From education to employment

Digital Universities – what drives them and what should we remember?

Kathryn Skelton, Head of Strategy, FutureLearn

Watch this video to find out what Dr Ross Parry thought were the drivers of EdTech both generally and specifically for Leicester, what the major trends that Jeremy Auger is seeing from the US, and what Yaz El Hakim thinks about the topic of personalisation.

At this year’s EdTechUK Global Summit, the Education Foundation brought together policy-makers, start-ups, scale-ups and industry, with the aim to learn, share, and advance the edtech sphere. I was delighted to be asked to chair a panel session on the subject of ‘Digital Universities – Supporting Learning; Improving Experience’. Not a small topic but the panelists, Dr Ross Parry, Associate Professor, Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Digital), University of Leicester, Jeremy Auger, Chief Strategy Officer, D2L, and Yaz El Hakim, Head of Education, Kortext, shared some of their experience and expertise that brought the ‘why’ of the digital university to real-life for the summit delegates.

Below, Kathryn Skelton, Director of Strategy, FutureLearn explores some of the key takeaways from this panel discussion.

Remember the problem you’re trying to solve

It’s easy to take the idea of digitisation for granted as a ‘good thing’ in its own right, but for the people on the panel it was critical to understand the end goal. They felt that digital education and the use of technology should be thought of as a means to an end, not an end in its own right. This perspective came across as an important element throughout the panel session.

The gig economy is forcing a rethink in how we upskill and reskill

Jeremy from D2L shared his perspectives from the US market, explaining how technology enables the delivery of relevant skills in a changing economy, where the proportion of workers operating in the ‘gig economy’ is currently about one-third of the workforce and is projected to increase to 50% in the next 5-7 years, according to an Oxford study. This requires people to adapt more rapidly and enhance their skillsets to suit the needs of the labour market, but he also suggested that the increase in AI and Automation more generally means that upskilling and reskilling will become increasingly important in order to move humans up the value chain.

Meanwhile, Ross from the University of Leicester shared Jeremy’s view that the ‘digital university’ would be better equipped to enable the flexibility and personalisation of learning needed for today and tomorrow’s workforce. Furthermore, he thought that the digital university would empower staff and learners, enable optimisation and innovation of learning experiences, and open up the university to an international audience.

The correlation between being practical and thinking big

It’s fair to say that the panel highlighted quite lofty goals for the digital university and indeed the future of edtech but for the benefit of the delegates, we wanted to get back to reality – we discussed how, practically speaking, universities can mobilise themselves for digital change? Ross emphasized the importance of people, citing diversity of thinking at a senior level and upskilling throughout the university as critical in enabling the organisation as a whole to ‘think big’ about its digital strategy, which needs to consider every area from data to systems, and the physical campus to the people who inhabit it.

Yaz from Kortext echoed the importance of thinking big, reminding us how important it was to avoid silos and siloed thinking, bringing end users and beneficiaries into the process of partnering and procuring technology.

The panelists noted that a truly digital university would have digital thinking, processes and systems embedded in every aspect of its being. Ross shared an example of this from his university, where he noted that senior ownership of digital was a vital stepping stone in making change happen, but that the ultimate goal would be to have shared ownership by everyone in the organisation.

Never forget about the learners

Our panelists agreed that the learner’s experience was and should be central to the vision for the digital university. Yaz shared his vision of how learning should be applied to real-world problems, and be exciting for learners! One of the advantages of digital, he reminded us, is that it makes it easier for us to understand how people are engaging with learning, and that allows us to use that information to tailor their experiences and thus improve outcomes.

Look up

Finally, Ross reminded everyone of the importance of taking time to look up, take in the wider world, and learn. Of course, learning is at the core of universities – but it can be hard to come up for air and reflect on your own practices and how they could be improved. Through collaboration with FutureLearn, the University of Leicester has changed the way they think, embarking on a number of exciting projects to help them become a truly digital university.

This was a fantastic panel to be part of, at an interesting and well-attended summit. With the world of edtech changing at such pace, it’s incredibly useful to take the time to stop and, as Ross says, ‘look up’ to understand where we are now, what we’ve achieved so far, and consider what should be next. For me, the digital university train has left the station, the students are waiting at the next stop with high expectations, and the higher education sector must understand and adapt to meet their needs – or, to continue my analogy, they risk running a train on a route that no passengers want to take.

Kathryn Skelton, Director of Strategy, FutureLearn

As Director of Strategy, Kathryn is responsible for helping the company to decide its direction of travel, using data and market intelligence to make informed decisions about what to pursue and what to set aside, checking progress against plans, and ensuring the company keeps moving forwards.

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