From the virtual learning environment that underpins the day-to-day study activity at many UK colleges and universities, to the use of digital lecture capture, enabling students to review and absorb information anytime and anywhere, technology is embedded within today’s student experience.
It has changed – and will continue to change – the ways in which we live, learn and work. And as technology permeates most aspects of our lives, the case for it to play a more prominent role in how we organise our education system grows ever stronger.
Digitisation is no longer the “added bonus” that helps elevate a college or university from the crowd. We already live in a world where teachers can use artificial intelligence (AI) to generate reports and to track learners’ progress on a digital dashboard created by a data analytics system.
Students might immerse themselves in a novel or take a field trip using a virtual reality (VR) headset, benefitting from interactive and personalised learning. Apps, digital content and websites that are fully accessible can boost engagement, bringing improved outcomes and widening participation.
In these ways and more, humans are already using technology to support collaboration, reduce the administrative burden, and ensure easy access to the information we need, when we need it. Applied well, we also know that technology can help bring better value for money. And it has great potential to help us create education environments in which students feel safer and more satisfied.
Jisc’s Education 4.0 vision celebrates cutting-edge use of tech at colleges and universities and considers how we may go further, imagining scenarios in which staff and student experiences are not just enhanced but transformed by technology.
Engagement and feedback
A good example of Education 4.0 in practice is Unitu. Implemented at Swansea University, this online platform was initially developed with funding and support from a Jisc edtech competition. Using cloud-based software, Unitu is a digital forum; a space where students and staff can collectively raise and resolve both academic and more general issues.
It has a discussion board with two areas. In the first area, students can ask questions and post ideas. Topics that attract enough comments and “likes” are moved into the second area, which is divided into three sections (open, in progress, and closed). Here, staff can interact with the discussion and work with students to resolve problems and develop ideas further.
This multi-device student voice platform earned Swansea University the Technological or Digital Innovation of the Year 2019 accolade from the Times Higher Education Awards. It has been described as transformative, with users praising the way it challenges the cultural norms around feedback and changes staff and student views of how to engage with each other. The platform has also been instrumental in providing a voice for students who are often hard to reach, stimulating student-led debates on topics such as gender equality, and effective learning and assessment.
Furthermore, Unitu has helped to increase Swansea’s National Student Survey (NSS) metrics, with improvements in the university’s Learning Community and Student Voice categories.
Data and analytics
Another emerging area in which technology supports education practice is data and analytics. Colleges and universities already have access to a huge range of data about their students and their estates and analysing this to support strategic planning is now common in the sector. Learning analytics are also being used extensively to help identify students at risk of failing a course, and to improve student outcomes more broadly.
Curriculum analytics might be the next step, which is why Jisc is currently exploring ways of using data to improve institutions’ understanding of how students respond to different learning designs. Monitoring attendance or offering the opportunity to give feedback in real time, for instance, may give staff – who are often time-poor – a quick and concise review of what does or doesn’t work for different people.
Beyond that, institutions may soon start to analyse and utilise physical data about campuses, for example by checking that the environment is supportive of the learning activity by monitoring temperature, air quality, noise or occupancy; and to explore data about assessment to personalise learning for individuals or groups of students.
Integrating information from a range of different university sources, as well as from edtech services, could offer significant improvements to the student experience – if handled with sensitivity and care, managed in a way that is ethical, and driven by student needs. Balancing these aspects is likely to be one of the key challenges the sector faces over the next few years.
The future of learning
For all its great potential, technology is a tool, not a solution. UK colleges and universities are led by human creativity, human innovation and human analysis. In that context, technology has a fantastic supporting role to play. As Industry 4.0 emerges (the fourth industrial revolution), it brings new needs, demands, possibilities and opportunities.
By embracing technology and valuing human skills, Education 4.0 holds great promise to support teaching staff, deliver cost and time savings, enhance and transform the student experience, and provide connectivity for lifelong, flexible learning. When considering new ways to deliver positive experiences for students and staff in tertiary education, the future is tech-enhanced and always human-led.