'An education system should have heart, well-being and humanity at its core'

Lord Knight outlines his views on how the effective use of technology can improve the human elements of learning.

A teacher talks with a student in the hallway.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but technology really can make learning a more profoundly human experience, says Lord Jim Knight.  

“We must never lose sight of the fact that learning should essentially be a social activity. Used well, technology can take away the routine didactic elements of education, freeing lecturers and learners to focus on making the whole process more joyous. 

"There are barriers to be overcome, but the prize is so great that we can’t allow resistance to change to stand in the way.” 

That prize, according to Knight, is an education system designed with heart, wellbeing and humanity right at its core. But, he warns, we need to move fast if both learners and employers are to benefit from it. 

Partnerships are key  

Change in education needs to happen on a sectoral, not just an individual basis, argues Knight. 

Partnerships are essential for collaboration and sharing. Both further and higher education need to tie in more closely with business and industry. Employers need to play their part by ensuring that they connect with education at an earlier stage.

Students should probably, he admits, have more of a say in what technology is used so that we can take advantage of their alternative viewpoints, which in turn requires students to be more active in their participation in the whole education process.  

Addressing the skills gap 

Do FE and HE meet the skills needs of industry?  It’s a huge challenge that needs to be addressed very quickly, says Knight. 

“Agility is critical. The system is currently too wedded to formal qualifications and too slow to adapt to the needs of a rapidly shifting labour market. The best way to address this is through partnerships and sharing across the whole sector.”  

Change is happening fast, he says. The current difficulty of finding low-wage workers is accelerating a new wave of automation that is set to transform areas like auditing, and Knight finds it puzzling that growing trends such as AI are not sufficiently reflected in the curriculum. 

“We need to go much much faster to achieve agility and tightness with the future labour market.  For example, electric cars are now everywhere – but are institutions producing candidates to meet the demand for people to work on them? 

"It’s the same with AI.  Businesses can’t wait around for people to acquire formal qualifications; they need to identify learners with the right skills early and bring them to market. And we need to provide a home for that talent so we don’t lose it elsewhere.”   

Partnerships are key here – both between industry and education, and between the different sectors of education. FE and HE need to partner more to reach all areas - both in terms of geography and diversity.   

Levelling up – addressing digital poverty 

The pandemic has shone a light on digital poverty and it’s now more profoundly important than ever to resolve issues around connectivity, says Knight.   

“More than 2million households in this country still have no internet access. There has been more resource applied to helping these people get online, but so much more can be done. For example, some US school libraries now lend students devices with connectivity. 

"Access to knowledge is what libraries are all about, so this is a natural extension. We need more of that sort of thinking.” 

Digital equity is constantly being redefined, however. While the metaverse might enable education in a virtual world, the wider use of VR/AR could simply magnify the issue of digital poverty. In the past, learners started with a book list; now they need a laptop; in the future, will they also need to buy expensive headsets, haptic gloves etc in order to keep up? 

A blend of technology and in-person contact 

Now more than ever, FE and HE staff need to use the right blend of technology and personal contact to ensure the right outcomes for students. It’s clear that we should be looking to the future while retaining the best bits of what we have already learnt. 

As Knight points out:

“Simply replicating pre-pandemic programs and translating them to online learning will always be sub-standard. Different media can be used to capture innovation. 

"At the most basic level, a lecturer could use video posted on Youtube to capture instructional elements and share them with learners, allowing them to absorb the information at their own pace. Then they might use a survey app for rapid formative assessment so that when face-to-face meetings do take place, both lecturer and learner are aware of any problems and they can be quickly addressed. 

"In the future, AI can be used to build a more granular profile of the learner and their progress.”  

Barriers to change 

According to Knight, one of the main blockers to the adoption of edtech in general is accountability. Edtech is dependent upon data for intelligence, and we need to take into account the ethical issues of using the data that has been collected - for example, guarding against algorithmic bias when profiling learners. But these issues should not stand in the way of embracing technology. 

In Knight's view:

“The goal is achieving a balance in the transactional value of learning: what are the students getting back in benefits from what they are giving to the system?” 

Keep challenging to get the right solution 

“We must keep on challenging in order to get the right ethical solutions in place so that we can all go ahead on the basis of consent. We need transparency and accountability for users. We need more bandwidth and more capability. 

"None of this is simple - but we can’t let the complexities of the problem hold us back from adopting technology as an enabler for an improved education system.”  

Ultimately, says Knight, technology can take away the routine and drudgery from learning, making it a richer, more social and more joyful experience.