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How can edtech address some of the greatest challenges facing HE leaders?

  • 3 November 2023
  • By Nic Newman and Mary Curnock Cook
  • This blog is provided by Nic Newman, partner at edtech venture capital firm, Emerge Education, and Mary Curnock Cook CBE, who chairs Emerge and Jisc’s HE/Edtech Board.

From the AI explosion to the rise of chatbots and metaversities, rapid digital innovation is impacting university campuses, teaching and learning to an unprecedented extent. For HE leaders, it can be hard to keep track of the latest developments while also tackling their immediate challenges.

Aimed at these time-pressed HE leaders, Jisc and Emerge Education have produced a report: How can edtech address some of the greatest challenges facing HE leaders?  It brings together an overview of the impact of the latest technology and responses to it in three key areas: Digital solutions for a smarter campus; AI and assessment; and Student engagement – areas that senior leaders have told us are demanding their attention.

The report is an easily digestible primer to edtech trends and opportunities, with market maps of startups to watch in each area.

Digital solutions for a smarter campus

Take the campus, where higher education is currently reimagining what we mean by the “digital campus”. Is it a physical place, rooted in a geographic location, or a space of expertise, skills and ideas that might be physical, digital or both? Answers to these can affect HE leaders’ long-term investment decisions and fundamentally shape their future universities.

Investment has traditionally been in a small town’s worth of buildings called a campus. But many students today are after a greater blend between place and space, with digital infrastructures enabling a fluid campus experience that can shift (possibly several times a day) from the physical to the virtual. It’s a fluidity that will define the way graduates will work and for which they need to be equipped as undergraduates today.

The truly digital campus is one in which both physical and virtual spaces are supported and seamlessly connected. It uses the connections provided by technologies – perhaps by the smart campus – to blur the distinctions of where a student or member of staff physically is, so that they can collaborate and engage seamlessly.

Then there’s the metaversity: immersive VR technology that allows remote students and academics to meet and learn on a virtual campus. The report highlights some examples of evidence-based success across the US.

Meanwhile, Arizona State University’s cutting-edge Learning Futures studios are building a digital twin of one of its physical campuses, designed to connect fellow students in the metaverse. The student-led collaborative effort aims to blur the lines between physical and digital, allowing students to participate in an immersive experience from anywhere with access to the internet.

AI and assessment

When it comes to AI, the generative AI ‘revolution’, with ChatGPT in its vanguard, is disrupting assessment in unique ways. Our report examines the impact of generative AI and the opportunities it presents. It reflects the shift in attitudes over the course of this year from initial calls for a ban to the launch of the Russell Group’s five guiding AI principles and a growing appreciation of the potential benefits.

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, for example, moved quickly to embrace AI as fully – and responsibly – as possible. The result has been an explosion of creativity in relation to assessment tasks. For example, students on a business management course now use AI to design, create and then deconstruct a case study, rather than simply discussing a pre-ordained case study.

In addition, the Centre for Education Innovation team and HKUST’s IT department are designing an AI platform that will act as a chatbot for faculty members to generate lesson plans, quizzes and other course design elements. Rather than educators facing the ChatGPT blank user interface, HKUST’s bespoke AI platform will be trained by the university with relevant literature, guidelines and best practice. It will ask guiding questions and answer questions if, for instance, faculty members are struggling to write intended learning outcomes and map those to actual learning activities and assessments.

Student engagement

In the perennial concern area of student engagement, there are now exciting opportunities for improved approaches through the rise of personalisation, AI, learning analytics and changing student preferences. However, the challenge for many universities is to move from generic, piecemeal university systems to student-centric, personalised systems.

In the report, an extensive market map of technology for student engagement highlights noteworthy providers and tools in four categories:

For example, in the non-academic support category, Vygo is an engagement platform that connects students to older peers for peer support and tutoring services, to alumni for career advice and mentorship, and to staff for transparent and seamless student support services. ReUp uses AI to identify and engage at-risk students through a combination of automated and human-led communication to reduce and re-enrol students at risk of withdrawing.

In the academic support category, the Minerva Project, Codio, Insendi, Smart Sparrow, Studious and Immersify Education are all tools used for building interactive course content. TeachFX analyses voice during class to measure student engagement, equity of voice and discourse patterns.

Overcoming barriers

However, while the opportunities edtech offers university leaders are clear, years of underinvestment in digital infrastructure have resulted in struggles with outdated systems, inadequate skills and legacy architectures. Coupled with patchy and siloed data management, sometimes tentative leadership in the technology space and an unwillingness or lack of experience in working with edtech startups, digital transformation can become a complex, risky and expensive undertaking.

Particular issues lie with legacy technology, cyber security risks and data silos arising from piecemeal systems and decentralised institutional structures that make a lack of data integration the norm.

We look in the report at the barriers to be overcome and strategies to tackle them, identifying six keys to success. These include:

  1. robust and secure technology infrastructure
  2. effective processes for managing investment and change
  3. strong stakeholder engagement and customer focus
  4. digitally aware executive leadership
  5. the development of all stakeholders’ digital skills and capabilities
  6. and evidence-based centres of expertise in digital research and education.

We also explore the questions every HE leader should be asking when embarking on an institutional digital strategy and a framework for structuring such a strategy.

The benefits of investing in digital infrastructure are enormous, offering greater resilience and efficiency, new opportunities to bring in additional revenue, better learning outcomes and greater flexibility for students. Our report provides some steps and examples to get there.

  • To read in more detail how edtech can address some of the greatest challenges facing HE leaders and to read our case studies, analysis and recommendations, download the full report here. 

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