Simone Buitendijk’s opening plenary for Digital Universities 2023

The Times Higher Education Digital Universities UK conference took place over 4 days from 17th to 20th April. The event brought together those working at the intersection of academic innovation and technology under one roof. The purpose of the event was to foreground the latest challenges and opportunities of digital-first higher education. In addition to this, ed tech companies presented cutting-edge products vying to reshape the future of higher education.


Delegates at the University of Leeds attended keynotes, interactive panels, live demonstrations, peer discussions, practical workshops and networking events. The opening night panel and keynote addresses set the tone for the event. Simone Buitendijk, Vice-chancellor and President of the University of Leeds encouraged delegates to consider championing collaboration between institutions. She urged us to reject competition and the embedded culture of academic rivalry. Buitendijk suggested that how we unite in response to changing times was the most pressing question of the week. Later in the conference, panels unpacked this larger question into a series of more nuanced issues. These included, do we as a sector start again from scratch or remediate as we go? What role does the student voice have in curriculum design? How do we prepare students for flexible futures?  How can we address ethical issues and support marginalised students?

Digital First

A popular panel theme was a call to action for a ‘digital first’ approach to teaching and learning.  We heard that the University of Edinburgh captures all lectures in a digital format as standard. This practice began during the pandemic and remains for current students who quickly developed an appetite for ‘anytime’ study. At Arden University where the portfolio consists of 60% blended and 40% fully online degrees, all programmes are digital by default. The small amount of face-to-face classroom time provided is for enhancement, added value, rather than core instruction.

The host, the University of Leeds has made a commitment to a ‘digital by default’ approach. This pledge applies to all parts of the student journey: content delivery, exam submission, marking and feedback. Leeds approved this commitment in September 2021 although the plan had been proposed prior to the pandemic. Now, when designing modules, all staff ask themselves the question, ‘Can it be digital?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, it should be. As a result, most faculties have rejected closed book, in person, paper exams. If a digital format is unavailable, Leeds makes a provision to digitise papers at the end of the session. Investment has been made into tools such as Gradescope which digitises paper assets such as Lab Books for STEM subjects.

User Experience

Headline sponsor, QA ltd work with partner institutions from ‘the ground up’ to create optimally blended degrees with employability at the core. Their approach is to collaborate to provide a ‘considered user experience’. CEO Simon Nelson shared the three valuable lessons learned from the development work QA has undertaken:

1) Convenience is key – making resources on-demand transforms the flexibility and value of content.

2) Established brand is everything – don’t change your institutional brand, build it up and out by developing the brand’s digital presence and enhancing your existing consumers’ relationship.

3) Responsibility first – shape content in collaboration with the broadest selection of users possible.

Artificial Intelligence

Of course, the hottest topic of the conference was AI, in particular the rise (and perceived threat) of the chatbot, ChatGPT. Wei Li, Vice-president and general manager of Intel and Aaron Yaverski, regional vice-president of Turnitin both spoke of how AI is enhancing human intelligence, performance and productivity. Wei Li suggested that its arrival represents a key shift in human-centred effort that universities must respond to. Questions to consider include: how do we embrace this shift rather than fear it? How do we use these new tools effectively? What do we do with the data that these tools can harness?

In the Turnitin panel, discussions centred on the issue of academic integrity and the possibility of students using AI to ‘cheat’. Consensus amongst the academic staff present was that the most sensible approach was to embrace the tool and work with students to assess how and when it can be usefully employed. Our responsibility is to teach our students how to harness its power. The conversation took an interesting turn when a delegate suggested that the increased and ubiquitous use of these technologies may even influence future speaking and writing styles, resulting in the impossibility of detecting an ‘artificial’ style. The main takeaway was that in terms of assessment, maybe the time has finally come for higher education, industry and policy leaders to consider just how much they should rely on text as the basis of assessment and what useful and authentic assessment actually looks like in today’s rapidly changing landscapes.

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