Plumpton College students using digital technology in agriculture
Creative Commons attribution information
Plumpton College students using digital technology in agriculture
©Jisc and Matt Lincoln

Trailblazers vs luddites? Ditch the digital stereotypes and prepare for Industry 4.0

Technology is transforming industry. How are colleges and universities adapting their approach to ensure they’re imparting the skills employers need?


We know the narrative: young people are universally expert with technology, while luddite educators struggle to keep up.

“Not in my experience,” says James Maltby, learning technology manager at Plumpton College. While many learners are adept at using their own devices,

“Those I meet don’t necessarily have good transferable skills – and they certainly don’t all arrive with strong digital capabilities.”

Don’t confuse familiarity with ability, he warns:

“Just because someone knows their way around their iPhone, that doesn’t mean they know how to develop apps.”

Enriching and relevant

As the needs of the modern workplace evolve, generating an increasing number of jobs that require digital skills, the focus of education is shifting.

“From a business perspective, I see firsthand how the world of work is changing,”

comments Nora Senior, executive chair at Weber Shandwick.

As a College of the Future commissioner, she is working with experts and stakeholders from industry and further education (FE) to envision a college education that will give learners enriching and relevant experiences while giving UK plc the best chance to thrive. Senior says:

“Increased automation and greater use of digital technology bring opportunities as well as challenges. We need to overhaul our education system to meet and overcome these, embedding digital so we can train people with the new skills industry demands.”

Jisc’s head of change for student experience, Sarah Knight, believes this starts with asking question about the here and now:

“Understanding how students and staff use technology today is essential if we are to accurately and productively support colleges and universities as they develop their digital environment.

"Organisations invest large sums of money into their digital environment, so it’s crucial they know that this investment results in staff and students actually using the technology and infrastructure effectively.”

Roots-and-branch change

Having worked in a number of colleges and universities, Maltby says:

“The problem with embedding digital technology in the classroom and across institutions is one of curriculum design. Digital is often an afterthought, which means a lot of technology solutions are designed in a silo. We need to work it in from the start.”

To prepare students better for the workplace of today, tomorrow and the future, Plumpton - a further and higher education college specialising in land-based courses – has developed flexible, technology-focused training that can be applied in a range of contexts.

Blended learning mixes digital technology with traditional teaching practices, and immersive curricula brings 360-degree video technology and virtual reality headsets in the classroom. In courses in agriculture, horticulture and other subject areas that align with rural economies, technology is ever-more prevalent - and that reflects changes in industry.

“Both in colleges and in industry, we are now seeing sensors being used to track livestock, automated tractors, and data used to predict harvest conditions,” Maltby says.

“At Plumpton, we recently ran a course on the use of drones for livestock herding and crop analysis.”

Working together

He also talks about codesign of curriculum, “working with employers to work out what to teach in work-based training, what they want learners to have learnt at the end of it.” Senior goes further:

“UK businesses can’t stand on the sidelines. They have to engage with the skills system to ensure that we embed digital within colleges and universities. If we want students to transition from education to employment ‘fully formed’, and if we want workforces that keep up with technological developments, teaching staff must have up-to-date knowledge.

"What was right a decade ago is not right today - and what’s right today won’t work ten years from now.”

In Maltby’s work with employers - including the National Trust, the Royal Horticultural Society, British Airways, Jisc and the Blended Learning Consortium, 

“We have developed e-learning courses, bringing in experts, filming, and exploring the value those apprentices are going to be provide in the workplace.”

He has recently been awarded a research fellowship with the 1851 Royal Commission to develop use of technology in education, particularly with virtual reality and collaborative learning.

“Things are constantly changing. If we’re going to keep up, we need to be looking outwards all the time.”

That’s a challenge for both learners as and educators.

“We need students to gain digital skills,” accepts Senior.

“But if teaching staff either can’t identify or don’t have the right knowledge to impart, it’s difficult to see how anyone will progress.”

Digital transformation

Jisc’s digital experience insights survey 2019 found that just 15% of more than 6,500 members of UK teaching staff feel they are given time to innovate or are recognised for developing digital skills.

Worse, as little as 14% of those in further education (FE) and just 9% in higher education (HE) agree that they receive reward or recognition when they develop digital aspects of their role. That matters – not least because an equivalent Jisc survey exploring the digital experiences of students shows they look first to their teachers for support with their use of technology.

Therefore, staff need continuous development opportunities, Maltby comments:

“It’s said that every two years, digital technology doubles in complexity and variety. No human being can keep up with that!

"Instead, we need to learn how to find the things that are going to be useful and develop the underlying understanding and problem-solving skills that will enable us to adapt.”

Knight adds:

“Colleges and universities must act now to prepare their students and staff, because technology is transforming the workplace and society we live in.”

This impacts the fabric of our colleges and universities, but it isn’t about trailblazers vs luddites.

Maltby concludes:

“You rarely see complete transformation in college curriculum through technology. Rather, there’s a transformation of culture.

"Teachers and students who didn’t use any technology whatsoever - who refused the VLE and wouldn’t try VR headsets - gain confidence, see how those tools can benefit their work, know they make their lives easier, and understand that they open opportunities. Within a few years, some of those environments are unrecognisable. That’s where I see the greatest wins.”

James Maltby, Sarah Knight and Nora Senior are all speakers at Digifest 2020, 10-11 March at the ICC Birmingham. Registration is free to staff, students and researchers at Jisc member institutions. Book your place by 1 March 2020.