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Learning from lockdown: harnessing tech to improve the student experience

  • 22 June 2020
  • By David Maguire

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor David Maguire, Chair of Jisc and interim Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dundee (as well as a member of the HEPI Advisory Board).

The recent transition to online learning has been as rapid as it has been impressive. Many universities have put very large elements of their curricula and assessments online in just a few short weeks.

Things that would previously have taken years to plan and execute have been designed, developed and implemented with alacrity. In short, there has been a huge amount of digital acceleration in universities since the advent of the pandemic.

However, let’s not kid ourselves; what has been achieved recently is mostly basic and will be largely ephemeral. I’ve heard it said that the transition is more about remote learning than online learning – about adding new tools to old pedagogy, rather than digitally enabling education across the board.

I tend to think about four levels of digitally enabled university teaching and learning:

  1. Level 1 assistance: Technologies are only used passively to support teaching, learning and assessment. For example, Powerpoint slides for lectures, online voting systems in many types of classes, plagiarism detection software for assessments, and tablets for logging laboratory data.
  2. Level 2 automation: Technology is used in more sophisticated ways to automate traditional teaching styles and activities. For example, the online recording and delivery of standard lectures using lecture capture systems, virtual tutorials via virtual meeting software and assessment by online multiple-choice services.
  3. Level 3 – augmentation: The curricula and pedagogic models used for teaching, learning and assessment are extended with active use of technology. Purpose-built courses are developed using modern design principles and state-of-the-art technology platforms (examples include the best elements of courses on platforms like Coursera, EdX and FutureLearn). Gone are the restrictive confines of the traditional lecture and academic timetable, with their didactic waterfall models of learning.
  4. Level 4 advancement: Courses are designed as digital-first using advanced digital approaches and technologies to ensure good learning experiences and outcomes. There is a higher degree of flexibility, student interaction, peer-to-peer learning and personalisation with accordant deep learning. At this level, many of the ideas outlined in Jisc’s Education 4.0 work are incorporated, including simulation, VR/AR and AI. Already there are prototype and standalone examples which can guide the way here, including systems that offer virtual field courses and laboratory classes.

Although these levels are presented crisply here, in reality there is overlap between them. Currently, online learning is being offered mostly at level 2, with a few leading universities peaking at level 3.

To move to a wholly technology-enabled future, universities need to embrace level 3 more fully and begin to experiment with level 4 in order to gain greater experience about what works best for them.

I don’t see that there is any likelihood of universities returning to ‘normal’ over the summer months. Learning, teaching and assessment strategies have already been catapulted into the 2020s and beyond.

From here on it’s all going to about the NNN: ‘new normal now’. My colleagues at Dundee, for example, have been enlightened about what is possible in technology enablement, their confidence has grown immeasurably, and some elements of institutional inertia have been successfully overcome. Digital acceleration in universities is one of the few things for which we can thank this scrap of life called Coronavirus.

The big effort that many universities are embarking on this summer is to develop more extensive, robust and higher quality online learning experiences for their students. Those that created a digital strategy a few years ago and invested in digital infrastructure, skills, content and applications must be feeling a little smug – and relieved. But it’s never too late to start on technology enablement and now is an ‘opportune’ time.

I suggest that there is more than enough technology and written experience out there about what works well. Universities need to harness both to capitalise on the newfound energy and goodwill among staff and students. This is one of the goals of the new Jisc-led programme, Learning and teaching re-imagined.

Jisc is working with partners, including Universities UK (UUK), Advance HE and Emerge Education, to create a roadmap for a digital shift in HE for 2020/21 and beyond, setting out the steps needed to realise the potential of digital technologies and deliver an outstanding education experience.

Universities are encouraged to get involved by joining a series of UK-wide online events taking place between June and October 2020. The first takes place on 17 June. There’s more information on the Jisc website.

Jisc’s vision is for the UK to be the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world. At its heart is the super-fast national research and education network, Janet, with built-in cyber security protection. Jisc also provides technology solutions for its members (colleges, universities and research centres) and customers (public sector bodies), helps members save time and money by negotiating sector-wide deals and provides advice and practical assistance on digital technology. Jisc is funded by the UK higher and further education and research funding bodies and member institutions. For more information, contact [email protected].

1 comment

  1. Dr. A.A. OKEDIJI says:

    This is fantastic, informative, educative and challenging

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