Comment Blog 21 September, 2017

850 years later – disrupting higher education

Education technology (EdTech) could, for the first time since the establishment of universities, cause a true disruption to the way higher education is taught in the UK.

This key message was delivered with a sense of urgency by attendees at a Reform roundtable last week, led by the Chief Executive of Jisc, Paul Feldman.

The event gathered experts from across higher education, policy and technology, and saw a lively debate on the future of teaching and learning at higher education institutions. The hope is that technology will free up time for university lecturers to focus on interactions with students, and allow them to become better at their job, for instance by creating new ‘real-time feedback loops’.

Such feedback loops can be created by learning analytics. This provides different ways of analysing student activity, especially on online learning platforms. It can give lecturers insight into which resources students access, how, and for how long, and help them identify students who seem to be falling behind. In a paper published last year, Reform argued that the introduction of learning analytics will empower students, and allow universities to quickly tailor interventions for those who appear to be struggling, before it’s too late to help. The paper also promotes the idea of using learning analytics as a measure to show student engagement in the Teaching Excellence Framework. It is so far proving difficult, however, to create a metric fair to all institutions, given the different subject mixes and student bodies.

Attendees seemed to agree that alongside timely measures of student engagement, technology can also help institutions radically rethink the skills they equip their students with. In a world where all existing jobs are estimated to be somewhat automatable, higher education needs to equip people for job markets that require agility, and it was suggested that more than anything, students must become ‘good learners.’

Such a shift may not be easy. According to one participant, there is a “tremendous cultural baggage of what good looks like” when it comes to higher education. Currently, attendees argued, there is no strong incentives for academics to use technology to improve their teaching, putting them and their students at risk of being left behind. They should, however, be encouraged to realise their own interest in any tools that improve engagement – as one participant argued, subject-specific knowledge is much easier to automate than high-quality teaching. An obstacle lies in the perception of traditional approaches to university lecturing as superior, an idea attendees agreed is often perpetuated by the media. Universities will therefore need to take a strong stance to lead staff through a technological transition.

Significant pressure is expected to come from employers too. This will be felt by universities in the form of changing expectations, but also by the arrival of new competition. Private alternatives funded by companies or individuals, such as the Dyson Institute, may become more common, pushing traditional providers to innovate. While some issues are expected to arise from more private entrants to the market, there appeared to be some agreement that it adds necessary vibrancy.

Education technology should always be designed and applied with students’ interests in mind. In an environment where the higher education sector is increasingly being pushed by government to prove that it provides value for money, education technology must not only provide ways of doing so, but also ways of showing impact. In the coming year, Reform is undertaking research on the role of EdTech in closing the attainment gap and in preparing the future workforce, hoping to explore many of the themes at this excellent roundtable further.