Everywhere I look I see a new challenge for education and research.
There are so many pressures at the moment; we need to continue to add efficiencies in the face of reduced budgets, but also improve teaching, learning and research outcomes in order to keep the UK competitive.
For me, when it comes to taking on these big challenges prioritisation is key. If collectively as a sector we are to come out on top, I’m a firm believer that we first need to understand what the most pertinent issues are, and then go about tackling them, together.
Earlier this year a core group of our customers helped us to whittle down a huge number of issues that are taxing a lot of people in further and higher education to four key areas as part of our co-design project.
Alongside my colleagues I have spent the summer consulting with hundreds of staff in colleges, universities and other learning providers about what’s most important to them – and how digital technologies could help – based on the four project areas you told us that mattered.
Building digital capability
Effective technology use is a key aspect of a compelling student experience, and I was interested to find out more about the challenges which universities and colleges face in ensuring that staff have the digital skills they need.
Apart from the inevitable change management issues, I heard that managers in a range of roles can struggle to identify the digital skills and gaps that exist in their institutions. They are also looking for guidance on what approaches to staff development and training are most suitable for their context.
A strong message from IT directors was that digital capability is an issue for all staff groups, not just teachers, and improving the digital skills of everyone is essential for deriving efficiencies and value for money from their technology investments.
Learning analytics can be a hugely powerful tool in improving the experiences of learners. People naturally felt there was a need to involve students, both in the development of products and services, and putting the control into their hands; one idea put forward was an app for students to monitor their own progress. Retention was also regarded as important by many institutions, but everyone agreed that the biggest factor was learner attainment – if retention can be improved, then it should follow that attainment will too.
While staff were enthusiastic about using the information collected in teaching, they were concerned about the ethics involved and obtaining informed consent from students. Everyone agreed there needed to be clearer guidance in order to be able to take advantage.
Research at risk
As in the area of learner analytics, we already have well developed ideas about research management. So we’ve been asking people: “What do you see as the next step?”
With there being a number of models of data management available, it’s perhaps unsurprising that our consultation group said they wanted a shared vision – something that is developed by a number of representative bodies that will give all institutions a roadmap for progress.
Also prioritised by the group was guidance on how to advocate and sustain sharing of research data, and ‘data about data’ – the information that supports discovery, reuse, management and curation of research data.
Prospect to alumnus
Joining up information on learners – from their first enquiry to graduation and getting a job – to improve interactions was on the wish list of many of the people I spoke to. The first step of any work in this area would be getting a better understanding about the various processes and systems universities and colleges use to store data about their students. A further priority identified was giving learners one place for all of their data, no matter where they are currently studying.
A number of people also felt that a big challenge for students was finding suitable work after graduating, and there was talk about a service that matches employers’ skills needs with students’ capabilities.
Support for further education (FE) and skills
I said at the start that customers had told us there were four main challenges that they wanted us to look at with co-design. What came out of the consultation was the emergence of a fifth area where people felt they needed support.
FELTAG came up time and again in conversations, with a lot of further education leaders wanting more clarity. As the report affects a number of agencies and sector bodies we felt a co-design approach would work well, and have formed new partnerships to help make the recommendations a reality.
Turning priorities into solutions
The consultation provided lots of interesting insights from customers into some of the core issues in further education and higher education. Now I am excited to be getting on with turning these discussions and ideas into solutions that really meet people’s needs and deliver benefits.
Your input is still invaluable as we progress on this journey, so if you would like to get involved – whether it’s as an adviser, an occasional ‘critical friend’ or you would simply like to receive updates – please contact me.