innovation

The role of professional bodies and specialist domains in developing digital capabilities

In universities, most teaching staff are also researchers and in colleges, most teaching staff are also professionals or vocational workers who are at the forefront in innovating practice. In both cases, they are dealing with an accelerating pace of digital change in their specialist field - changes in methods and tools and also in the things that have to be known and in the problems being faced. These specialist digital capabilities are often not developed in organisational settings at all but in connection with a professional body, research team, subject community or other specialist domain.

Facilitating the sharing of specialist and generic digital expertise

Organisations need to take an interest in how staff and students build, use and share their specialist digital expertise and how the organisation facilitates access to channels that will support this. For example, modelling and sharing digital practices and behaviours could be an effective way of doing this.

Digital capabilities beyond the confines of specialist research

Research, scholarship and problem solving are activities that happen beyond the confines of specialist research. All roles in complex organisations involve elements of using evidence to answer questions and to solve problems so there should be support for more general practices such as constructing an online poll or looking for patterns in data so as to draw inferences and conclusions.

There is a lot of talk about relating digital literacy to research impact. Impact isn’t just how many papers you have published but who is engaging with them and how you can measure that…

Fiona Harvey, former education development manager, University of Southampton


An essential capability for all

Digital communication is a skill required by everyone. It enables core functions to be managed effectively and makes it possible for people to work, study and research together regardless of barriers such as time and location. Systems and practices need to be in place to ensure effective and respectful communication around day-to-day matters.

In addition, there are specialist forms of digital communication required in an educational organisation. These include learning conversations, supportive communications from tutors and student services, communication of ideas through presentation and publication, sharing of outcomes in research and practice, partnership building and public communications via websites, blogs, wikis and social media.

Using digital media to promote organisational and personal reputations

This is an area where individual capabilities can have a significant impact on the core business of an educational organisation - on its internal culture and its external reputation. Because it is so critical to personal reputation as well, people are often very willing to explore how they manage communication and to consider how they could do so more consciously and effectively using digital media.

The different affordances of different types of digital communication

Large organisations need a public digital media strategy and staff with expertise in this area. With so many opportunities for individuals to communicate publicly from inside the organisation it is even more important that all students and staff have good e-communication skills, respect the communication needs of others and understand the etiquettes of different methods of digital communication.

While individuals may have personal experience they may need support to consciously address how different digital media influence understanding and conversational outcomes.

Learning, teaching and assessment

Learning, teaching and assessment is arguably the core business of education. Making sure staff have the digital capabilities to make appropriate decisions on how to incorporate technology into curriculum activities and that students are developing the skills they need to operate in a digital workplace is therefore essential.

Changing demands from firms, consumers, students and communities mean that apprenticeships, vocational qualifications and degrees need to deliver more general - and also specific - digital capabilities.

Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future (2015) House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills

Accessibility and inclusion

Digitally capable staff should have the capability and confidence to create inclusive learning opportunities, to embed digitally inclusive practices into strategy, policy, quality assurance processes and into every day practice.

This will facilitate staff confidence in their ability to evaluate and assess the accessibility of content and resources and to identify and share with learners the strategies, skills, practices and tools that allow them to personalise and adapt technology to meet their specific learning needs and support productive and personalised learning experiences.

Establishing digital capabilities within curriculum experiences

Learners need to understand the digital environment they are entering and the kinds of learning practices expected of them as they prepare for employment. These expectations and requirements should be embedded into induction processes as well as the curriculum and the wider learning experience. Our technology for employability toolkit (pdf) provides effective practice tips on incorporating technology-for-employability.

Several universities have adopted digital capability, digital citizenship, or similar as a graduate outcome. Others have required digital activities and outcomes to be discussed during course design and review. Our guide to designing learning and assessment in a digital age explores how digital tools can make a difference to the art of learning design

The use of digital technology tools can set you apart from others. it's about time and training. The more prepared you are at uni, and the more you know, the more you stand out at interviews and employment. They don't have to train you to do it.

Melissa, events management BA, University of Lincoln, also an MA student in 2017

Sometimes co-curricular support is needed from learning support teams, digital champions and IT training teams. Where e-learning or digital specialists are involved in curriculum design it is more likely that students will have their digital capabilities assessed and developed through authentic digital activities delivered as part of their curriculum. Learners also need to evolve a set of personal digital practices that support their learning: note-taking and curating, finding and managing information, reviewing and showcasing outcomes, producing digital assignments and attending to feedback.

All staff have a responsibility to their own learning and professional development and so need the same digital practices as successful learners.

As individual staff and students take on more responsibility for their own use of technology, skills that were once confined to digital learning and teaching specialists have to become more widespread.

Digital safety and wellbeing

Every organisation has a duty to guard the health, safety and wellbeing of its members, and that includes protecting them from digital risks. Cyber-bullying, trolling, hacking and other damaging online behaviours are on the rise. Universities and colleges are putting in place advanced data security measures to protect personal and organisational data and are developing policies on safe internet use and respectful behaviour online.

Digital safety and well-being is a one of the six elements of our digital capabilities framework. Ensuring learners know how to behave safely and responsibly in the digital space can be a challenge for colleges and universities and their staff.

Some of the most successful approaches have been developed in collaboration with students, for example, around safe online practices and the values agenda. Digital practices can change how people relate to one another, their work-life-learning balance, the stresses they face, and how much time they spend at a screen. All of these can impact on wellbeing and reduce satisfaction. Developing a digitally healthy organisation means considering the impact of digital technology use on a range of issues such as the environment, equality and diversity, and of course individual health and wellbeing.

Supporting the development of teaching staff

Most organisations that have developed a digital capabilities definition or framework have gone on to embed this into teaching staff development.

In universities, this usually means mapping the framework to the requirements of the Higher Education Academy (now part of AdvanceHE), whether accredited courses or fellowship applications. To support staff, we have collaborated with HEA to provide a digital lens on the UK Professional Standards Framework (pdf).

In colleges, it may mean providing a structured workshop timetable, or bite-sized sessions - perhaps with digital badges as an incentive.

Specialist skills and appropriate pedagogies are needed for teaching online (see our scaling up online learning guide), designing authentic digital activities (see the section on design in our guide to designing learning and assessment in a digital age), and supporting learners' own digital practices. However, digital teaching should not be seen as a special interest but an element of mainstream practice.

Peer and collaborative support mechanisms

Through a variety of roles, students and staff are taking on responsibility for developing others, for example, by designing learning or training materials, mentoring or coaching, acting as champions, facilitating learning groups or networks. Our work through the change agents’ network shows that students and staff working in partnership is an effective way of co-developing digital capabilities and driving forward change in the curriculum.

Once staff have a basic level of proficiency, most digital skills are acquired through informal contacts with colleagues and by 'just trying things out'. Online resources such as Microsoft’s interactive online guide to help educators find free courses and resources tailored to their needs (and mapped to our capabilities framework) or resource banks such as LinkedIn Learning work well for staff who are independent digital learners. This also frees up more intensive training resources for those who lack confidence.


Finally, all of these practices - and the success or otherwise of the organisation’s strategic vision - depend on a supportive digital infrastructure, expressed in the real and virtual estate (and in the policies that govern access to these resources). The infrastructure depends on people with the relevant expertise and vision, as well as on investment in networks, systems, hardware and digitally-equipped spaces.

An infrastructure that builds and supports confident use

A robust, reliable and flexible infrastructure is essential and will provide a strong foundation from which staff and students can develop individual and collective digital capabilities and have the confidence to try out new technologies knowing that the technology will work.

Indicative features of an infrastructure designed to support organisational digital capability might include:

  • Access to a range of tools to support inclusive practice and the different requirements of staff and students
  • The ability to absorb new demands such as high performance computing, scaling up online learning, MOOCs or wireless printing as well as to accommodate the evolving range of learning support solutions
  • The ability to support a wide variety of practices required by different roles and subject specialisms as well as emerging practices at the forefront of research and teaching
  • The capacity to provide or access specialist digital expertise
  • Formal and informal horizon scanning to gain foresight of emerging technologies and developments
  • Planning and investment cycles including those which balance investment in fixed computing with support for personal devices under a bring your own device (BYOD) policy
  • Evident mechanisms for encouraging all stakeholders to participate in planning processes, especially innovative users working at the limits of current provision
  • Development and procurement of inclusive processes to support an array of IT help and support options (helpdesk support, on-demand resources, face-to-face training, specialist support, peer and student-led mentoring/buddy services)

It is also important to ensure that teaching spaces support the integration of technology - see case studies in our learning space toolkit where staff from different professional services shared best practice to work together more effectively.

It's important to address infrastructure as well as people's skills. You can’t get people to try stuff if the technology won't actually let them do it.

Kerry Pinny, senior academic technologist, university of Warwick