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Time to act: UK Universities will be overtaken unless they embrace new technology

  • 2 February 2017
  • By Nick Hillman

In a new report, Rebooting Learning for the Digital Age, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), Paul Feldman, Sarah Davies and Joel Mullan call on university leaders to embrace new technology to meet the challenges faced by the higher education sector.

The report reviews best practice around the world to show how technology is benefiting universities and students through better teaching and learning, improved retention rates and lower costs:

  • in the US, curriculum redesign using technology-enhanced learning produced better student outcomes in 72 per cent of projects and average savings of 31 per cent;
  • the University of New England in Australia reduced student drop-out rates from 18 per cent to 12 per cent via learning analytics; and
  • at Nottingham Trent University, 81 per cent of first-year students increased their study time after seeing their own engagement data.

Paul Feldman, Chief Executive of Jisc said:

The Teaching Excellence Framework puts universities under pressure to improve student satisfaction, retention and employability while managing costs. Digital developments show this can be done, but only where there is strong leadership and suitably-skilled staff.

Results from the USA and Australia prove students become more engaged in their learning where technology is used well. In the UK, there are some good examples of transformational technology, but these need to become much more mainstream if we are to compete.

Sarah Davies, co-author of the report and head of higher education and student experience at Jisc, said:

The examples we reviewed for the report show how technology has become an essential component of an effective and engaging higher education experience.

Universities and course teams need to identify the approaches that work in their context and embed them into their teaching approaches. Whether this is using learning analytics to identify and support students who may be at risk of under-achieving, using online research to prepare for engaging face-to-face workshops, or creating assignments which support students in public engagement and developing a professional profile.

Commenting on the report, Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

Staying ahead of the international competition is a constant battle for world-class higher education institutions and world-class higher education systems. It can’t be done without making full use of new technology.

This report shows how to do it. There is a potential win:win:win, which is remarkably rare in policymaking. Universities can improve their education, help students and cut costs, all at the same time. But it will only happen if they ensure all staff are on board, if they accept cost savings are a by-product rather than the main goal and, most importantly, if they protect students’ personal data.

The report makes seven recommendations:

  1. Higher education institutions should ensure that the effective use of technology for learning and teaching is built into curriculum design processes. This should include consideration of win-win methods, which offer both improved outcomes and lower costs.
  2. To support this, the UK higher education sector should develop an evidence and knowledge base on what works in technology-enhanced learning to help universities, faculties and course teams make informed decisions. Mechanisms to share, discuss and disseminate these insights to the rest of the sector will also be required.
  3. Institutions that do not currently have learning analytics in place should give consideration to adopting it at the earliest opportunity.
  4. Education researchers should consider how the learning analytics big dataset can be harnessed to provide new insights into teaching and learning.
  5. Digital technology should be recognised as a key tool for higher education institutions responding to the TEF. Providers should be expected to include information on how they are improving teaching through the use of digital technology in their submissions to the TEF. The Department for Education and the TEF panel must ensure the TEF does not act as a barrier against institutions innovating with technology-enhanced approaches.
  6. Higher education institutions should ensure the digital agenda is being led at senior levels – and should embed digital capabilities into recruitment, staff development, appraisal, reward and recognition.
  7. Academic leads for learning and teaching should embrace technology-enhanced learning and the digital environment and recognise the relationship with other aspects of learning and teaching.

Note for Editors:

  • HEPI’s mission is to ensure that higher education policy-making is better informed by evidence and research.We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan.
  • Jisc is the UK higher, further education and skills sectors’ not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions.  We operate: shared digital infrastructure and services; negotiate sector-wide deals with IT vendors and commercial publishers; and provide trusted advice and practical assistance for universities, colleges and learning providers.

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