Q&A: Chris Rothwell

Microsoft’s UK director of education talks to Paddy Smith about university edtech adoption, data-driven wellbeing solutions and a future where study never ends

What’s your background?

I’ve been at Microsoft for quite a long time but I’ve been specifically in this role for only four months, so I’m still relatively new. 

My education connection is that a long time ago I was a product manager for a product we had called Live@Edu which is now Office 365 for Education. Prior to that, I worked in our Office team, I worked in our channel team for a while, most recently I ran our business applications business for the UK. It’s great to be back in the education world.

Is higher education too reticent about adopting new technologies?

You think universities have been slower to adopt technology than the schools? 

I don’t necessarily agree with that. 

I don’t know whether globally it would be different. Specifically in the UK, we have a decentralised schools market, where a lot of schools are making individual decisions. Universities are large enough institutions that while they are still making individual decisions a lot of the time, they’re of a size and scale that means they have resources that can help them think about what technology can do. I certainly don’t think of them as technology reticent. 

I definitely think of them as a sector where there’s greater potential for technology. No question of that. And like a lot of industries, I guess there will be pockets where some are amazing, others definitely not.

Is decision-making a problem at universities?

A researcher once described universities as a cooperative, rather than an organisation and I think there is definitely a lot of independence between faculties and different groups within universities that can make decision-making slower. I think the way the higher ed sector has changed – the change around student expectations, the introduction of fees – has made universities think differently about the whole experience of being at university and that has driven a lot of thinking about what the experience should be, could be, and even different universities are thinking about ‘competing’ and where they think their value is for students. And the world’s becoming digital so everybody’s experience is being shaped by a digital experience. 

Your expectations of what interaction with an organisation looks like might be shaped by a retailer and the fact that it’s a university doesn’t much matter to you. You still expect to have a similar kind of experience. The student experience now says, if I’m paying that kind of money to be here, I expect to have a certain kind of experience with you.

When I was at university if I wanted a meeting with my tutor I used to have to go to their office and I had to write my name on a piece of paper that was pinned to their office door. Now they probably expect a video call

You say retail. Does that mean Amazon?

Of course Amazon has helped shape what people expect in terms of ease of online experience. You could equally talk about someone like John Lewis which has shaped people’s experience of what retail online/offline combination looks like. I think certainly from a student point of view, they expect more of an ongoing relationship and relevant journey than ‘turn up, sit in a lecture and then go and do your own thing’ – largely it’s disconnected. And that starts from the time you begin to express an interest in a university all the way through to being an alumnus. And what does that experience look like? How easy is it to get access to places? How easy is it to buy things for the different university experiences? How well are my course materials delivered to me? How easy is it for me to access resources online or in person? How do I interact with my tutors? Certainly when I was at university if I wanted a meeting with my tutor I used to have to go to their office and I had to write my name on a piece of paper that was pinned to their office door at the beginning of the week. That is not what people expect of the experience any more. Probably they now expect to be able to have a video call with that tutor at a time that was much more convenient. Technology is both raising those expectations and then helping organisations think about how they meet them, so you see that balance cross.

Would it be right to say universities are becoming more corporate in their outlook?

I think if you go back 10 years, universities really cared about research in the main, and secondarily they then cared about teaching. I think those things have become much more even. Whereas previously you could go to a university and say: who are your main stakeholders, who are the people you really care about? Students would have been on the list, but would their teaching/learning experience be as high as it is today? Probably not.

So Wi-Fi in halls of residence would now probably be seen as non-negotiable in pretty much every institution. Universities fundamentally still absolutely care about how they teach, how they help people prepare for life beyond education, how they connect world-class research with students, with each other. I don’t think they’ve necessarily switched to become more corporate minded. It think they’ve had to think more deeply about the student experience and increasingly the connections with enterprise, commercial organisations, from an employment perspective. From a research perspective, there are more of those sorts of partnerships and they’re probably more important to the university. Universities manage some of the most complex stakeholders across all of the different things they care about of any organisation. Certainly more than any commercial organisation, that’s for sure.

What’s the Microsoft view of HE at the moment? Where are you taking that?

In terms of what we do with universities today, we have Office 365 – really what that translates to is helping people work more effectively together, students and staff, and that can be about how course materials are distributed or literally how you work together. You’ll see a big element in the industry of people embracing cloud. It’s helping them be more agile, it’s helping them save money, it’s helping embrace new opportunities. That could be for core infrastructure, it could also be for research, so the ability to spin up a very, very large research environment in the cloud versus building the environment yourself and managing it yourself. And then there’s a big focus on that student life cycle, that student journey, how you engage in that. That includes some sort of web contact-type stuff all the way through to student records, student information, all the way through the learning experience, social experience, how do you make sure people have a great time doing that? And then out into the world beyond.

To hedge a guess between what universities are doing now and what I think they’ll do more of in the future, the whole area of data and AI is pretty much on everybody’s mind. And certainly two really common areas that I hear from universities are that they’re interested in using the data they have to know which students might drop out, and can we maximise people’s potential? Can we begin to tell you that probably you could get a first if you started to do a couple of these things that you’re not doing today. That’s one angle and, of course, if students drop out it’s a revenue impact for the university so that’s a particular focus there.

The secondary part of that conversation is how do you take care of the mental health and wellbeing of your students. Suicide is far too prevalent within students and so beginning to take the data that you have about how that student is turning up at university and potentially other environments and combining that data to say ‘we don’t know, but we probably need to talk to this student’. Now the student might have gone missing because they’re having the most amazing time, but maybe they’ve gone missing because they’re actally having a really tough time and there are lots of interventions that are possible but being smarter about where and how you intervene, that’s a very compelling reason for universities too. So a lot of universities are at the beginning of that journey to think about how they bring all of that data they have in all these different places and bring it together in order to turn it into supporting people from an academic attainment point of view but also from a mental health and wellbeing perspective.

And how do you think students feel about this sort of data use?

All of these are issues that everybody needs to think about when they collect data. How are you securing it? How are you ensuring it’s private? Do you have the right? Does the user know? All of those things have to be thoughtfully dealt with, obviously. The critical thing is that the student knows and that you’re not doing anything that they would deem to be unexpected. You have to earn trust. It’s about taking the small steps of using data to deliver value back to the student. You see that across most environments where data is underpinning recommendation engines and things like that, people don’t mind as long as it’s not unexpected and it’s delivering value back to them. So it will evolve over time according to student expectations as well as the institutions’ data and potential, but it needs to be thought about carefully in terms of interaction and engagement with individuals as well as the data security, privacy, compliance – all those things are absolutely critical.

Administrators are really going to have to manage it well, aren’t they?

I think how you intervene matters. The data is never going to do the whole thing for you. What the data will get to is helping you know where you should be looking and that doesn’t mean you should knock on a student’s door at 10 o’clock at night and be like ‘hey, I’m told you might be at risk’. That’s not the right way to do it, but there are lots of ways you can at least go and put a specific focus on that individual student. Every member of staff at a university would love to know how the students are doing, but they see them for a very small amount of time and so their ability to spot those sorts of things without being helped is very limited. Their ability to intervene when they know they should maybe asking some questions is normally pretty good. People are actually quite sensitive about being able to say ‘hey, I wanted to check in’. It could be as simple as that. It’s absolutely about the data helping the people do what people are great at.

What about the future?

Data and AI are big areas, but also anti-plagiarism and increasing personalisation of learning. I think you talked about the potential for things like the mixture of real-world versus online versus remote learning. Blended learning is absolutely going to happen. And again if you look at the requirements of the world, we sort of had for a long time the idea that you go to school, college, university and then you go to work. And when you got to work, education was done. It’s just not going to be the case for people that enter the workforce, even probably for us. Our lives and our careers will likely need to change and evolve. 

How will that work for a university? Will we become a lifelong customer for a university? Just because I have employment, does the university still have a role to play in helping me think about new things that are coming, potentially helping me train for new careers.

There’s no doubt that the world is changing so quickly that the idea that you finish your formal education at the age of 21 or 22 and you never go back is going to be tough. The total volume of education, that sort of lifelong learning, will grow. There’s an open question as to what role universities will play in that. Does it become a mixture of three or four-year degrees? Are the degrees shorter and more compressed? Or is it ongoing courses that I select from multiple institutions? There’s quite a lot of potential for adjustment in learning opportunity for universities. What requirements does a particular organisation have and can a university help them build curriculum materials, learning materials, it becomes a very different way for that university to take the research and knowledge that it has and get it into the hands of people that wouldn’t classically be accustomed to that.

Sounds a bit Blade Runner.

I wouldn’t use the term Blade Runner. 

The example I would talk about is the rise of apprenticeships. So apprenticeships a decade ago meant learning to be a plumber or a car mechanic or a hairdresser or one of those vocational things. Apprenticeships now are blended learning and working. People are doing that at all ages – people are doing returnships, people are coming back from caring for elderly relatives or from having children, as well as ‘I’m 16 I don’t really want to carry on a formal education but I want to keep on learning’. So that apprenticeship rise is proving popular with employees and employers and apprentices because it’s blending that hunger and ambition with work.

I don’t think we’re all going to get to blended working. There’s still going to be a place for formal university-level, degree-level education for even ongoing master’s-type research and study. But there’s no doubt that the idea that you’re going to have to continue to learn, take on new skills, continue to adapt, that’s going to apply to people as they graduate at whatever stage. If that’s at 16 into one place, but 18 to another place, if it’s at 22… it’s going to apply to all of those people. The combination of working and learning together is going to impact us. 

Chris Rothwell is Microsoft UK director of education. Find out more about Microsoft in Education on their website.

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