EdTech – A digital epiphany?

From working and teaching face-to-face to remotely overnight, Cathy Parnham looks at how universities have had to rapidly step up their game with digital tech

Having joined-up edtech has never been more important than today. Whether it is to communicate with colleagues, our students or our clients – and now friends and family – it is essential to enable us to fulfil our jobs, studies and social lives!

Who hasn’t been on a Zoom meeting or similar since lockdown?

With many forced to adopt their working practices quickly to enable working from home, to host lectures, to engage and support students, to conduct client and staff meetings and to ensure good communication, there are bound to be snagging points – and allowances made for working out of the kitchen or wherever you can find a quiet space.

Sharing best practice

Of course, we had the tech there pre-Covid and while some people were using it well – or working remotely – perhaps best practice wasn’t communicated or shared. As Allen Crawford-Thomas, subject specialist in digital strategy and business processes at Jisc, says: “Pre-Covid, it was very fragmented. There were pockets of practice, but you tend to find that these pockets were siloed within an institution. So, you might have come across teams who were making very good use of technology – but that’s it; that great practice stayed locked within that group. It wasn’t necessarily being shared so that others across the organisation could benefit.”

Mark Ayton, subject specialist in organisational strategy at Jisc, also points out that this fragmentation likely is due to “not having an overall digital strategy”.

Perhaps the latter has led to nearly 342,000 students petitioning parliament, demanding their tuition fees back, because they are, as Dr Nicos Nicolaou, CEO of education platform Unicaf, points out “unhappy with the quality of online teaching and learning materials [because], on the arrival of Covid and the mass overnight closure of institutions, a large proportion of universities provided students with [just] PowerPoints and PDFs.

“Before the pandemic most universities were using just basic technology to enable them to deliver face-to-face classes and to deal with data. As an example, faculty were making material available to students mostly using hard copies.”

Game changer

So, while some universities have adapted well, and will have had good remote working practices in place, this has been a challenging time for staff and students needing a way of working seamlessly.

Nicolaou highlights some of the problems universities faced in the rush to move to online learning: “Because of the pandemic, universities had to suddenly use technology to teach students remotely and to handle data using cloud-based systems. Universities scrambled to move classes online as Covid-19 forced campus closures. Most universities did not have cloud-based systems in place or digital platforms designed for online learning so they ended up using Zoom, Skype and other software to communicate with students in an effort to teach students remotely.

“These methods do not resemble what we think of as traditional online education. Quality online learning programmes are high-input operations, requiring experts to develop, and significant investments.”

However, as Ayton points out: “… although we haven’t reached that revolutionary moment yet, technology seems to have become more integrated and accepted.”

The pandemic has thrust digital tech upon us all and as Zac Gribble, subject specialist in digital practice (platforms), Jisc, says: “I have heard, in the past, academics saying that they don’t want to, or feel they don’t need to, take on digital technology, because the way they already do things works fine. There was no motivation to change things because the worth was not apparent. Whereas during the pandemic, there has been no choice but to take on digital tools to be able to maintain contact with students. The game has changed, and now they’re likely to be more motivated to find the right tool to help them teach.”

The knock-on effect

So, if all the digital tech is working seamlessly – meaning less admin and less stress for staff – there must be a reciprocal benefit for students.

In Nicolaou’s view: “Digital platforms which are used for online teaching provide a variety of tools for students and make learning more rewarding than even face-to-face teaching. Students have the ability to access an assortment of learning resources such as digital libraries, e-books, interactive materials, self-testing tools, etc.”

However, some problems could go under the radar as digital tech alone may not show if a student is having problems. Gribble says that: “Learner analytics… could show that a student has been missing some classes which may indicate that they are struggling. But what it doesn’t show is that this student has a part-time job, so it’s important to have a mix of learner analytics and human interaction.

“But what the analytics can do is to show, for example, whether the student is turning up to all their sessions and reading recommended supporting material, but their grades are still low. This can indicate a gap in understanding, or even that learning materials may need to be altered. It’s not a complete answer, but can give some useful insight.”

“… on the arrival of Covid, and the mass overnight closure of institutions, a large proportion of universities provided students with [just] PowerPoints and PDFs” – Dr Nicos Nicolaou, Unicaf

So, what’s next?

We know from our students and own children in HE that many feel the digital support they have been offered is simply not good enough and expect more from the £9,000-plus in tuition fees. While an allowance has to be made for such extreme circumstances, next year’s intake and those continuing into second year and beyond will expect more.

As some universities have already declared they will be continuing with online learning until the new year – and many more may follow – we would expect digital edtech to evolve.

CASE STUDY: University of Derby

Fiona Shelton, head of the centre for excellence in learning and teaching, shares how the University of Derby rapidly reacted to the Covid-19 crisis to get its staff up to speed with remote working and teaching

How has joined-up tech helped staff manage workloads?

The digital ecosystem of the University of Derby has transformed modern working practices. With tools like Office 365 and Blackboard Collaborate, our professional and academic services can deliver excellent, efficient teaching and support through streamlined processes. An application like Microsoft Teams is a hub for all Office 365 applications, making project work and team collaboration easier than ever.
Before Covid-19, we were often challenged with user adoption of these systems.

Like in most organisations, there were not always opportunities for staff to take the time to learn how to use the full capabilities of our integrated systems, without the push of necessity.

Since home working has been introduced in response to the Covid-19 crisis, we have successfully increased our digital and online training provision for our university-supported and managed systems. Home working has resulted in a mass digital upskill within the organisation at record pace, as adoption of these integrated technologies quickly became necessary for business continuity. We have seen a key shift in need for the maximisation of capabilities within software like Office 365.

What are the current challenges of remote working?

Having well-embedded use of our virtual learning environment (VLE) and its integrated technologies across all programmes has significantly aided our switch to remote delivery. An established expectation that all appropriate teaching sessions are routinely recorded, for example, has meant our academic staff are already familiar with intuitional recording software and have moved swiftly to deliver lectures by recording and sharing video content with their students.

While there was a steeper learning curve for many in delivering live teaching sessions as webinars, an extensive training offering from our technology-enhanced learning team in March and early April, peer support and local champions within colleges, and supporting online resources, meant our academic staff were rapidly skilled to deliver sessions using Blackboard Collaborate.

A three-week period between March 16 and April 5 saw 14,203 Collaborate sessions launched (a 1,200% increase on standard weekly figures) with similarly large increases in the use of discussion boards and digital tools to facilitate communication and enhance student engagement.

It is vital, however, that our approach to remote teaching is sensitive to the significant challenges and distractions our students may be experiencing during the current time, such as caring responsibilities, limited/shared access to IT equipment and the impact on mental health.

To reduce the need for students to attend at set times, we have seen an increase in the provision of asynchronous learning activities which students can engage with around their existing commitments and ensure learning can continue despite the current challenges.

What are the benefits of joined-up tech for students?

Joined-up technology for students creates a seamless learning experience which is easy for them to navigate and use. Importantly, this requires central, university-supported and managed technology. This provides the students with assurance on governance, as well as pathways for support and guidance. At the University of Derby much of our learning technology is integrated into the virtual learning environment (VLE), so that students have a single point of entry or a ‘common front door’.

The academics also have a role to play in creating this experience by clearly outlining the technology they incorporate in learning and teaching, setting student usage expectations, as well as articulating the digital skills students will develop.

How might things change, post-pandemic?

There are already signs there will be changes to how people work in the post-pandemic world, with the continuation of digital practices which can be more efficient, productive, cost-effective, and environmentally- as well as family-friendly.

Some companies are already starting to recruit for these roles, with the expectation that staff will spend more time working remotely.

For this reason, we need to prepare students to be able to develop the skills they need to work in this way, helping them to articulate how their experiences while studying have helped to prepare for this.

We can do this through taking several approaches:

  • Building-in experiences which help students to become familiar with collaborating, communicating, and learning online, helping them to develop the skills they need to work digitally
  • Using formative and summative assessments to help make these experiences meaningful so students can relate them to their subject areas and the digital skills needed for their future employment
  • Getting students to explore the types of digital skills or capabilities which they will need in a wide variety of workplaces, helping them to plan and focus on the development of the skills most important for their success in the future
  • Providing students with the opportunity to articulate the skills they have developed and how this relates to the workplace. Often job descriptions are not explicit about the digital skills required for a role but emphasising these within an application is an important part of demonstrating ability to do that job.
  • Keeping up-to-date with digital developments within employment sectors with close links to subject disciplines so the curriculum can evolve and adapt to help students build the skills they need.

This case study was compiled with the help of academics in the University of Derby’s CELT (Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching) and IT services

Gribble elaborates on this: “Confidence has changed in a big way and, where institutions may have had trouble in integrating edtech, either because of unfamiliarity on the part of staff, or a lack of understanding around the possible benefits, they have now had to move very quickly, and have had to push through these barriers as an immediate necessity.

“I think the forced change has worked as a bit of a ‘eureka’ moment for some universities, because perceptions and motivations have changed. And all it takes is for one academic to be on board, and often you’ll then see the approach spread naturally. So, despite the fact that the pandemic is an awful situation, we might see that it has acted as an opportunity to build on confidence and affect the culture around digital practice.”

“The forced change has worked as a bit of a ‘eureka’ moment. All it takes is for one academic to be on board, and often you’ll then see the approach spread naturally ”
– Zac Gribble, Jisc

Indeed, Nicolaou comments: “Post Covid-19, students will not accept the type of remote learning which took place during the pandemic. They will expect universities to offer quality online learning which will include material designed by instructional designers using modern delivery methods and digital platforms which are designed especially for online delivery. Also, universities will have to adopt new cloud-based technologies for their faculty of staff to be able to cope with working online.”

So, there seems to be a real opportunity for digital edtech to become more sophisticated and streamlined – partly as a result of the dire situation the world finds itself in, and partly because it is now very much a requirement of today’s staff and students.

As Allen Crawford-Thomas, subject specialist in digital strategy and business processes states:
“We’ve been plunged into a choice between adaption and extinction.

“I think we’re going to see an acceleration of digital technology use. We will all have to step outside our comfort zones for this, but what we don’t want is to slip back to how it was before Covid-19. This is a real opportunity to move the way we deliver education forward.”

Case study:  Staying connected

Emily Maskrey, head of marketing at Zengenti shares how universities the CMS provider works with day-to-day have adapted to new working practices, and how impressed she’s been by their resilience to such a huge change

Digital teams at universities typically work together in the same location the majority of the time and have their key stakeholders and main target audiences right on their doorstep.

That all changed overnight with the outbreak of Covid-19.

We’ve been so impressed with how the teams we work with have adapted to new working practices that keep them separated from peers, whilst still working hard to provide vital communication channels for students and other colleagues affected by the lockdown.

Everyone is a lot more aware of the importance of their web communications. Now, more than ever, universities recognise their web presence is paramount in getting messages across.

Teams who already have partial remote working in place have found it more straightforward to adapt. But for others, working from home has been a completely new concept. In scenarios like these we’ve seen instant messaging, video calling, and other modern communication tools really come into their own.

Using the same communication channels is invaluable to the successful running of a team at the best of times. But now these tools aren’t only vital to delivering shared goals, we’ve also seen them support people’s wellbeing. Regular check-ins, stands-ups and reviews and retrospectives help keep remote teams in touch.

We’ve seen that, in some ways, lockdown has actually brought people closer together. We’ve been able to initiate conversations quicker because we don’t need to meet in person. We’ve also seen projects get backing in a way that might not have been possible before.

It’s inspiring to see teams react so positively to this difficult situation and hopefully bring about long-lasting improvements to the way we all work.

You might also like: Edtech: The power to attract, engage and convert students

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