Behind the Scenes of DigiAdvance: Interview with our Project Manager, Dr. Elaine Beirne (Dublin City University)

Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be running a series of 1:1 interviews with the team behind DigiAdvance. There are 6 expert partners behind this project, spread across three countries: Spain, Portugal and Ireland. Each partner has extensive relevant experience to bring to the table, and we’re excited to dive into the people behind the organisations in this interview series!

Dublin City University (DCU) is one of the organisations coming together to make the DigiAdvance project happen; DCU has significant, demonstrable experience in the design and delivery of high-quality online provision in Ireland, with 40 years’ experience in distance education. Today we are talking with Dr. Elaine Beirne, who is a Micro-credential Research & Implementation Officer at DCU, as well as DigiAdvance’s Project Manager. So let’s dive into the interview!

Hello, thank you for joining us today! Can you please summarise the DigiAdvance project in your own words, and explain in simple terms the value proposition for an SME manager or leader who might be reading this?

To put it as simply as I can, we are creating a portfolio of short digital skills courses for SME employees. What makes these courses unique is that they are informed by and designed around the local realities of SMEs and their actual needs, not just what we think they need! Employers are not forgotten either, we will also be hosting what we are calling Digital Accelerator Events for SME leadership to highlight how companies can harness digital technologies to achieve their business goals.

Thank you! Can you please tell us a little bit about DCU’s 40 years of experience providing high quality distance education? How will you bring this to DigiAdvance’s courses and workshops?

Yes, DCU has a rich history of designing high-quality online and distance education, starting in 1982, when the National Distance Education Centre was established at DCU. Since then, we have continued to innovate with technology-enhanced teaching and learning and provide flexible pathways to higher education for adults, whether that is through short online courses or distance education degrees. DCU’s global reputation for online and distance learning is recognised by our leading research and scholarly publications as well as our active engagement in international networks and communities of practice. Micro-credentialing is a new channel through which we are demonstrating our commitment to providing flexible, digitally-enhanced, transformative learning experiences. Creating opportunities for knowledge-sharing across the consortium is one of the objectives of DigiAdvance. Our expertise combined with that of our partner HEIs will ensure high quality, academically sound courses that leverage the latest advancements in technology-enhanced teaching and learning.

As the project coordinator, what will DCU’s specific responsibilities be in terms of project management, planning, and monitoring? How will you ensure the successful delivery of the project (Work Package 1)? 

As coordinators, DCU is responsible for ensuring that the consortium works together to deliver its objectives. For that, communication is key. Ensuring that all partners are on the same page from the outset and maintaining open channels of communication throughout the project lifecycle is crucial to success. All project partners are committed to the collaborative ethos of the project and many of us have collaborated with each other successfully in the past through the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU) and other European projects. I think this combined experience bodes well for the project.

"What makes these courses unique is that they are informed by and designed around the local realities of SMEs and their actual needs, not just what we think they need!"
Dr. Elaine Beirne
Dublin City University

Work Package 2 of the project involves conducting a comprehensive needs analysis to identify the digital skills requirements for SMEs. How will DCU leverage its industry engagement, collaborations and partnerships to gather inputs from key stakeholders and ensure that the needs of SMEs are met?

DCU has a broad and longstanding network of industry stakeholders across the SME sector. We will leverage this network to deepen our understanding of industry-digital skills needs through a combination of workshops and targeted focus groups in line with our subject matter expertise. Specifically, we will engage with decision-makers in training and development roles to identify skill gaps, which will inform the development of our short-course offerings.  The outputs of these engagements will maximise the relevancy of our courses for economic and societal impact.

How will DCU engage industry and education partners in the co-construction of the impactful courses and workshops (Work Package 3 inside the project)? How will you ensure a robust learning experience for employees?

Academia-industry engagement will be pivotal to ensuring the relevancy and impact of the offerings. This will be facilitated through co-design workshops where industry will be invited to peer-review, consult on, and validate course design and content. In some cases, companies may contribute to the courses through the provision of datasets, case studies, guest lectures, or mentoring opportunities.

Could you talk to us about the growth of micro-credentials in the education sector, particularly your role in The Research Observatory on Micro-Credentials (ROM), a NIDL initiative in partnership with the ECIU University? Do you have any resources to share on the topic? What does this mean in the context of the DigiAdvance project?

At the recent European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) conference, which was hosted here in DCU, 2023 was hailed as ‘The Year of the Micro-credential’. This is because the provision of shorter-form learning opportunities through micro-credentialing has grown exponentially in the past two years. Micro-credentials can provide both learners and employers with flexible, industry-engaged responses to their upskilling and reskilling needs. In DCU, The Research Observatory on Micro-Credentials (ROM) was curated by the National Institute of Digital Learning (NIDL) as a resource to help us and others stay abreast of this rapidly evolving field. The ROM serves as a one stop shop for all major reports, policy initiatives and research-related publications in the area of micro-credentialing and lifelong learning and it is available for free for anyone to access. In the context of DigiAdvance, some of the learning opportunities created will take the form of micro-credentials so that the learning is accredited and the knowledge and skills acquired will be portable and universally recognisable, delivering long term impact for the learner.

Can you share any specific challenges or potential successes that you anticipate in the implementation of the DigiAdvance project? How do you plan to address these challenges and leverage the opportunities for success?

This project has great potential to engage and impact a large number of SME employers and employees from all over Europe through our different activities. Naturally, a challenge will be promotion and awareness raising but we have great confidence in the expertise of Mobile World Capital Barcelona who are leading our on Marketing and Dissemination. They have already created a project website and are actively engaging with stakeholders via our LinkedIn page. Each of our partner organisations also have a rich network that we can draw on coupled with the invaluable marketing and recruitment know-how within each organisation.

Looking beyond the project timeline, what are DCU’s hopes and aspirations for the future in terms of the impact of DigiAdvance on the digital skills landscape? How do you envision the project contributing to talent pipelines, innovation, and investment in digital technologies in the SME sector?

Delivering long-term, sustainable impact for the SME sector is the overall goal of the DigiAdvance project. Our courses will empower the SME labour market with the skills and know-how to develop and deploy digital innovations and technologies within their companies. Through our digital accelerator workshops, we will demonstrate the potential of digital technologies and the achievability of digital innovation, inspiring long-term commitments to digital growth at leadership and management level. Digital transformation is not easy but with DigiAdvance we are starting with the person. We believe that one person or a small group of trailblazers can evoke a chain reaction of activity and knowledge-sharing across companies, changing the narrative and reality of digital capabilities in SMEs.

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