Tech for all in higher education

Some UK universities have enthusiastically embraced education technology; others have been more reluctant. The importance of technological innovation in HE should not be underestimated

Universities make for ideal technology customers. They are large, complex institutions that nonetheless have – or aspire to have – a coherent identity. Knitting these disparate elements together, while providing a cohesive ‘brand’ for students and staff to buy into, is an area where imaginative deployment of tech can work wonders.

UK universities are, in addition, world-leading in their science and engineering research. In the latest QS World University Rankings, the UK had three institutions in the top 10 for engineering and technology – Cambridge, Imperial and Oxford – second only to the US. So we would assume that it is no great leap for discoveries in the lab to feed into and enhance the everyday student and staff experience?

What, then, has so far held back the charge of education technology at some British institutions?

Many technologies are sold as ‘transformative’ or ‘revolutionary’; few are. And institutions can be slow moving when it comes to adoption; their sheer size adding exponentially to the difficulty of top-down implementation.

However, as Daniel Creig of Zoom, a video communications firm, observed: “I think education generally has stepped up the game in terms of technology adaption.”

Technology moves so quickly that HE institutions not actively seeking out advancements can be left behind. Lee Gannon, TrouDigital

Consumer conscious

What advantages does increased technological innovation hold? Few universities would look back fondly on the days when co-ordinating the lives of tens of thousands of students and staff involved traversing mountainous drifts of paperwork. And there has never been a cohort of students who are more at home with technology than today’s.

Nor has there been a generation more conscious – and more wary – of the considerable costs of higher education. “Universities are increasingly challenged to justify their value,” said Tracy Dabbs of Collabco, an edtech provider. “Since the introduction of student fees, students are now seen as customers.”

And, as customers, students have great purchasing power. And their choice of where, and whether, to invest in an institution is shaped by more than university rankings. Support provision, facilities, access to lecturers and research – all these shape the decision-making process just as much as reputation. Fortunately, edtech can enhance these aspects as well.

Batteries included?

How? audio visual (AV) technologies can help make things clearer for students. Advanced projectors allow lecturers to share information seamlessly with all pupils, or just the select few who require it. When lecturers are given sufficient time to adapt their teaching style, and provided it doesn’t offer further opportunities for distraction and mischief to students, AV tech can be a boon. As Mark Daniels, Senior AV Engineer at the University of Derby, commented: “New technology has provided an innovative way for [students] to collaborate and communicate with each other.”

A further, jazzier, AV innovation is digital signage. Aside from the irresistible incentive of giving university buildings a sci-fi glitz, digital signage can be an effective way of communicating with students. “Reaching students in high footfall locations with vital information such as student services related to mental health is invaluable,” Lee Gannon, Marketing Manager at TrouDigital, a digital signage firm, noted. “Strong communication channels, facilitated by technology, are the foundation of creating positive experiences for students.”

Digital signage can also make students and staff feel they have a greater stake in their institution; an essential quality given that the size of universities can make them feel impersonal. At Reading Students’ Union, for example, a giant video wall greets visitors, flashing up with useful information and more general messages. It’s no substitute for robust face-to-face support services, but it can enhance them.

Getting down with the VLE

Virtual learning environments (VLEs) are also now almost ubiquitous across UK institutions. These platforms, of which there is a plethora, allow students to access all their learning and assessment resources in one place, as well as catching up on any teaching they may have missed. Lecturers, in turn, can use them to keep track of student progress, provide support, and identify and flag up concerns at an early stage.

University of Hertfordshire’s 24,000+ students, for instance, use Canvas. “We already guarantee turnaround times for marks and feedback,” says Karen Barton, Hertfordshire’s Director of Learning and Teaching. “But now we’re making feedback more meaningful and useful.” Accountability and accessibility, then, for both students and staff, is a useful by-product of VLEs.

But equally, Karen argues, VLEs replicate and anticipate students’ future working environments: “[They] help by enabling our students to learn how to study independently, to collaborate better and to be adept and comfortable with tech – all vital skills to secure employment.”

Certainly, Tracy Dabbs of Collabco acknowledges their product – myday, a kind of all-in-one portal for students’ “academic, administrative and social lives” – can help with employability. But, as important, she argues, is the “key role” tech can play in widening participation. “Any Wi-Fi point is now essentially a seat of learning,” she observes.

Fragmented sector

Such unparalleled access to knowledge does, admittedly, have the potential to fragment the HE sector. The threat from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other free online learning platforms to established universities must be acknowledged. (Though, as UB reported in issue 126, this has been overstated.) But this fragmentation also contributes towards the democratisation of knowledge. Used sensitively, VLEs and other online platforms can make the HE sector more inclusive. “Universities can attract new audiences,” Tracy notes, “part-time, distant and physically impaired learners, for example.”

There are concerns, though. Some institutions have proved sluggish about adapting to the pace of change. This places them at a disadvantage in the global marketplace that HE has become, suggests Lee: “Technology moves so quickly that HE institutions not actively seeking out advancements can be left behind.” Daniel of Zoom agrees: “Arguably, an HE institution that’s not investing in technology may be less attractive to a growing number of future students; it has to cater for technology needs and expectations of Generation Z.”

Another worry is that universities can easily become “very siloed in their thinking”, Tracy comments. Unless technological procurement and advancement is centralised, universities can lose out and progress stall. As Karen argues: “Changing well-established systems, process and ways of working can be risky – it calls for significant investment as well as disruption.”

Without that investment – that risk – institutions may stumble. Most commentators agree that the speed of change in the jobs market, driven by accelerated advancements in fields like AI, automation and communication, will put a profound strain on educational institutions. Adapting graduates for the world of work is one thing; conditioning them to do a job which may not have even be predicted yet is entirely another.

‘Disruption’ has become a much-touted term in discussions on the future impacts of technology. When it comes to higher education, though, its use is justified. Those institutions that weather the storm stand well placed to succeed.