Digital education: foundations for the future


The pandemic has increased our focus on digital teaching and assessment over the last two years and, while it is clear that in-person teaching will remain fundamental to an Oxford education, we’re now more aware that digital tools have the potential to enhance and streamline what we do. 

Using digital technology to enhance our in-person offer is not a new thing. For example, I remember how excited I was when it became possible to use video clips, animations and real-time simulations to bring topics to life in my lectures, and to enhance students’ understanding – approaches that are now very widespread. 

But I’ve also had lectures ruined by audio-visual equipment failures and had my share of frustrations with slow and inflexible digital tools. 

Digital ambitions (and frustrations) 

It is clear that I am not alone in these views. During the consultation on the University’s new Digital Education Strategy (which is due to be approved in Michaelmas term) we heard that many colleagues across the University are keen to harness the power of technology – both to improve the experience for students in Oxford and to help increase our global reach. 

But we also heard loud and clear that many of us feel we’re not easily able to achieve all that we want to because of the limitations of existing support. For example, too many of us are grappling with cumbersome paper forms, we haven’t yet been able to support in-person e-exams at scale, and we don’t always have IT systems that work optimally for Oxford’s broad range of courses. 

These issues really came to the fore during the pandemic. We did succeed in teaching and assessing using digital tools, but the level of additional effort this required from staff is not sustainable in the longer term – we need systems that make it much easier for everyone. 

In short, we need to fix some very basic things before we embark on an ambitious digital future – building on our experience of the last two years. 

New University investment 

In this context, it is notable that Council recently approved funding for the Foundations of Digital Transformation programme, led by Professor Anne Trefethen. Over the next two years, this will provide much-needed investment to enhance the University’s digital capabilities in a range of areas from education and research to infrastructure and cybersecurity. 

More information about this programme will follow in the coming weeks, but I would like to talk briefly about the education component. 

Foundations and beyond 

I am pleased that the funding will support us in building the foundations that we need to support our students digitally. For example:

  • enabling large-scale in-person e-exams in the next academic year
  • providing improved tools for online marking, exam adjustments and extension requests
  • more investment in Canvas to adapt it for a wider range of subjects, and
  • moving antiquated paper-based student progression and request processes online. 

These changes are absolutely essential. However, they won’t allow us to realise all our digital ambitions. That is why the bid also includes funding to investigate longer-term investments that we will need for our digital future, such as:

  • IT equipment for lecture theatres and teaching rooms
  • reviewing teaching platforms for remote courses
  • more efficient timetabling, and
  • enhancing our admission support systems. 

A further bid for these more transformative activities will follow in the next year or two, based on this investigative work, helping us to make more progress in the future. 

This funding is an important step towards our digital future. It will get us on to a more sustainable footing beyond the pandemic and help us keep enhancing our unique in-person offer. 

I look forward to working with you as we continue to make progress.