From education to employment

Let’s ‘build back better’ on post-Covid digital transformation

Paul Feldman, CEO of Jisc

Speaking alongside Universities Minister at the Foundation for Science and Technology’s Future of Education event last night, the chief executive of @Jisc, Paul Feldman, explained why students must be at the heart of tech-enabled teaching 

2020 has been a year like no other. It has brought challenges, it has brought change – and, for all the difficulties, I’ve been inspired to see it bring great collaboration, showing just how much the tertiary education sector can achieve when we pull together.

The Learning and teaching reimagined initiative is a perfect example of the good that can come from collaboration. Led by Jisc, with Emerge Education, Universities UK, and Advance HE, the project gathered research from more than 1,000 representatives from UK universities. Its report not only sets out the current challenges for the sector, it also imagines and plans an exciting, inclusive, technology-enabled future – and gives universities tools for delivering change in 2021/22 and beyond.

From lecturer to learner, the view from the UK ‘frontline’ is that the future is blended. While it’s amazing to reflect on how fast institutions have moved to deliver high-quality teaching and learning this year, it’s also important to recognise the enthusiasm to learn from experience, build on successes and move forward to a place where learning takes place both online and in person.

Increased engagement and support

This must help all learners. I’m encouraged that the report finds 78% of lecturers see online learning as breaking down geographic barriers to learning – although 53% of staff think that disadvantaged students will find it harder. We can’t afford to widen the gap between the digital haves and have nots: this requires collaboration at a greater scale, including support from the Government, to ensure a fully inclusive future.

At the same time, students are seeing the benefit of being taught online and there is already evidence – highlighted in the Learning and teaching reimagined report – of greater engagement and greater support. One proposed solution to getting it right for our students is for universities to include them in the design and delivery of what and how they are taught. 

Pressure is now on universities to build back better. Government reforms may deliver a high-quality, more flexible system of higher technical education. Workplaces are digitising, and COVID-19 continues to fast-track the demand for skills that match the tech-enhanced jobs of now. Redefining universities’ purpose, ensuring learners can access a range of flexible options for learning throughout life, is vital in today’s world. This is where higher education (HE) can leverage technology to deliver its USP and enable the lecturer to educate and nurture resilient, creative students with skills in critical thinking, and the ability to collaborate.

Building a tech-enabled future

That is the basis of our Education 4.0 vision, where using the full potential of advanced technologies can personalise learning to the students’ needs and wellbeing, modernise assessment and harmonise the digital and physical campus. So, what do we need to do in the decade ahead? The pivotal role of artificial intelligence (AI) is clearer than ever. Yet while our national GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is predicated to grow by 10.3% by 2030 due to AI, the tertiary education sector is yet to meaningfully embed it within courses. The UK is behind in the global pecking order of AI in education – China leads the way. We must look ahead to 2030 and ensure that the UK keeps its reputation as an international destination for HE, and technology could be the golden ticket.

Despite the lack of a strategic spending envelope, we must look to invest if we are to catalyse our university sector as a global leader in technology-enabled education. That is why Jisc is calling for a new national Centre for AI in tertiary education that will deliver real AI solutions at 60 colleges and 30 universities within five years, growing the tertiary education sector by £365m. Looking ahead, I believe with the right investment – and with collaboration between universities, Jisc and technology providers – we can lead the way in delivering the education model of the future, from personalised learning to exam-free assessment.

By drawing together our collective ability in technology and higher education, we’re breaking new ground. The sector is invigorated with a drive to engage students and deliver future-proofed skills. Now is the moment to support institutions and leading-edge programmes to promote and progress the UK’s global status.

Paul Feldman is the CEO of Jisc, the UK’s education and technology not-for-profit.

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