Wholesale technological change is not easy for colleges, but there are disruptors using emerging industry 4.0 technologies to build new education-applicable platforms that could be game-changing.
Bridging the education/workplace gap
When I stepped from education into the workplace, the two worlds were very different - almost a culture shock – but it doesn’t need to be that way.
It's important that colleges use similar technologies to businesses, particularly those which allow staff and students to collaborate as people do in the workplace.
Learning to collaborate is a skill that’s in high demand from employers. I know a lot of colleges use Teams and Office 365 tools, but my feeling is that more agile tools such as monday.com, Miro and Slack will become the mainstream.
Virtual reality (VR)
Among other technologies that could have a big impact in education is virtual reality, which can be effective in terms of the transition of knowledge from education to the work environment.
It’s useful for two reasons: firstly, it can reduce cost and risk if VR is used to train people for potential dangerous or complex tasks with health and safety implications. Secondly, VR can help more effectively develop soft skills, like empathy.
I know of one company that invited male leaders to a simulation of a workplace meeting. Using VR, they were placed into the conversation and some of them began to feel that something wasn’t right; they weren’t listened to, and people were interacting and speaking with them in unexpected ways.
After a while, the participants were invited to (virtually) stand up and look in the mirror, when they discovered that their avatar was female. The point was to try and build empathy towards female boardroom peers. Similar scenarios could be created to help teach ethnic or cultural differences. Powerful stuff.
Internet of things (IoT)
There are some simple IoT technologies that can be placed around campuses to help with facilities management and reduce energy use. For example, sensors on toilet doors could boost cleaning efficiency. Cleaners could focus their effort where it’s most needed – on facilities that are most frequently used.
Similarly, colleges could automate power usage by turning heating or cooling on or off to a particular room or set of rooms when sensors indicate they're in use, or not being used, or whenever the temperature reaches a certain level.
Around 20% of building energy consumption is unmeasured, uncontrolled and highly wasteful. Known as “small energy”, it includes printers, coffee machines, laptop and phone chargers. Technologies exist to not just manage these in real-time but create additional building intelligence and automation.
Particularly for colleges located in towns and cities, air quality monitoring might also be useful, and that’s something to discuss and tackle with local authorities.
It is hard to introduce new technologies alongside existing ones, so innovators must create simple, and flexible options that integrate with legacy systems.
Zero code automation, where technology can be programmed to automate and link processes without the need for code, or software, fits that bill.
For example, when people visiting my website sign up for a newsletter, that triggers another workflow to a third party asking it to plant a tree. A few days later, that person receives an automated email to say thank you, and informing them about the tree.
‘Zero code’ platforms can enable similarly repeatable events in colleges to be automated to some degree.
For example, colleges could link student records and attendance systems with public transport systems. When there is disruption on trains or buses, affected students could be sent a text message and teachers notified that those students will be late.
Reducing environmental impact
Waste contracts could be managed more efficiently, too, with sensors detecting when bins are full and automatically alerting the collection company only when the service is required.
I've been working with a company that produces micro grids for communities, schools and medical facilities across Africa and remote Greek islands.
I was asked to help think about an environmentally friendly meeting centre for my local town and running it on renewable energy, so I've got a quote for some photovoltaic panels, batteries and wind generation to run two conference rooms.
It's not as expensive as I thought, so I think micro grids could be very interesting for colleges to think about in terms of reducing costs and creating new revenue opportunities.
They could create green energy and use it to power the campus and to feed electric vehicles charging points that could also be provided - for a fee - to the community.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
AI is not widely used in education at present, but the possibilities are wide-ranging.
It could, for example, enable personalised learning and interventions, by noting achievement and adjusting the level of challenge, or support.
Its pattern-spotting ability could help detect exam fraud or the use of essay mills, while voice to text (such as you'd find with Alexa) could make education more inclusive.
Wellbeing is another area where AI could have a role, but the question for colleges is how do they bring in technology to help with that without prying?
I don't think we have an answer for that yet, but there will be technologies that can help. There's already AI in Teams and Microsoft Office365 that can track activity and engagement.
There is also technology which links video sentiment analytics with data on natural language processing (NLP) and gives feedback on attentiveness, honesty, boredom levels etc. While all of this could be useful for teachers, I’m not saying it should be used in an education setting.
The ethics of AI is a whole other story and there will be work to do on privacy and safeguarding.
For the most part, we've got to look outside the education environment to find hints of the technology that's coming – to start-ups and innovation centres. Then, we need pioneers who will work out how to bring it into an education environment in an appropriate and ethical manner.
Jisc is exploring the use of emerging technologies in education and research, including through the National AI Centre.