We can own the opportunity created by Industry 4.0 in education and our UK universities are ready to be a global leader in making that leap into the future a reality.
While it’s hard to avoid the hype around industrial revolution 4.0, behind this is a real shift in technology capability that will change the world around us; just as previous revolutions transformed our ancestors’ lives.
A key difference with this revolution is the impact it will have on intellectually intensive jobs rather than the manual activities that were affected in the past - 95% of accounting tasks, 94% of paralegal jobs, for example, are predicted to be impacted by technology.
So what could Education 4.0 look like? There are early examples across the world of these technologies being deployed in this space.
Nexus of trends
We see a number of trends that are driving this change, based primarily on the nexus of artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, internet of things and mixed reality applied to education.
As with any technology trend there are alternative futures, some which bode less well for this sector.
One dystopian future trend could see students plugging in and a year or so later, unplugging fully qualified with all their learning being managed by machine – life imitating the Matrix, but potentially feasible.
More near-term, is universities becoming learning hotels and concierges, helping their students get the best learning from across the world, accumulating credits and I suspect quite a different - and less attractive to the institution - fee regime from today.
This may seem a bit extreme, but we are already seeing moves in this direction. The Stanford spinout Udacity, launched a self-driving car engineering nanodegree in autumn 2016. There are no academic institutions involved in this course – learners are assigned industry mentors and most of it happens online over several months. Almost overnight, Udacity had over 30,000 people from all over the world wanting to take this course.
While we do see a place for this ‘unbundled’ university, we think it is in addition to mainstream degree education, probably having a bigger place in lifelong learning. Flexibility and pace are what students want and it’s critical we adapt to their needs.
In mainstream first-degree education we see a much more positive scenario than either of these two. It is not a far off utopian dream but firmly grounded on technology we have today. It’s the one we are working with universities to make happen and it’s something I firmly believe we can achieve together in coming years.
In this world, we predict the end of the predominance of the lecture - lecturers will rarely lecture because the new technologies can teach the knowledge better.
Learning is immersive and interactive and most importantly responsive to students’ needs. The technology understands how each student learns best and adapts to them. It pinpoints where they are struggling and intervenes to help them succeed. It also challenges students to try activities they are less confident in; supporting them to take risks that pay off. And not only that.
Assessment is no longer causing heavy workloads and stress for staff and students because the technology knows how to mark consistently and will probably do it continuously.
Students are free to explore the most meaningful tasks to them; virtual assistants support students to navigate this world of choice and work with them to make decisions that will lead to future success.
Staff spend more time with students, to help those in need and, most excitingly, to really focus on ensuring their years of wisdom are passed on.
In this world there are paradoxically more contact hours, focused on working with students to embed their learning, and critical thinking; adding human value to the machines. In many ways this is a democratisation of higher education, so every university can afford to be closer to the tutorial systems of the elite.
The immersive learning is experiential; mixed reality gives students experiences they can’t have in the real world - and it may even allow them to collaborate globally. Because the learning of knowledge is covered by the AI-led teaching, active, student-centred learning such as project work and problem-solving prevails.
This is a university campus where staff are liberated from the daily grind of essential administrative tasks - to do what they do the best– engaging with their students when and where they most need it. Data even works out how to automatically optimise learning spaces, adjusting lighting levels for the tasks taking place. Lecturers are notified when the systems notice a student is starting to show signs of suffering from mental health or other wellbeing issues and preventative action is taken immediately. You can’t get more human than that.
The potential of Education 4.0 is huge. Imagine if we all pulled together to harness the power of this technology for good in our institutions? A lot of this is already in motion. It’s now up to us to take the lead. The time really is now, as otherwise we risk being left behind.
In case you are thinking that this is a bunch of hyperbole and science fiction nonsense, other sectors have undergone this radical transformation. Indeed, I’ve personally been involved in many of the banking techniques we take for granted today. I regularly pay for things with my watch – I know it would have been laughed at only ten years ago when one of my teams pioneered the payment technology used.
So what are the implications for universities and how will lecturers evolve to acquire the skills and attitudes they will need in this world? That’s primarily as mentors/wisdom givers, comfortable with bought-in teaching content.
And what about university campuses? Or the curricula? How will they enable Education 4.0 to thrive? Then there’s lifelong learning – is this something universities want to embrace? How about micro-credentials?
Most importantly, how will universities differentiate themselves in this new world when technology could be a driver to uniformity? Indeed, there’s lots to think about.
It is education’s time to be transformed – students will expect it and if we in the UK don’t, someone else in the world will. I’ll be astonished if there aren’t Chinese universities working on this as we speak. So, at Jisc, we are working to make this happen, and we encourage universities to join us to get their institutions ready to start on this journey. If we assume it will happen and remain in control of the change, we will not only remain top of the league tables but make education in this country brilliant.
This blog is based on Jisc chief executive Paul Feldman’s speech to Universities UK’s annual conference on 5 September 2018.