A people‑first approach to technology: A look at Dal's new Digital Strategy

- December 3, 2021

Dalhousie's Digital Strategy is less about technology itself and more about what technology can do for the people who work and study at the university. (Provided photos)
Dalhousie's Digital Strategy is less about technology itself and more about what technology can do for the people who work and study at the university. (Provided photos)

You’ll often hear a plan described as a “road map.” But the thing about roads is that they’re rather static. If a road is on your map today, it’s probably going to be there when you drive to it tomorrow.

That makes “road map” an ill-suited metaphor for the digital age. Technology — just like the human beings who use and rely on it — is in a constant state of change, always flowing and pushing in different directions and at oft-quickening speeds. Trying to navigate the digital world is more like being at a ship’s helm than behind the wheel of a car.

So consider Dal’s new Digital Strategy, finalized this fall, as something more like a nautical chart. It’s about helping the university and its people set a clear course towards their destination while helping steer through the technology currents along the way, anticipating them to shift and change.

“What we’re moving towards is a barrier-free, seamless experience for faculty, students and staff,” says Donna Bourne-Tyson, Dean of Libraries and co-chair of the Digital Strategy planning committee. “It’s about having systems and platforms that are integrated and easy to use, with training and support so every member of the Dal community feels they have the digital proficiency necessary to do their work, their research, their studies.”

People-centred planning

A people-centred, comprehensive plan for Dal’s digital infrastructure, the Digital Strategy is less about technology itself and more about what technology can do for the people who work and study at Dalhousie. It’s setting out clear goals for how tech can support excellence and inclusivity in teaching, learning, research, the student experience, and administrative functions.

For Josh Leon, Dalhousie’s chief information officer and assistant vice-president of Information Technology Services (ITS), part of the reasoning behind the strategy is that — with software and hardware costs rising and the need to continually upgrade Dal’s digital infrastructure — it’s vital that the university technology decisions are being driven by the needs of its faculty, staff and students, and not the other way around.

“ITS’ role is not to determine what technology Dal needs — we’re here to support education and research” says Dr. Leon. “This strategy is about setting out a framework to define those needs."

The Digital Strategy’s five pillars cover the many ways the digital world intersects with Dal’s varied functions:

  1. Teaching and learning: Digitally supported, differentiated pedagogy, and exceptional student experiences
  2. People-centric: Digitally competent students, staff and faculty
  3. Research & innovation: Seamless, enabling digital research environments
  4. Community collaborations: Digitally enhanced relationships and services
  5. Digital foundations: Ethical, effective governance, sustainable, responsive, future-ready

Among the plan’s high-level goals are a strategy for a digital campus encompassing all aspects of the digital student journey; creating a researcher-oriented digital environment; integrating digital literacy as a core skill for students,faculty and staff; better segmenting external and internal information on Dal’s intranet and website; and designing transparent, visible digital governance the enables decision-making that is ethical and environmentally and financially sustainable.

Learn more: Visit the Digital Strategy website

For Bourne-Tyson, at the heart of discussions around Dal’s digital future is what it means for issues like equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility (EDIA).

“People may not think of a digital strategy as an EDIA strategy,” she says, “but in so many ways it’s about improving our ability to be inclusive and accessible by removing barriers both to technology and through technology.”

A collaborative process

The planning process for the Digital Strategy began in September 2020, led by a 28-member, cross-departmental steering committee co-chaired by Bourne-Tyson and Dr. Leon. The process occurred in lockstep   with the development of Dal’s new strategic plan, Third Century Promise, and will continue as a critical priority under the plan’s fifth pillar, A Foundation for Inclusion and Distinction. Consultation was key in developing Dal’s Digital Strategy, with the committee hosting 29 discussion groups with stakeholders from across the university who helped formulate the plan’s pillars and priorities.

Developing the strategy while working remotely during the pandemic — using tools like Teams and Slido for consultations — offered both challenges and opportunities, and in many ways reinforced the value of the strategy itself.

“I think the heightened awareness of the importance of technology [because of the pandemic] allowed us to get people’s attention and sparked for some great conversations,” says Dr. Leon.

Vivian Howard, who served on the steering committee in her role as Associate Vice-President Academic, sees the positive impact the Digital Strategy will have on Dal’s academic experience.

“During the pandemic, we have learned so much about how digital technology can support teaching and learning,” she says. “The Digital Strategy will give us the opportunity to use what we have learned to develop reflective, deliberate, intentional approaches that can enhance online, blended, and in-person classes, and make learning experiences more accessible and inclusive.”

Looking ahead

With the Digital Strategy now available to the Dal community
, the next stage of the process is fleshing out the implementation plan. A senior leader assigned to each pillar will be pulling together teams from across the university to develop action plans around the strategy’s goals — work that will continue to engage individuals across the university.

Those individuals won’t include Bourne-Tyson and Leon for much longer — at least, not in their current roles. Leon’s term as CIO is coming to an end, with new CIO Jody Couch set to arrive in January, joining the Dal community from the University of California Berkeley. Bourne-Tyson will soon be in a similar boat, with her term ending next July and the search for the next dean of libraries currently underway. The pillar leaders, together with the new Digital Strategy Implementation Steering Committee, will lead the digital transformation ahead.

With new project manager, Allison Kincade, seconded to the Office of Planning and Analytics to keep all the Digital Strategy pieces aligned, the hope is that the strategy is set to help Dal through wherever technology’s currents go in the years ahead.

“Dalhousie really pulled together to do this important work,” says Bourne-Tyson. “I think everyone is able to see, in the strategy, how we will improve our ability to thrive in the digital environment.”

You’ll be hearing more about the Digital Strategy in the weeks and months ahead. To review the Digital Strategy in full, visit the Strategic Planning website.


All comments require a name and email address. You may also choose to log-in using your preferred social network or register with Disqus, the software we use for our commenting system. Join the conversation, but keep it clean, stay on the topic and be brief. Read comments policy.

comments powered by Disqus