In the summer of 2021, the Digital Strategy Working Group began conducting consultations in order to understand the needs of our students, staff, instructors and researchers in using digital systems and services. Since then, we’ve facilitated 21 workshops with 246 participants collecting over 350 “digital moments” that describe the type of digital experiences that would make working, learning, teaching and research at Ryerson better. We also conducted four surveys during April and June of this year, using the UK-based JISC Digital Experience Insights survey questionnaires.
While we are in the midst of developing the outlines of a strategy, we want to dive into some of the initial findings and provide an overview of the feedback from our digital moments workshops. This blog post focuses on what we learned from the digital moments. We hope to provide the survey results later in another blog post.
Working, learning and teaching during the pandemic has been very challenging and we were not sure how much time people would have to attend our workshops. We were very encouraged that so many people took the time, came prepared to discuss issues and improvements in detail, and actively participated in the workshops. Thank you so much to everyone who participated.
While Ryerson has been able to continue to function without significant technical issues, working and learning remotely has meant we are more reliant than ever on digital systems to do our work. The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the limitations of our systems as well as the opportunities for improvement of our systems and services.
Throughout our discussions several themes emerged from the workshops and digital moments. The following is our first attempt to describe what we discovered within a small number of overall themes.
Theme 1: Eliminate redundant data entry
We frequently heard about the need to reduce the time required for administrative processes – especially where lengthy data entry is required of information that has already been entered into other systems. We heard from faculty researchers about their challenges with entering data for their CVs into multiple systems to track their research outputs. We heard from staff members who must enter and review budget information separately in both the HR and Finance systems. We heard from students who struggled to coordinate assignment due dates and course timetables across multiple conflicting calendar systems in RAMSS, D2L and Google Calendar. Mostly, we heard the common refrain “don’t ask me for the same data twice.” Ultimately this means we need systems that are coordinated and ‘speak to each other’ in order to support the needs of our community and minimize the administrative overhead of data entry.
Theme 2: Support work processes not just transactions
Whether working in teams or individually, many of our systems do not fully support the work we are trying to accomplish. Instead of designing around one-off tasks or transactions, these systems must become better aligned with our collaborative processes involving multiple people and spanning several departments. For example, until very recently, when working on a document in Google Drive, there was no built-in way to lock documents and send them on for approvals. In early September Google Approvals became available.
Today, we still do not have the ability to support sophisticated document workflows for many of our core tasks across departments. From our digital strategy consultations, we have heard that relying on email to get documents drafted, reviewed, edited and approved within departments and across the university is cumbersome at best.
In addition to directly supporting workflows, many requests identified the need for more customizable interfaces, notifications, dashboards, as well as add-ons and integration between email, calendars, scheduling and other systems so that everyone can remain informed and up-to-date as work progresses. For example, hiring and onboarding a new employee involves a series of steps including approvals, mandatory training, applying for their OneCard ID, and new phone and computer assignments. Everyone involved in hiring processes should be able to quickly and easily see an overview of what a new employee needs.
None of these observations were new. It was gratifying to hear system owners in HR, Finance, the Registrar’s office, and others acknowledge that the systems they manage could work better together. Where resources have been available, each of these systems has seen gradual improvements. For example, the Registrar’s Office added the “Gideon Taylor Forms” system to RAMSS in 2017. The system was used to create the eForms Centre in RAMSS. The forms provide the ability to take payments, take attachments, update tables in Campus Solutions(RAMSS) and include workflow. A number of processes have been automated using the service. Nevertheless, better workflow across these systems has been a challenge that these teams have not had the necessary longer term financial or human resources to address.
Theme 3: Make information easier to find
Students, instructors, staff and researchers all described how managing and finding information in the many systems at use across the university is a common problem. Some of these issues can be addressed through developing more consistent practices and using common interface designs. Students in particular noted that the multiple approaches to D2L course shells was confusing and difficult to navigate, and many noted that standard templates providing a common look-and-feel would make it easier to access their materials across all of their courses. Other students found it difficult to navigate their courses when many of their instructors asked them to use different systems to accomplish the same tasks, for example different discussion and chat systems. Additionally, many staff members noted the need for more guidance on managing files, folders and permissions so they could work consistently and safely with others within Google Drive.
Overall, our workshop participants desired easily accessible and well-promoted centralized listings and databases – such as searchable databases of vendors within the Finance system, or a listing of software currently in use by departments across the university, or a directory of CCS staff available to support different systems and services. Generally, it should be easier and quicker to find information. This theme also emerged in conversations about IT governance – or how decisions are made regarding IT in centres, departments and faculties across the university. Managers, department chairs, directors, deans and others may be compelled to make IT decisions in isolation and without a broader view to the systems and services in use across the university. Opportunities to reduce unnecessary duplication of efforts and to learn from others’ experiences are easily missed.
Theme 4: Create opportunities for knowledge transfer and collaboration
One important effect of our digital moments workshops was that they provided a place for staff, researchers and instructors to share their experiences and learn new tools and workflows from each other. Many participants found this useful especially during the pandemic, when there were fewer in-person encounters or serendipitous meetings with colleagues. The discussions that arose during our workshops also speak to the utility of a broader kind of knowledge transfer about digital systems and practices as a way to communicate and collaborate between units, departments, faculties. Sharing information about workflows and practices is especially relevant as we’re shifting away from paper-based processes.
An important consideration for the digital strategy is to create more opportunities to share skills and expertise. This approach can also promote greater outreach, education and training on software and services that we already have in place, but which may not be widely used. We came away with the impression that there is a great deal of expertise across the university but everyone is so busy that knowledge and experience aren’t widely shared.
Theme 5: Working with data for timely decisions and on-demand analytics
The final theme that arose in our consultations was how to leverage data analysis across systems. Many staff participants described the need for smoother movement of data to support everyday decision-making, and to be able to plan and anticipate future needs. There is a strong desire to move from reactive to proactive use of data analytics. Ryerson does not have a data warehouse or data storage and analytics system that provides data across systems in ways that are usable by many different faculties and departments. Instead there is a patchwork of databases that serve specific needs. Little effort has been made to match data between our systems to improve the capacity to analyse data across the University. As we develop ways to use data for timely decisions with on-demand analytics, it’s also important to consider the concerns of data privacy and surveillance, and how we can responsibly collect and use data at scale.
During the digital moment workshops we often found people had come prepared with carefully thought through suggestions based on their working experience. It was inspiring to see the care and attention they brought to the workshops. We came away from the workshops with a stronger desire to provide everyone at the university with a less fragmented and more effective working environment. As we develop our long-term digital strategy, these themes and additional findings from the digital moments workshops and surveys will inform our priorities and work towards supporting our students, instructors, researchers and staff with the digital tools and services they need. Our next step is to develop an outline of a digital strategy for discussion before moving on to a first draft.
– Carol Shepstone, Chief Librarian
– Steven Liss, Vice-President, Research and Innovation
– Brian Lesser, Chief Information Office