The changing landscape of technology in higher education

I took part in a panel session at the BETT Show today on the changing landscape of technology in higher education. The panellists were invited to speak for a few minutes at the start of the session in order to prompt further discussion. I took the view that it wasn’t all about the technology…

Firstly there are the students themselves. A while back I spoke to a number of school leavers who were heading to university to try to find out how they were going to use the technology they were taking with them and what their expectations were of using technology at university. Their expectations were probably aligned to what they had seen during open days. They were expecting to make use of computer pool rooms and “Learning commons” facilities but there was little expectation of how technology was going to be used in their own education. Some had thought about the technology they were going to take to university – a smart phone for making quick notes, for reminders and for finding information on the move, a tablet for taking notes in lectures and for searching for information, and a laptop for producing their coursework. But although they regularly exchanged information with friends and were informally learning through their contacts, there wasn’t an understanding of how they were going to translate those skills into their university environment. Consequently universities need to help their students improve their digital capabilities, to help them make good use of the technology they have, to provide facilities for collaboration, to help them stay safe, and to distinguish between good online sources and bad.

On the other side of the equation, do universities have the ability to optimise the use of technology in teaching and learning? Research suggests that a blended model of teaching (utilising both face to face and online components) results in increased learning and understanding. However expertise in using technology and employing different pedagogic methods amongst academic staff varies enormously. Similarly the desire to move to a new teaching model also varies hugely. Teaching online and making use of technology to change how students learn requires different skill sets. Facilitating a discussion is different from delivering a lecture. Delivering short micro lectures where you are getting a key point across in fifteen minutes is different to delivering a 45 minute lecture. Further, there are many credible resources available online that can be used in teaching. Do academic staff understand how to make best use of the resources available or appreciate how technology could be used to teach in a different way? Universities have to work to develop the digital capabilities of their academic staff. They need to invest in training and supporting academic staff and invest in the estate to provide flexible learning spaces and social spaces that their student body can use for informal learning, collaboration and group work.

The need to invest highlights the need for those making the decisions on funding to understand the possibilities and benefits in investing in technology for teaching and learning and investing in the workforce, and to understand the impact on the estate. Much has been made of the ability of online learning to be easily scaled up and it would be easy to conclude that using technology to deliver learning, whilst not free, is a cheap alternative to traditional models. However, one benefit of the advent of MOOCs has been a recognition that, if you are going to deliver material online, you have to do it well. It is not a cheap option. Universities’ senior management teams, whilst perhaps not needing the same level of digital capabilities as academic staff and students, do need enough knowledge to understand the potential.

A little on technology – MOOCs have been a disruptor but not in the way that was anticipated. One impact has been that it has been recognised that externally facing resources have to be of a high quality – they are your public face and advertisements for your institution. As a consequence the quality of all online delivery has been raised. MOOCs also allow self paced learning accommodating different learning styles as students find their way through the presented material. This is one area where learning analytics can make a difference. Using all the information that is available to the institution, entry data, cumulative data from previous cohorts and data from the students themselves will allow universities to be more supportive and help guide their students to a successful conclusion. In the future this may be supplemented by personal profiling ahead of entry, helping to guide students earlier to identify the right course for them at the application stage. The question is, how far should this assistance go? Whilst it is desirable to get as high a pass rate as possible, does too much guidance mean that our graduates are less prepared for the world at large?

PS Readers may be interested in the results of UCISA’s Digital Capabilities survey. The Executive summary is available on the UCISA website.


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