Catherine Finch, Collections Librarian University of South Wales, writes

DigiFest 2022: what really happened.

This year’s DigiFest showcased the latest education technology and reflected on pandemic teaching and learning experiences.  It took place in the ICC at the heart of Birmingham between the new library and canal.

Why was I there?

I was a stand-in for Tracey Stanley, who was awarded JISC’s prestigious Digital Champion award for her work in organising and establishing “Excluded Voices” – a WHELF conference to show case the work being done to raise the profile of hidden communities and voices through collections, community work and accessible information.

The venue – it was BIG!

The venue was huge – a self-contained circular village with stairs and bridges linking one floor to another like an Escher painting.  Although initially confusing, it was well-equipped and accessible. 

After self-printing our QR code badges from the self-service machines (with human help), we entered a vast, dimly lit hall of neon lights.  It was full of stalls and promotions from various organisations, showcasing their latest products and technology.

Predicting the future by what was on display, it seems that augmented & virtual-reality headsets will be commonplace in education soon.  There was an everlasting queue for the cyber ‘Eden’ project – a virtual garden of life, where people had the opportunity to walk around & do some hedge trimming with their VR headsets.  Or performance mime for the rest of us. 

The Digital Community Champions experience

The Digital Champions were an inspiring and valued group of people who had worked tirelessly within their organisations to collaborate and engage with communities to improve access to lifelong learning and education.   They ranged from implementing an early careers network in their institution to developing greater accessibility for students with complex needs.  As well as Tracey Stanley, there were two other librarians awarded “Community Champion” for DigiFest 2022.  These were:

  • Angela Dynes from Northern Regional College – nominated for her outstanding work in improving student experience.
  • Cardiff Metropolitan’s Jane Daniels for her leading role and work in advocating for good-quality and shared metadata in library systems and organisations.

We met up and ate delicious food and cakes in an Executive Suite which provided a welcome haven from the bustle of conference activity.  JISC’s generosity extended to booking and paying for high quality hotel accommodation, travel costs and a wonderful 3-course evening meal with drinks included.  

It wasn’t just about food – though the pulled pork tacos topped with tart pomegranates – infused with a subtle hint of coriander, brought happy tears to my eyes.  Here’s a selection of key talks and presentations that had a profound impact on me during those two action packed days.

The presentations

I attended a few talks focusing on FE or T-level courses.  One was a digital programme developed in collaboration with Middleborough FE college which utilised open-source education technology to develop a self-assessment tool to identify and map out skills: students can use this to write CVs or find out what extra education or training is needed.  It is similar to CILIP’s PSKB tool for library professionals.

Another presentation was about FE students in Northern Ireland developing transferable skills by cross-course working and collaborating to help local businesses find solutions for social and environmental issues.  Projects included helping farmers use drones for agriculture and addressing the closure of branches of banks by teaching older people how to do online banking.

Inspiring keynote speaker, Sarah Jones of De Montfort University got everyone to work on the day’s Wordle to convey how collaborative and challenged based learning is changing education and the use of educational spaces.  She gave an example of how a Debenhams store has been turned into a learning/collaborative hub for cross-course collaborative working and exchange of knowledge.  The use of AI and AR can complement this.  Student can be taught core transferrable skills, but don’t need to be restricted to just their subject areas.  Learning can be flexible – accelerated or sandwiched or taken at the students’ pace.  She recommended that HE institutions need to ‘deep dive’ into this new learning: the technology, learning models and student outcomes to develop a strategy for a consistent approach.

The best sessions for me were focused on the experiences of people who often go unheard.  Ireland’s Tom Farrelly talked about a Munster college project and study, which looked at how to engage the Irish English traveller community into education.  These communities are disadvantaged by lack of facilities – wi-fi, PCs, permanent homes, spaces, printing facilities and literacy – all excluding and contributing factors to lack of educational achievement.  And women in these travelling communities were much more likely to be illiterate and start families in their teens and early 20s.    

We also got the chance to see what students really thought and experienced during lockdown in the insightful panel discussion “How are students experiencing online learning”.  I was surprised to learn that students felt online learning empowered them and gave them more choices in some ways.   They were also able to contact their tutors more easily or take a break in the middle of a recorded lecture.  But there were negative experiences and a consensus that this could depend on type of course and student.  Most of the panel articulated that they felt lonely and isolated from their peers at times.  It was a fascinating discussion.  Once recordings become available, I recommend a watch.

Final summary

It was a taste of new technology and ideas.  It was an insight into the direction that HE/FE is moving towards:

  • Students gaining core transferrable and employable skills
  • Utilising AR & AI technology to simulate experiences
  • Creating a more flexible approach to learning.

You can see it happening now: there is a drive to get students to work with other subjects/courses and to bring in real world clients/stakeholders such as businesses, charities and local communities & organisations.  We’re moving in a direction where students are expected to problem solve and cross-collaborate with other subjects.   There is a drive to make learning accessible for all EDI groups.  And at the heart of it all, there is the need to link this into a university-wide strategy that will allow this to successfully happen.