Students Staff
University of Essex

December 12, 2017

Digital Deep Dive: the first plunge

Filed under: Uncategorized — Alex ONeill @ 1:30 pm

Anti-clockwise from top: Simon Kemp, Niki Kearns, Emma Wisher, Ai Gooch, Marty, Jacobs, Alex O’Neill

This term a group of Professional Services staff from IT Services, the Library and the Technology-Enhanced Learning team embarked on a project with the School of Law to explore how digital tools and skills could make a difference to student engagement. Instead of taking a “solution first” approach and suggesting particular programs or practices that the School could implement, we chose to adopt a “Human-Centred Design” methodology (see video below), immersing ourselves in the day-to-day experiences of staff and students.

What is Human-centered Design? from on Vimeo. You can learn more about human-centred design and join’s online learning community at

The decision to take this approach arose from work done last year via the Digital Skills Delivery Stakeholder Group (or DSDSG) to try to map digital skills support across the University. What emerged from this was a realisation of how disparate provision is, and in some cases how little awareness there is of the full offer to students, with particular challenges around how to capture what individual schools and departments provide. We wanted to try to pull together a more coherent picture of what could be offered, but also of what was needed by staff and students. A partnership between some of the key support providers, working closely with one department in particular, would offer us the chance to get in-depth knowledge and to formulate a joined-up response.

The School of Law had already been in touch with the TEL team due to challenges arising from the growth in student numbers and upcoming changes to the process of becoming a solicitor. They agreed to work with us more generally on our “digital deep dive”, and after some initial discussions with a group from the School, we formulated our initial design challenge together: “How might we increase student engagement with teaching material and assessment feedback?”.

Inspiration, ideation and implementation

There are 3 phases of the HCD process: inspiration, ideation and implementation. In the inspiration phase, the idea is to immerse yourself in the world of the people you’re designing for to get a real sense of their needs. We therefore carried out a series of interviews with academic staff and students to discover their experience of teaching materials and assessment feedback. We also carried out observations of a lecture and a tutorial.

Moving into the ideation phase, the project team then shared insights from the interviews and observations to develop our sense of specific needs and to begin to identify opportunities where digital approaches might help. The next step is to check back in with the group from Law and to put forward ideas for prototyping. Prototyping possible solutions will help us gauge whether our ideas actually work for Law, before attempting to implement something on a wider scale.

The overall plan is to use our findings across the University to make improvements to the digital advice we provide. Our HCD work this term has been a bit of an experiment and we’ve discovered both good and bad things about the approach: it requires a lot more time than originally anticipated, but has also been incredibly useful in making us aware of how important local issues are (for example the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam for Law). It has also been fascinating to see what assumptions we all make about how other students and staff work and how different that can be to reality.

Our longer-term aim is still to be decided, but we would like to to do more work with individual departments to produce tailored digital solutions that are truly fit for purpose.

Watch this space…

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