These days, we usually associate the word ‘sustainability’ with the environment, but colleges and universities also need to keep their technology sustainable.
Planning ahead is key. That’s why all good institutions take stock from time to time, gathering staff together to assess potentially dominant future trends in education.
‘The playlist degree’
When we last did this at Manchester Met, two key trends stood out.
First was the idea of what we call the ‘infinite university’, which predicts the dominance and importance of mixed reality, artificial reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
Second was what we called ‘the playlist degree’ - that’s the school of thought that suggests a future fragmentation of HE; the idea that students will take a ‘grab bag’ of modules and development experiences from multiple organisations, rather than complete a traditional three-year degree at one institution.
These things might not happen, but it’s important to know what they might mean from a technological point of view.
So, fast forward to present day, and we’re now building a VR and AR centre of excellence, working with natural language interfaces (with a focus on supporting student progression and attainment), employing student analytics, and enhancing the staff and student experience with a smart campus.
Innovation vs optimisation
But are we creating digital transformation, or simply repurposing what we already have?
Transformation is a buzz word that’s used a lot in the sector – but actually, a lot of the time, we aren’t doing anything new. Rather, we’re building a better, more technologically advanced version of what we have.
We’re using digital optimisation, and we’re using it very well indeed.
There are plenty of examples of digital optimisation globally – but old institutions with heritage and age-old knowledge, such as universities, are entirely different beasts to the younger technology companies out there, such as Google.
Both can, and frequently do, achieve wonderful things - but in my opinion, the challenges facing the UK’s education sector are different to those facing growing younger and often global businesses.
So how do you leverage the vast capabilities and knowledge of a university or college, while creating new services to suit today’s students and staff?
Five tips for a sustainable approach to using technology
1. Adopt a zoom-in/zoom-out approach to strategy
Focus on developing a good, detailed plan for the next 12 to 18 months, and a clear vision for the future of the organisation, looking at least five years ahead. Don’t spend too much time worrying about years two to four as whatever plans you develop for this time period will need to change anyway, probably significantly.
2. Tinkering is not innovation
Good ideas can start small, but if it can’t scale to work in the near future for a significant portion (or preferably all) of your students and staff, then it’s probably not worth pursuing.
3. Innovation must be at the heart
Steve Jobs allegedly said that the surest way to identify a non-innovative company is if they have a senior manager with ‘innovation’ in their job title. Innovation needs to be at the core of the way the organisation works. Projects run at arms’ length might initially deliver quicker results, but make it more difficult to create a sustainable innovation culture.
4. Don’t lose sight of your values
Just because you can do something, should you? Ask your students and staff what they think of using innovative technologies, such as natural language processing and extended reality. They’ll help you identify ethical pitfalls that you might not have seen yourselves.
5. Faculty engagement is essential
Academics can be an incredibly valuable source of insights into key areas of innovation, and this needs to be delivered on their terms.
Kurt Weideling is director of information systems and digital services at Manchester Metropolitan University. Register before 1 March 2020 to see his presentation, 'The degree playlist and the infinite university - scalable and sustainable innovation in Education 4.0', at Digifest at the ICC Birmingham on Wednesday 12 March 2020.