- This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Stephanie Marshall, Vice-Principal (Education) at Queen Mary, University of London.
The renowned mathematician and codebreaker, Peter Hilton, once said: “Adaptability to change is itself a hallmark of successful education.”
Adaptability was central to Hilton’s efforts in deciphering German codes in 1942, and it’s just as important today. The pace of innovation and scale of disruption all around us is accelerating. Future generations will have to adapt throughout their careers if they are to succeed. Universities have a responsibility to nurture this among our students.
The key to doing so lies in technology, for two reasons. Firstly, what’s important is the ability to instantly access and deploy relevant information when seeking new ways forward and solutions. Secondly, technology exposes students to new and interesting problems in a way that encourages greater curiosity and risk-taking.
Power through knowledge
The link between knowledge and adaptability is well established. A strong body of knowledge helps someone approach new problems with confidence and courage. In an academic context, digital technology has transformed the process of sharing expertise, so that students gain more from their day-to-day learning, be that in large-group interactive sessions, seminars, research, or readings.
Much like going to a gig, medical students often covet the front row when watching surgeons perform life-saving procedures. In a pre-pandemic world, seats in teaching spaces would be competitively earned, with only a handful of medical students able to huddle around a surgeon to observe every move. During the pandemic, even these huddles were impossible, due to the strict social distancing rules for hospitals.
Today it feels very different. At Queen Mary, using Microsoft HoloLens2 headsets, we virtually transport medical students to The Royal London Hospital, enabling them to follow Professor Shafi Ahmed’s patient rounds. Wearing the HoloLens, Professor Ahmed has visited patients on the ward recovering from major surgery, with students able to see X-rays and CT scans on the live video feed, as the professor talked them through it.
The technology ensured that every student benefits from an immersive learning experience. Everyone gets the same view, with no crowds in the ward around a computer screen.
HoloLens represents a new way of “learning by doing”, a mantra that must sit at the heart of all universities. It provides students with hands-on experience by replicating the realities of treating patients on the hospital ward. By allowing medical students to follow Professor Ahmed around the hospital, HoloLens gives students greater surgical confidence and helps them to be better prepared psychologically to cope with emergencies and unforeseen problems.
Elsewhere, virtual reality is revolutionising the teaching of modern foreign languages, building immersive foreign worlds in which students can test their linguistic skills without having to go abroad.
Mondly VR uses a combination of speech recognition, chatbots and 3D graphics to give students the chance to speak to virtual characters. Again, the effect is not just to provide learners with knowledge of new vocabulary and grammatical structures, but to build their confidence and enable them to think on their feet in real-world situations. It’s no substitute for going to Paris to hone your French but provides a more practical opportunity to regularly practice and improve foreign language skills.
Technology doesn’t just help in making knowledge more accessible, though. It can also help in stimulating a broader culture of intellectual curiosity – another tenet of adaptability.
A curious and imaginative culture
Successful people tend to be curious. They approach new problems in an enthusiastic, imaginative and ambitious way. They seek out new and interesting ways of doing things. And they identify potential problems and unintended consequences long before they arise.
These are the qualities needed to succeed in a world of constant digital transformation. But how can universities encourage this kind of thinking?
Technology can stimulate provocative thought and imaginative responses to problems. For instance, 3D printing technology is increasingly used in engineering departments to inspire more curiosity and lateral thinking among students. Previously, students had to create designs by hand, a process that not only took a lot of time but was also psychologically restrictive. The skillset (and effort) involved often led students to prioritise simple designs that were easier to build over more complex, ambitious models.
Now, students upload designs to a 3D printer, enabling a faster and better opportunity to assess the quality of their work and make adjustments. Convenience and immediacy are leading to greater intellectual curiosity, with students able to test different concepts and see them in their physical construct.
The end result is more ambitious, imaginative designs. Staff and students are recognising that 3D printing not only changes the scope and nature of students’ work but fundamentally reshapes the relationship between learners and their learning for the better. It’s another example of how innovation can transform the educational experience and nurture adaptability in the next generation of leaders.
So, what’s next? Just like codebreaking, encouraging adaptability isn’t always easy, but we have a real opportunity to change the game through education technology. By making knowledge more accessible and inspiring a culture of curiosity and risk-taking, digital transformation can nurture an inherent ability to adjust to challenging conditions. If adaptability really is the hallmark of a successful education, then digital transformation will become central to the learning experience and produce a new generation of dynamic and imaginative leaders in the process.