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Universities discover the very human benefits of embracing technology

The future is digital – but how can HEIs best embrace technology to benefit staff and students? Phil Richards, chief innovation officer at Jisc, outlines key ideas and suggestions that emerged from the organisation’s Digifest event.


Technology is crucial to the future of education, industry and society - but it’s nothing without humans.

This theme came up again and again at Jisc’s Digifest event last week (12-13 March), whether speakers were discussing skills the tertiary education sector should be nurturing, or highlighting issues facing students and educators and asking how HEIs may work to resolve them.

I felt our keynote speakers were particularly strong this year. Joysy John, director of education at Nesta spoke passionately about using technology to offer a broader, fairer and smarter education system. This is about developing human skills, such as communication and problem-solving, while using technology and data to make education more accessible. Human growth is at the heart.

A key piece of research, Jisc’s Horizons report, echoes this message. Compiled by the Horizons Group – comprising representatives from 30 institutions (HEIs, FEIs and national bodies, together with Jisc), this report outlines a number of strategic challenges facing UK universities and colleges, from finance to cyber security then focuses on the escalating mental health challenge in education.

Technology is already playing a role in supporting student and staff wellbeing, with learning analytics increasingly being used to identify students at risk and enable early intervention. In her Digifest presentation, Dr Dominique Thompson – a former campus GP who is now director of Buzz Consultancy for student wellness – addressed possible causes and potential solutions for the increase in mental health issues within HEIs. Concerns such as finances and employability, she believes, are heightened in today’s hyper-competitive, digitised world. What message do we send young people when they can buy shoes online at 3am or have pizza delivered to their door in minutes but have to wait six weeks or more for mental health support?

Dominique stressed the importance of humans and technology coming together to support leaders and students in their mental health. At Nottingham Trent University, for example, a dashboard generates an alert if a student doesn’t engage for 14 consecutive days, allowing tutors to follow up. Online services and apps are also supporting students’ wellbeing, and chatbots are now entering this space too. Bolton College’s chatbot, Ada, for example, responds to students’ wellbeing concerns with links to appropriate online information and contact details for the college’s student support teams.

In these examples meaningful support comes from human beings, and we believe this will be the model in future. While it’s important and valuable to recognise that technology, such as learning analytics, can help to identify wellbeing and mental health issues early on, it must be used wisely to help the people at colleges and universities understand the problems their students and staff struggle with, and offer timely support.

Collaboration will also be crucial. Of course, it will have to be done in a legal and ethical way, but one can imagine the benefits of a world where data was shared between schools, colleges and universities, and across services from healthcare to accommodation, so that key information about a student follows them throughout their education journey. This could highlight potential areas for concern or awareness as young people enter FE or HE, alerting their new institution to support that may be needed.

Another theme of the Digifest presentations, panel debates and workshops was the need for humans to welcome technology with positivity and optimism. All too often, said Dave Coplin, CEO of The Envisioners, in his keynote presentation, people perceive new technology as a threat – especially AI and robots. We at Jisc believe the emerging technologies of the fourth industrial revolution applied to the academic world will lead to the new paradigm we are calling Education 4.0.

This is about doing some things in a completely new way – for example, introducing new immersive learning activities via augmented and virtual reality or via gaming, that could not be experienced in any other way. Another key feature will be highly personalised courses and curricula, tuned to aptitudes, aspirations and career paths and giving due weight to wellbeing of the learner. New ‘on the fly’ assessment, based transparently on data, will avoiding plagiarism concerns and stressful, high-stakes assessment activities. And, arguably most importantly, Education 4.0 technology frees up educators’ time to focus on areas where the human interaction will always be key: problem-solving, creativity, emotional intelligence, and motivation.

Stephen Hawking warned that powerful new AI will “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity.” At Jisc, through Education 4.0, Jisc will help ensure that it is the former of those scenarios that prevails.


 

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