The Idea of a Digital-First University

Lincoln College, Oxford, where Mark Pattison 
developed a radical new research agenda for the 
University of Oxford in the 1840s
Shifting forces in the UK Higher Education sector call for a new distinctive role for a university to enhance its prestige and intellectual endeavours – a new idea of a university. But at the present moment there is also a need to manage what appears to be a new landscape opened up by huge exogenous forces, such as the coronavirus, together with the disruption caused by digital technology. I argue that a new idea of a university should help the university to sustain and augment the existing institutional character of the university but also provide new orientations and give an impetus to a set of new long-range commitments for the university. This short post argues for the need to create a special role for a university in relation to its environment, cultural milieu and to provide a distinctive university in relation to others in the sector. Rather than retrench under the difficult conditions required in what might appear to be both an economic contraction and an education crisis the university should seize this opportunity to reassert its commitment to research and teaching and accelerate this capacity. This notion of an idea of a university drawn from a "digital-first" orientation would naturally have institutional implications in terms of the shape or pattern of the university. This proposal therefore advocates the development of the idea of a digital-intensive mission for any university that wishes to become a digital-first university.

However it is critical to emphasise that although the "digital-first" university will be different in many ways from its predecessors, it will nonetheless have important continuities. For example, internationally recognised academic professors, excellent student teaching and support, and an environment conducive to learning and discussion. It remains true today, as it was true in 1856, when George Templeton Strong argued,

"It seems certain that we shall effect nothing lasting or important except by and through teachers of the first order and the highest repute. They are not merely necessary to the vigour of the institution but conditions of its existence. Whether the experiment succeed or fail depends mainly on their presence or absence. With professors of respectable mediocrity or a little above it, a college will languish, but may subsist indefinitely. But a university cannot be planted and long sustained in life without professors of splendid name and ability, especially in a community where such institutions are unknown and where general mediocrity of attainment and aspiration is the obstacle to be removed and the evil to be remedied." ("Statement of George Templeton Strong Esq.," in Statements, Opinions, and Testimony Taken by the Committee of Inquiry Appointed by the Trustees of Columbia College (New York, 1865), pp. 20.)


The last major change for the universities could be said to be the shift to the modern research university in the 1800s. This grew out of the notion that research, as an experimental procedure conducted in a spirit of discovery, could form the basis of a mission for the university. This emerged in German universities in the nineteenth century and became known as the Humboldtian university. The German universities developed the notion that integrating teaching and research within the same institution could be intensified to improve both teaching and the research process. Professors increasingly began to teach methodological skills, greater analytical and theoretical knowledge and tools as part of their courses. This included a growing reliance on field-work, maps and graphs, catalogues, and lists of specialised data to explain to students’ recent scientific advances and ongoing research work. However, it was the American universities that would take these ideas and develop them by creating an ideal of combining and integrating teaching and research which resulted in the modern research university.

These new American research universities (John Hopkins, Chicago) had a strong commitment to basic research, to contextualized and applied research and to training researchers. These pioneering universities had a great influence on others, such as Harvard, which soon embraced this new idea of a university. This created a distinctive American institutional structure for a research university which was extremely successful during the twentieth century. This modern research university subsequently became the reference standard for the idea of a university and there can be little doubt that American universities are in a class of their own in terms of their ability to produce world-class research. By continuing to undertake teaching, these universities have been able to develop an important role in contribute new knowledge to the economy and to various organizations and firms in the industrial sector. This also created an expectation that teaching would be up-to-date and incorporate new knowledge. The institutional structures of the modern research university gave it the capacity to institutionalize and organize the proliferation of specialized knowledge into departments which were successful in undertaking high quality fundamental knowledge and practical research discoveries. At a time of rapid change and the need to take on global challenges, such as the coronavirus, these interdisciplinary skills and capacities are crucial.

Mark Pattison Rector of
Lincoln College, Oxford, 1861-1884
Today we are on undergoing a very similar transformatory event in contemporary societies. The university under the conditions of a society that is based increasingly upon digital knowledge and its economic valorisation will have to be very different to the industrial university. Post-industrial societies are structured around using knowledge and new knowledge production through computational technologies and related techniques and methods. But although these societies have produced unprecedented prosperity for certain parts of society, these rewards have not been equally distributed. At even the most basic level, inequality of access to the benefits of computation are still unequal, and social, cultural and political disruptions persist. Additionally, science and technology policy lacks even a rudimentary capacity to confront the complex implications of a computational society. The acquisition of new digital skills and these new knowledges are now fundamental drivers of innovation in and around an economy based on data, information and digital techniques. As such the university has a continued key role to play in the undertaking basic research, a highly concentrated output of academia, but also in building capacity and radicalising its use and innovation. The key research challenges in the 21st century lie at the integration of sub-disciplines and disciplines, often by bringing together knowledge from multiple levels of knowledge communities, into an organizational structure that can only be done through the mediating capacities offered through computation and particularly digital media. This digital-first strategy would need to impact not just research and teaching, but also the governance of the university by contributing to what has been called by David Palfreyman the “governance triangle” of the university.

We could say that there are two essential platforms for the university in this new economic environment,
(1) the creation of new knowledge (both increasingly mediated through the digital), and
(2) the capacity for the transformation of knowledge into new forms of invention and innovation (again using digital tools and methods). 
A university’s future growth, and even its survival, will increasingly depend of its ability to integrate and transform these new knowledges, compelling it to equip itself with new institutional structures for research and teaching. This new formal structural capacity is fundamentally reliant on digital processes of the creation, collection, experimentation and analysis in research through digital tools, methods, and techniques, combined with a critical capacity to assess theoretical and methodological foundations for such knowledge claims. As such these structures, combining the structural and the digital, enable a digital-first research university to flexibly adapt to the kinds of shifts in the needs for research and teaching for university sustainability and growth.

I want to suggest that under these conditions, a new orientation for a university might be as a ‘Digital-First Research University’. This would mean that a university is not only a research-intensive university, in the traditional sense, but also a data-intensive one. The digital opens up new ways of seeing and enables new methods for undertaking research. As such, a digital-intensive university supports efforts to ensure the spirit of discovery and the promotion of research through radicalising its internal use of digital technologies for the creation of theories, methods and tools. By this reorientation there would be a transformation of the culture of departments in a university in the greater use of the digital both tacitly and explicitly in undertaking their research missions.

This could be carefully articulated as a new mission for the university, including:

A new research agenda that by adopting a digital-first strategy works to create a new culture of research around the transforming potential of digital approaches across all disciplines. This includes new research into and investment in digital infrastructure (cyberinfrastructure) to support the digital transformation of research activities and to create a culture of digital-intensive research. This would include the creation of an Institute of Advanced Digital Studies which is distinctively oriented to the edge of research questions made possible in and through digital transformations in knowledge and to feed back this knowledge into future planning and research questions.
Seeking to connect to and transform teaching as a contribution to “redrawing the map of learning” (Briggs) through digital approaches in teaching and research. This could include a move from spatial metaphors (“maps of learning”) to a temporal and dynamic ones (“trajectories of learning”, “dynamic learning”, “postdigital methods”). Developing a digital-intensive teaching environment would need a radical reconceptualisation of the forms that are the base of the diversified pyramid of teaching programmes in the university from undergraduate to those at graduate level. This would facilitate active digital learning, that is critically using and adapting information rather than passively receiving it. For example, the use of augmented "digital teaching plug-ins" could mean that differing levels of learning ability could be added to the class to support different learning styles and speeds.
Aiming to refresh and strengthen service in relation to the notion of a public (or civic) university (e.g. creating the conditions for a new kind of “data citizen” educated critically about the digital in relation to civil society and democracy, enrolling and contributing to the local economy and culture). A crucial contribution that a “digital college” could provide (see below).
Contributing to industrial strategy (through ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment, and places) by strengthening “digital thinking” about these problems. By positioning itself as a digital-first university, an institution can harness its mission towards its own growing research capacity and also to the digital skills of its students and thereby the wider labour workforce (e.g. sharing its digital platforms, creating drop-in learning, greater collaborations). This includes creating a “digital college” open to extramural learners in the local community and which could scale dramatically for the local community (see below).
Supporting the creation and criticism of culture, for example by supporting and developing new forms of digital culture, but also in the digital transformation of existing culture heritage, histories and traditional forms of knowledge. This would also involve new digital collaborations (such as sharing digital platforms) with external cultural organisations, such as the GLAM sector.

A Digital-First Research University 

I see this notion of the “Digital-First Research University” as a key contribution to helping to shape and develop a universities research capacity. Especially through the development of working on these “trajectory streams” which are future-oriented “digital problems” (for example, digital divides/inclusion, social and culture challenges of a digital world, new technical and engineering technologies, economic challenges, global or postcolonial questions, understanding big problems such as climate change through digital techniques and living labs, shifting questions over identity and representation in a digital age, Europe, digital literatures, philosophical and ethical questions about the digital, legal issues, politics in a digital age, and problems of “digital poverty”, automation and deskilling – especially relevant to the local economy).

In this formulation intensity of research is not just about inputs of grants and outputs of publications, it also includes the capacity to create and maintain the digital-intensive environment of a digital research infrastructure (sometimes called a cyberinfrastructure) that facilitates and supports the cutting edge of research across the disciplines in a university.

This orientation would include exploring problems of a digital society more generally, and help concentrate the university’s limited resources in an area rather than trying to be all things to all people. This proposal is not calling for a specific programme as such, rather it is a theme, in terms of an idea or philosophy, to help direct the university and set the tone of the university more generally. Most notably this is not a proposal that teaching should become “virtual” or “digital”, rather that these new methods of teaching can flow out of the research agenda of the wider university towards a postdigital strategy for teaching.

To move forward under the terms of this proposal, the following tentative goals for a university are suggested:

1. Strengthen undergraduate admissions policies to attract students seriously committed to thinking and using the digital in new ways so that the university is not in competition with other local universities. Concentrate on attracting students to as a distinctive university with a "digital-first" mission, with a particular institutional character – a university that understands and seeks to shape the digital future. The digital-first research university.
2. Consolidate the current tendency toward multi-school system so that duplication of effort is avoided, especially in terms of administration. Use this to create more opportunities for interdisciplinary work that uses digital technology in new ways across cognate disciplines, each organised as departments (giving a vertical institutional structure based on discipline) with a manageable faculty size (perhaps within Colleges to share common administrative tasks). Through the use of digital structures a university could seek to create new horizontal “Schools” of knowledge (giving a horizontal institutional structure based on research theme or area) that can act as “pop-up fields” enrolling staff across the university in new experimental research areas, e.g. digital studies, biosemiotics, computational thinking, automation. These “Digital Schools” could be reminiscent of the original notion of “Schools of Study” in the founding structures of the University of Sussex, which likewise were horizontal fields of knowledge that extended beyond subject areas.
3. The “Digital-First Research University” theme would be adopted as a new institutional character for the university seeking to challenge the American Research University as a particularly institutional type.
4. Upgrading the quality of programmes and to ensure they all provide the groundworks for a “digital” education and preparation for thinking and working in a digital age. Situate expertise jointly in a “digital college” to share ideas and practices (this could lead to a potential for validating outside courses).
5. Increase and concentrate a significant proportion of a university's energies towards graduate and advanced professional training with digital-first approaches prioritised, particularly in relation to the challenge that digital ways-of-doing will have within these professional spheres.
6. With faculty recruitment concentrate on obtaining more staff with some element of advanced training in relation to the digital, whether that be methodological, data scientific, critical, or creative.
7. Structure organized research units (ORUs), such as institutes, centres and groups of teams and laboratories, as horizontal research strata outside of traditional academic structures of departments and faculties. Create sunset clauses in their constitutions to prevent them outliving their function, perhaps with a “living will” to allow them to be easily closed, but also ensure rotation of posts every three years to prevent the inevitable decline in their research energies and capacities.

Initial Concrete Proposals

A digital-first research university needs a “centre” to the university. The chapel or the library no longer provide that function, instead it is suggested that a site/building that houses both a digital college and an institute of advanced digital study would replace them.

a. Create a “Digital College” which is a ‘virtual’ undergraduate teaching college in the university and to which certain modules are associated. These modules which are in effect “digital electives” which can be added to the student’s underlying degree programme so that they graduate in their subject area but with “Honours from the Digital College” or “With Digital Honours”. Some thought might have to made as to how much credit would be required, perhaps another 20 or 30 credits, but this could be through an additional 15 credits at level 5, and again at level 6. These modules should be delivered completely digitally using video chat augmented with digital platform support. It would be expected that the more ambitious and hard-working students would be interested in taking this additional work, and I am thinking about the way in which the American honors programmes work as a model. The digital college could experiment with new forms of preceptorial teaching, using digital methods to augment the independent reading, discussion in small groups, and individual meetings with the lecturer. Some examples that could be incorporated include collaborative or contributory digital annotation, data sprints, collaborative video essays (sometimes known as film essays), thick data methods, living labs, and student hackathons. By a digital college I expressly do not intend to mean the use of distance-learning or the various poor quality e-Learning systems currently in use across a number of universities. Rather digital-intensive teaching means that a postdigital learning environment is encouraged whereby the digital and the physical are mutually constitutive of an experience of learning that is digital-first. This is a strategy that values being-together as a learning community on campus even in the use of digital methods. With the digital college acting as an experimental laboratory for digital teaching, successful approaches could then be transferred out into the more traditional teaching methods but also open to extramural learners.

b. Create an “Institute of Advanced Digital Studies” which is directed to address the problems of advanced study using digital methods across the sciences, humanities and social sciences, but also the study of the digital itself through a set of research question. This would itself be very distinctive at the level of IAS’s, and would provide a university with a high-prestige world-class institute from which to articulate and develop research agendas for the university more generally, but particularly in relation to a guiding compass for further digital work. The actual constitution of the IADS is a subject for a later paper, but this could be framed in structure in a similar way to other IAS’s such as Durham IAS, Cambridge CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), or the School of Advanced Study (SAS, University of London), offering a space for advanced work through residential fellowships for both internal and external academics. The IADS would be an incubator for ideas within the theme of the digital-first research university, and provide leadership in terms of the intellectual agenda, state-of-the-art and collaborative potentials of working within and around the questions raised by computation, software, algorithms and the digital. It could additionally provide a forum to collaboratively support the decisions by which the university incorporates digital platforms, advise on ethics, privacy considerations and generally provide academic leadership into digital technology purchasing.

This work was funded by the British Academy (ref: MD160052) "Reassembling the University: The Idea of a University in a Digital Age".  This research is currently being developed as part of a monograph titled "The Remote University"


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