UniSA’s campuses are being covered with posters and promotional material advertising “unijam”, a world-first two-day social media event designed to engage students about the future of the university. Despite all this publicity and calls for students to register to enter the landmark event, students are still asking what it’s all about. UniLife Magazine chatted with Vice Chancellor David Lloyd about unijam to get a better understanding of his brainchild.
What is the whole event all about and how long has it been in the process of planning?
Well, it’s been about seven years of planning, because it’s one of those things I’ve been wanting to do forever. And now I finally have a means to actually bring it to reality.
The background to it is, in my past life, one of the many research engagements I had was with IBM, and I used to spend time with IBM in Alberton, California. And they were using this technology for internal strategic planning, called at the time the “Collaborative Innovation Platform”. They had about a quarter of a million employees and every now and then they’d take all the employees under the umbrella of this collaborative innovation and ask questions about business practices and modelling and what they might do for the future direction of the company.
That was a neat idea to tap into the brains-trust of the whole population. What happened then was they realised that themselves and they brought it out as a product. And since they have, there’s been around 80 different organisations that have used it as a tool. We’re going to be the first university to use it.
It’s structured as a whole-of-institution conversation. It’s like a private social network where the discussions are around how to improve what’s going on in the network itself, because the network is the business, if you like.
Have other universities or organisations commented on the fact that UniSA is the first university to do this?
Well, this has been run by places like the EU and NATO on joint security. The City of Zurich had a plan on Zurich in the future. The City of Rio are going to do it next, they’ll be the next ones in the Southern Hemisphere.
No other university has done it anywhere. But we do have other universities and people who have asked about it, and friends of our institution who are coming into the jam to add their voices. I’ve got John Hennessey, the President of Stanford, is going to be one of the first special guests in the jam. I’ve got Vint Cerf, who’s the guy who pretty much took the Internet and made it the Web, who’s already produced an endorsement video of the jam and this approach to planning. So I think we’ve got good buy-in and good support from other organisations.
For me, it’s a way of touching the whole place and getting everybody’s views onto the table and the clever computing behind it allows you to distil, through all of the input, what are the ideas that are actually getting traction.
How is it actually going to run?
The way it works, it’s almost like a message-board, or a kind of discussion forum. The way it’s structured, we have seven fora that we’re trying to explore, and they range from going beyond Horizon 2020 as a plan to things like the physical environment of the university, what graduate qualities should we teach, what’s the future of online education, how does the university engage with society, kind of big meaty questions like that. And, for each of those questions, or each of those topics, we’re going to have a number of contained conversations where people can have their opinions heard.
So, let’s say I throw out one like, “the university’s future is in MOOCs”, as a discussion topic. Then, we have a discussion about MOOCs and what people think about them and what they perceive them to be. Because we’re talking about students, staff, external stake-holders and employers, you get a 360° perspective on the topic. What do employers really think about MOOCs? Will they employ people with a virtual degree? Or do they value the face-to-face experience? And then what do students think about that in the context of learning?
So the same question is being asked of the entire population but everybody answers in a slightly different way – discussion threads then begin to happen among contributors. People can watch them, you can endorse what people say – you can “like” and “dislike” people’s opinions basically – but because everybody can see everybody else, it’s all open and transparent and there’s no kind of anonymous, vindictive blogging permitted. You’re going in with your opinion and your opinion is to be constructive.
You sent us all an email a couple of weeks back regarding university funding cuts and you said there’d be a big event between May 28 and May 30 to talk about how the university should move forward despite the funding cuts. Is there a connection between unijam and the funding cuts?
(Laughs) The only connection is the bad timing on the cuts. As an event, that’s the kind of lead-in angle to get momentum behind people participating on the days in question. It was just a really bad look that the funding cuts came in at the same time as we were about to go live with unijam, so I wasn’t trying to link the two in any way. It was just to say, look, we know we have to make this efficiency dividend and I know how much the efficiency dividend is going to cost (it’s eleven-and-a-half million) but we still need to get on and plan for the future, long-term strategy of the institution, and we’re going to do that in May, regardless of these cuts. It wasn’t an effort to link the two.
Do you have any other comments you’d like to make?
The most important thing here is for people to get engaged, register and take part. For two days, nothing’s off the table – the discussion is open for people. And, half of that time, we’ll run all the analytics and be looking at all the ideas that come through. There will be suggestions for change which are going to be obvious, no-brainer, let’s go ahead and just do this because it’s low-cost and high-opportunity and it’s going to make the place better. So those kind of opportunities are going to get actioned really, really quickly.
There’ll be other ones that we’ll have to figure out how do we do them, or do we want to do them in the context of strategy. But if people don’t lend their voice to the conversation, there’s no point coming back in July and saying “I wish I had”, you know? So the message I want to get across is: participation. And there’s no such thing as a bad idea. Suggestions can be tested, and some may be better than others. But if someone’s sitting there thinking I’m not going to get listened to, all of the inputs are going into this, and we get all the data, so it is a podium for any voice.