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Getting started with the Digital Elevation Tool – how one practitioner approached the challenge at two different colleges


We have heard from some of our Digital Elevation Tool (DET) community members that knowing how to get started with the tool and apply it to their own context can be a significant blocker to progress. We are lucky to have a member of the community who has rolled out the tool at two Further education (FE) organisations with different requirements and who was keen to share their experience with the community. We spoke to long-time friend of Jisc and enthusiastic advocate of the elevation tool Kerry Heathcote, Vice Principal Curriculum and Quality at College of West Anglia (CWA) about getting started, keeping going and ‘eating elephants’.

Kerry was Assistant Principal Quality and Improvement at Edinburgh College until June 2022 where she was working with an established and successful digital strategy. Her plan was to use the elevation tool to create an action plan and add detail to the existing work because, in her words DET ‘is the most meaningful thing I’ve come across in terms of digital strategy and developing a digital environment.’

One of the keys to her success in rolling the tool out at Edinburgh was starting small. The initial meetings were 45 minutes long and included the head of IT and the learning technologies and resourcing manager. From there the team began to see how the tool could begin building in detail to the existing digital strategy:

‘In terms of an action plan, the elevation tool did the job. The tool gave detail to the strategy in a way that wasn’t at all contrived, in fact, it said to people – this is a whole cross-college approach, this is not just about IT doing things for us. It educated people in a really nice way about what we needed to do to elevate.’

Kerry Heathcote, Vice Principal Curriculum and Quality, College of West Anglia

While at CWA, her team’s aim has been to build a high-level strategy based on the five themes within the tool, (Leadership, Governance and Culture, IT Infrastructure, Staff Experience, Learner Experience and Curriculum Design and Development) and then allow expert colleagues in each of the fields to work on the detail within the tool to draw up action plans. The initial strategy drawn up by Kerry and her team is direct and it is brief: ‘When I met with the team I said, ‘our challenge is to do this on eight slides or fewer!’

This brevity was a deliberate tactic by Kerry who was keen to ensure that any strategy for the college was clear in what it was asking practitioners to do as well as laying out detail for clear governance:

It needed to be inclusive, I needed to be able to present it to governors and for them to understand it in the same way a practitioner would understand it.’

Kerry Heathcote, Vice Principal Curriculum and Quality, College of West Anglia

Engaged and informed governance at CWA and a new start meant Kerry chose to focus on the Leadership, Governance and Culture theme of the tool first – which Jisc had recommended as a starting point for institutions, but she conceded that this was not where she started at Edinburgh. In fact, it was the fifth theme she tackled there. In other words, adapt your approach to the context and focus of your college and make the tool work for you.

One of the significant differences between the approaches Kerry took highlights the flexibility of the elevation tool and process. At Edinburgh, Kerry was able to evaluate what had already been achieved by the existing college strategy and could use the elevation tool to apply the level concepts of foundation, transform and elevate – the focus being on elevating the foundations they had already achieved. At CWA, those terms haven’t been used in the initial documentation because the focus is on shaping a brand new strategy and as the tool is iterative and lives alongside the work her team is doing, they can look to elevate later in their journey.

Kerry’s view of the tool, as a living, breathing and ever evolving process rather than a race to completion, is a tonic to the initial feelings of ‘overwhelm’ some institutions feel when deciding where to start:

‘It’s like an elephant, you eat it one chunk at a time and at the end, well there’s another elephant…just get used to it!’

Kerry Heathcote, Vice Principal Curriculum and Quality, College of West Anglia

In other words, you’re embarking on an iterative, long-term process. Don’t be overwhelmed, start somewhere and acknowledge each piece of progress before moving on in a way that works for your organisation.

Kerry’s top tips for starting and succeeding:

  • If you can, start with Leadership, Governance and Culture so you can ‘lead from the top’, if there’s something higher on your agenda such as digital wellbeing, start with Learner Experience
  • ‘Digital’ is not just about the bright shiny stuff, it’s about the foundations, leading from the top and getting the basics right before you invest in new technology. Use the tool to create a plan to utilise that technology to inform learner success
  • Keep your meetings to manageable time frames with the people who need to be there – don’t bore them
  • Tell everyone from the outset that the process is iterative and supportive, this is not a box ticking exercise, it’s a living breathing thing
  • Promote the fact that you can make progress very rapidly – there are so many elements to look at you can very quickly evidence progress

Find out more about our Digital Elevation Tool.

Author – Louise Price, Consultant – Digital capabilities, Jisc

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