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Interview: Rachel Gowers, Digital Institute London

The Digital Institute London is an offshoot of Staffordshire University, which last year launched the first esports degree in Europe. The university has taken this forward-looking approach and created a brand-new campus with teaching and collaboration spaces designed to be like the offices its students will likely be working in. Based in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park the institute is dedicated to new and emerging technologies, offering high-spec learning spaces alongside a 100-seater esports arena with full gallery facilities.

How did the Digital Institute come about and what was the thinking behind creating this kind of learning space?

The idea came about last November when we started to look at our esports and games design courses and how they were going back in Stoke-on-Trent. We’d got very good numbers for these, but most of the industry that we were engaging with tended to be London based, so it seemed to make a lot of sense to open a facility there, both to give our students in London that opportunity, and also to bring those opportunities back to Stoke.

The centre where we’ve based ourselves is on the Olympic Park and it’s already an innovation centre full of other tech and media industries, cyber particularly; in the press centre they’ve got a cyber accelerator with about 70 small companies in. So it seemed to make sense that we could offer our students the opportunities for guest lectures with all of those people under one roof. And it’s paid dividends already.

It doesn’t look like a traditional university in its design. Why is this? 

I wanted to design a space that was reflective of the type of places where people would work. I looked at Google’s offices and other tech industries, and at WeWork. I wanted to design a very collaborative space where students, whatever discipline they were studying, could find some common areas where they could meet and talk, and I wanted it to be as open plan as possible, again that helps with collaboration and also get students used to the idea that they are going to be working in a busy, noisy environment at times.

Tell us about the setup at the institute.

We have two 30-seater studios, those are for games design and cyber so we have all of the software related to those areas in those two. We’ve also got a 20-seater PR area, where again different kinds of software for design and collaboration are. Then we have a 60-100 seater esports arena with all of the gallery that goes with it, so audiovisual, cameras, more TVs than I can even think about, just absolutely loads of stuff in there.

Who designed the system?

Well, it was complicated in a way. We’ve got our own in-house technical team and I’d already built something much smaller for the esports course in Stoke-on-Trent, so I used the same team that had helped me build the first one to spec out the second. We used our own in-house teams and then three external suppliers, including a design company called Tetris to pull it all together at the design stage. Then we had our in-house project management team which I led.

How long did the process take?

We started physically planning it from around March time; we started building in May and we opened in September. 

You’ve clearly gone high spec with the technology in the space. With industries moving so quickly do you have a plan to ensure you remain at the forefront of technology?

Absolutely. When we did the first build we spoke extensively to industry, we looked at what was out there and we looked at what’s coming next. A lot of the things we have are not even in the mainstream yet. We’ve also got it in the budget every three years to have a complete re-spec and rebuild.

You were the first place in Europe to offer an esports degree. How has that been received?

The degree came about on the back of a white paper on esports written by Dr Jo Twist. I read it in 2017 and thought actually, we’ve got all of this stuff going on, we’ve got a great events management course, we’ve got great digital capabilities, we’ve got a great games design area, so really, as a university, all we have to do is put all of that together and we’ve got an amazing degree.

I started writing the degree in January 2017 and by March it was validated. I wrote it with Dr Robbie Fletcher who is in the computer games design area and thankfully we have a very forward-looking executive team who thought it was a good idea to give it a go. 

I’d targeted and budgeted for around 40 students, which is quite a lot for the first year of a degree, and by about 8 weeks after the application cycle opened we’d already got that number, and so we extended. First year intake was 120 and this year we’ve taken 150. 

How is that intake split between male and female students?

This is high on my agenda to try to get more females into this area. We’re working with Power Women and other organisations to promote this as we are predominantly male. So 94% of our intake is male, 97% are 18-21 year olds, but the London campus hasn’t exactly followed that format; we have more mature applicants in London, probably because we launched quite late in the cycle, and out of 25 students 5 are ladies, so that’s a higher ratio than we have back in Stoke on Trent.

Why do you think this sector is still so male dominated?

It just doesn’t make any sense to me at all. If you look at gaming, over half of women are gamers; if you look at the whole population something like 51% of women are involved with games compared to 49% of men. There’s clearly a lot of work to be done around raising aspirations and raising the agenda, to say that it’s actually quite cool, quite interesting to work in tech. There still seems to be a bit of a stigma around women working in tech. There are certain things that are being done, more so recently, and I think that we’ll start to see over the next 5 years a real reverse because it’s going to take that long for it to go through the system. Even if we start now, it’s going to take 5 years to actually get that primary school level interest. We’ve done some work with Digital Schoolhouse who work on coding with primary school kids and even from a very young age there’s been more males than females interested, which just seems crazy. There’s certainly a big piece for everyone to do in getting more girls involved.

Do you think that esports will be taught in schools as well as at a higher education level?

With esports it depends on how you look at it because there are a couple of elements to esports that actually makes it transferrable. We approached esports from the basis of business management, so our course is much more like a business management degree where they learn about human resources, planning, budgeting, all of those things you would do on a business degree, but then we contextualise it to the world of esports. 

When I was writing the degree I went out to a school in Bergen in Norway and they taught 14-16 year olds esports in the classroom to motivate largely young lads who weren’t that interested in science, maths, PE and other traditional subjects. They found that if they told these pupils they could do esports on a Friday – and they got a pro player in to teach them – then they were all super engaged with their other subjects, so it was used as a reward mechanism. I went in and interviewed many of the students and they all said it had improved their communications skills, problem solving, English language skills. 

On the back of that, the second piece of research I did was with the Digital Schoolhouse – that paper is called Esports: Engaging Education – and the outcome was that primary school kids were more likely to be involved in any kind of team sport if they’d been involved with esports. So I think there’s definitely a big piece to do around esports and using it as a vehicle for teaching other skills.

Finally, what are Digital Institute’s plans for the future?

This year we’ve launched with esports and the games design, in January we start to deliver our Masters in esports, and then next September we’ve already got planned a games PR and community management course and cybersecurity. We’ve also just started to have discussions around what else we can do for 2021. My remit is that it has to be a career of the future, something that’s in demand, where there’s a bit of a skills gap and also something that not everyone else does.