Today’s guest is Dr Alex Fenton from the University of Salford, he is one of the favourite lecturers of students in Digital Business. In this episode, we talked about some aspects of tech for good and remote working and learning after the pandemic. He has decades of experience on these topics so hope you enjoy listening.
Holistic: We are here today to talk about tech for good in general, remote working during the pandemic, and finally remote learning & the future of education. So welcome Alex, I’m very happy to host you and I can’t wait for your answers.
Alex Fenton: Thank you very much for inviting me to this and well done for taking the initiative, I think it’s a great idea.
Holistic: Hopefully it will be good thank you.
I will start with my first question; my impression is that the Fan Fit app project, that you started a while ago, has made a great effect amongst Salford Red Devils and Rangers fans, especially during the national lockdown because of the gym closure. This meant people suddenly went on the streets to run, walk and exercise. Would you tell us how you experienced the effect on Fan Fit app, and also tell us a bit more about the project.
Alex Fenton: Ok sure. So FanFit is a project we started a few years ago, working with local sports clubs in Salford. We were really interested in digital transformation and digital disruptive tech and we looked at societal problems. Particularly, in Manchester, we have big problems around heart disease and sedentary lifestyles and diseases caused by inactivity. So, we had the bright idea of working with sporting brands who traditionally have lots of engaged fans and followers, but often a bit of a limited budget in terms of trying to innovate.
Recently, PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of sports leaders showed that the vast majority of them thought digital innovation was going to be critical, but a much smaller percentage actually had any sort of strategy around it. It is often because Sports clubs’ financials go to the playing staff and onto the pitch. So, it creates a bit of an opportunity to work with organisations like sport, to try out some of these technologies around fan engagement because they have got so many different fans. What is challenging for them on a number levels, in terms of the time and budgets, so FanFit really was around trying to implement what we call a white label model. So creating an official Club app, so we started off with the first one we rolled out for the Salford Red Devils Rugby League Club and I think it’s like the first official smartphone app that Red Devils have and maybe the first one in Rugby League in many ways. Usually, club apps just do the basics, like pulling the source of news and fixtures and social media feeds, then you’re lucky if they have some other bits and bats, like exclusive content. There are other notable examples, I think from higher-profile clubs but most clubs find it difficult to do that as well. I think it is important for clubs and other brands to create their own digital properties and not rely completely on social media channels which they’ve got very little control or access to the data and so forth. I think about smartphone projects, so tapping into the capability of the smartphone you know, so the camera, the GPS, the accelerometer, the microphone etc.
Where I think some of the value lies for these projects, and of course there are some exceptions like the hybrid app project. To cut a long story short, FanFit was doing the sort of things that smartphone club apps should do, the news and fixtures, and for the addition of tracking walking and running automatically in the background. For fans, creating types of leagues you know; private leagues, global leagues, creating competitions, digital badges and that type of stuff. So using a wristband or wearables, it is creating a bit of a friendly competition around fans, which taps into this idea of tackling sedentary lifestyles and heart disease through the medium of Sport. People engage with the brand that they love and encourage new people too. To be fair, out of an audience of sports fans, there will be a tone of them that are quite active and go out running. There is also a massive percentage that doesn’t, so that idea was if fans are already going out running, they have a Fitbit or wristband that’s great, but we wanted something for everybody. So, it is a fitness app for non-fitness fans and that ability to create leagues and to compete against people like your friends and family and other fellow fans praising that social capital that exists within those brand communities.
Holistic: I would like to ask If you have seen any climb in numbers of people downloading the app, especially during this lockdown because people need it more. As people spent more time outdoors and did not see their friends and could not meet their friends, maybe the competition feature on the app worked for the good?
Alex Fenton: As I mentioned, last year we applied for the healthy life data fund, which we were granted with Nesta and the Scottish government, so we brought out a version for Rangers fans. What you see through the analytics when you launch these projects, especially with Rangers, they’re able to get some high-profile players on board, like Jermain Defoe and Morelos. So we had about 8000 fans download it in the first couple of days. What you see generally with projects, is that after that first kind of buzz, you will see people download something and then kind of not use it or delete it after that period. Since last November just been a fairly consistent number of people, I haven’t really seen a big increase or decline through the lockdown.
I think, for example, Fit Bit said during lockdown steps was down globally. We didn’t really notice that we were fairly consistent which shows no more fans were particularly downloading it and nobody was particularly deleting it. So it is pretty consistent. For example, we got a little grant from Nesta and created a lockdown project. So working with staff and fans creating videos and for the first time, turning our attention to mental health and well-being in lockdown, as well as healthy well-being. So that campaign was relatively successful in terms of the number of users and stuff like that, but in terms of getting more people to download it and use it, it generally didn’t have much impact. I reckon with that campaign and others, it would have probably been more effective if we had got more players involved if we had the famous players with significant social media influence or even just popular players and if they came on and gave a message saying everybody downloads it and does this…
Holistic: Like we saw with Rangers.
Alex Fenton: Exactly, that campaign at the start was the best thing in terms of promotion of it. Otherwise, I think it comes down to more of a kind of niche fans, people can just lose the plot with it and then they get a new phone and they won’t install it if they run out of space and delete it. There is a bit of a churn here where you need to, you know yourself with digital marketing it’s not just a one-off, it’s a constant thing that needs to happen.
Holistic: It is probably a common problem with the apps because it is very hard to retain people on an app.
Alex Fenton: It’s a perennial problem actually that the drop-off rate is massive and you look at the stats and massive amounts of apps fail completely, so I am quite proud that the feedback has been great. Of course, it would have been good during lockdown to increase the people who were actually using it but I think the key to that is that constant digital marketing campaign but again because the time, budget and resources are limited, this is almost like an add-on.
Holistic: It’s a question of measuring the impact…
Alex Fenton: Exactly, I think in some ways, there are a bunch of ways in which you can further monetise if you will and that is something we really need to. It is a significant next step moving beyond the FanFit project, where you got sponsors involved and monetized it a little bit because ultimately the corporate social responsibility and the well-being affects clubs and they all want to do it but ultimately they may have significant financial challenges at the moment. So we are looking for outsider sport and other sectors, like education for example and potentially other opportunities that sport can’t offer.
Holistic: At the moment, do you have any ideas on how to monetize the app, because it is a big question with these types of projects?
Alex Fenton: Of course, we have sort of relied upon internal and external funds, which there is quite a lot around for solving societal problems and exploring digital Innovations for healthcare, and as you say tech for good. I think in terms of sustainability, some of the competitors that have done really well in creating white-label fitness apps and functionality, but probably working with others like the corporate sector which have got a bit further ahead than the sporting sector, in terms of innovation or willingness to try an experiment with these sorts of tech. So I think working with the corporate sector would be interesting and I think there are corporates that work with sports like sponsorships, so that’s another option around it. I think a lot of reports show that monetizing apps through e-commerce and advertising, so far, is another way around that so it’s certainly something we are interested in, but it is a bit complex to try and get these things going at the moment due to the situation at sports clubs are in and sports foundations and other areas that we’ve had interest from priorities and technology is important to help them reach their goals but you know sometimes it is a bit of an add-on.
Holistic: I can now move on to my second question; you are one of the top people in the digital transformation area and you’ve been in business from different scales and on a digital transformation journey for a long time now. How do you see the future of the work, as there are still many discussions going on everywhere, including Parliament in the UK and some big companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook have introduced new models to improve their work from home systems and we even heard about Shopify who offered financial support for their employees and set up their own home offices? On the other hand, though, the workforce is drained from the High Street and it still will be a big problem in the near future. So I’d like to ask your personal experience what you see during your consultation sessions and how do you think businesses are reacting to this.
Alex Fenton: There are a few things to say there. Firstly, I suppose I had been active in the space working between the University academic sector and Industry for over 20 odd years now and the more academic roll over the last 6. I’m still kind of working with organisations but also conducting research in this area. So you will remember we put a book out earlier this year, the digital transformation strategy, that was working with colleagues, again I’ve been working within digital transformation organisations through things like KTP knowledge transfer partnership, which is a brilliant kind of way of engagement between companies and universities powered by the government. I think it’s over 40-year-old scheme now, Salford University is particularly good with it and has a really good team around it. So I think that gives you a lot of insight into that sort of stuff and projects and into what’s going on and equally the guys we published the book with also called in people from industry and other academics to try and give us a rounded view of the digital transformation strategy.
We were talking about the uncertain environment and complex and difficult situations and the importance of innovation and creating people, focus organisation and the role of data and this is before lockdown and it’s got even and it can be accelerated to a greater extent and the book is even more topical then we released earlier on in the year. In the book, we interviewed SME in different sectors and asked them about how they have been dealing with the situation and what the role of social capital and technology has been in navigating the sector. I certainly think a lot of the companies we interviewed and the ones we were working with. There is a great company we worked with in London who will pay 25 grand a month in some offices in London. The contract came up for renewal in March and of course, they didn’t renew it, they just started working from home and it’s absolutely fine and they’ve been wasting 25 grand a month on this. So even if you do decide to create a new office, it will probably be something outside the zone of London, smaller and differently designed so for that perspective, companies are saying business is up, outgoings are down because it’s not paying the same kind of rent. The others we have interviewed and worked within hospitality say, obviously, the business has been massively affected. I saw a presentation last week in Manchester, and it is like that for a third of all businesses. Of course, with my wife Kathy’s pizza business, she does external business for catering and corporate events, so it all got cancelled overnight. So with digital transformation, you can quickly create an e-commerce store and start doing Facebook Live pizza making skills and all the rest of it, but you know there’s not as much profit in delivering pizzas to people and pickups, as there is doing the corporate event and 100 people wedding. So you can kind of keep the business taking over by selling beer in small cartons from your pub but it’s not the same as people coming down night and night drinking pints after pint and having food so it really depends on which sector you are in.
Holistic: That was interesting thank you for the insights Alex, my next question will be about remote learning. How has it been so far with the whole learning experience, for both yourself and students and what are the different impacts of the learning process and the learning model and how has the university of Salford adapted going forward?
I’m also asking this because I know that you are a father of two kids, so you have probably been home-schooling as well during the whole pandemic.
Alex Fenton: Again, there are quite a few questions in there. For example, we have adopted Microsoft Teams and my children have as well so, during the lockdown, they could use teams or other systems. My son is at junior school and my daughter is in secondary school and I think she found it a little easier to learn in that way because she is approaching her GCSEs and she’s that bit older. But it is a bit tougher for a certain type of learners and if you are younger, you need to maintain that discipline. In fact, even my undergraduates are telling me that it’s easier for them to learn face-to-face in many ways, because online learning can be very distracting and you need to be quite disciplined because, not only have you looking at a screen the whole time which is challenging, what you are also getting distracted by social media channels. In some ways, it would be good to use a device that only has learning materials instead of something that has got a world of information and the ability to talk to your friends. It is complicated. We were speaking earlier and you’ve been going back to the office 3 days a week so for me that is the perfect situation, so if you can get the best of both worlds.
Holistic: It’s the perfect type of a mix, agree.
Alex Fenton: Absolutely, it’s the same in business and education, you’ve got the strength of working from home, you can crack on with some work without getting interrupted and in education terms, you can go through lecture materials, which is what we do by recording the materials and leaving activities. Then when students do come to university, it’s not quite as much as your 3 days a week, but you were using the benefits of that median and human interaction and the activities building on the preview from the previous work done. So for me, that is the future of work and education in many ways. Certainly, in the short to medium term, I think in the long term, in terms of digital transformation, we’ve got the massive opportunity, as the technology develops, we’re talking about virtual reality and the development of serious games. I think we will go beyond the zoom call. However, we’ve already got partners saying to us migrating zoom classes and it’s working well but what’s next, what can virtual reality do for us. If these guys are asking that now, it shows this isn’t new.
20 years ago, I was working for an E-learning development in business simulation for the police and the department of work pensions. The technology’s come on, virtual reality headsets if you look at the way Facebook and the way they are going, it shows the future isn’t in 2D, looking at 2D social media. Facebook Horizons is just scratching the surface of what the technology can do to not only replace face-to-face experience but to pass it. We are obviously interested in sports experiences and we’ve experimented with virtual experiences.
Holistic: Are you thinking about any virtual reality projects at the moment?
Alex Fenton: Absolutely, we created a little experiment over Media City, where we got a round room and filmed The Salford City game. It was a 170° filming of the Crowd and we projected it all round so that the idea was that 90% of the fans in the Premier League that have never been to the stadium, because they may live abroad, can recreate the stadium atmosphere and social aspects of it. They can watch the game and look around at the crowd, look at highlights on their phone, project the stats on a wall, order a drink and it comes straight to you. It’s that type of connection with the stadium and an experience. There is lots of value in real experiences and recreating those face-to-face experiences looking at the role of technology in all of that blended learning and blending experiences and technology experiences are the future.
Holistic: Going back to remote learning; how do you think this learning is affecting people’s minds and ways of processing the information?
Alex Fenton: Talking about psychological learning?
Alex Fenton: I think it’s an interesting one. My mum was a psychologist for decades, she was a psychology lecturer, but I was always on the more digital and Sociology side.
We did an interview recently with a tech magazine and they were asking about the rise in plagiarism using digital Technologies. it’s interesting looking at all these changes, I did this interview with a colleague of mine but he’s moved to another university now, but we both teach similar types of students, I suppose very digitally savvy. In many ways, it has not affected us that much, especially with the type of assignments we have. We don’t have exams anymore, so obviously it’s easier to cheat in an exam if you’re not in the room, but there are technology solutions around that. Quite honestly, when we went into lockdown, all we had to do was change… Because it’s all online anyway, we’ve got learning management systems to submit their essays and we had to migrate the face-to-face presentations and ask the students to record it and they did a great job. It didn’t make a difference however, I’ve got to say, I’ve been impressed because we’ve moved to this blended model, recording lectures and the students would come into face-to-face seminars.
I’ve been really impressed by how many students I’ve been able to make it due to the current challenges, but the students are saying, listen we find it easier when we are on campus, we’re not being distracted. For some students it works perfectly, other ones might want to go fully online, but some may want to do it fully face-to-face but for the majority of students this works pretty well face-to-face. As it is compressed to a shorter period, you don’t have to come into a seminar on a Tuesday, only on campus that day and then maximizing their time, like you are doing with your 3 days in the office. So the learning and for the working, it works really well, so I haven’t seen any particular negative effects. The only thing is, I think, it is a challenge to ask students to come to read and watch things and then asking to come to class and build on it.
My experience, you’re lucky if half the class have even looked at anything. That’s where the challenge is, it is for whatever reason students don’t find the time or motivation to do that stuff, it’s only the more diligent ones really that will do that. So you got to take that into consideration when you are thinking about these designs of seminars and tutorials, you can’t just assume that everyone’s read that chapter so there is an element of recapping you’ve also got to account for. Some people do everything you suggested, some people do a little bit and somebody will do none of it and you have to bear that in mind when it comes to this blended approach.
Holistic: Trying to fill in the gaps.
Alex Fenton: Exactly yeah does that answer your question?
Holistic: Yes definitely! Thank you for all your answers and opinions and for sharing them with me.
Alex Fenton: You are welcome. Always a pleasure and I look forward to watching more editions of your podcast.
Holistic: Thank you Alex.