A journey back to the future: Jisc Digifest 2018

Jisc Digifest 2018

Jisc welcomed delegates to its annual Digifest conference at the ICC in Birmingham on the 6 and 7 March, bringing together education professionals from the higher education, further education and skills sectors across the UK. 

Over two days, learning analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) were key themes underpinning the talks and exhibitions. However, amid advances in technology in education, the conference for me raised questions about lack of advancement in education policy and the need for reform.

This amazing performance was delivered via an audio-visual streaming technology called LOLA (Low Latency) developed by GARR in Italy. LOLA is part of the JANET network, a high speed network serving the UK research and education sectors, enabling communication and collaboration. Words can’t describe how powerful the message was, but this opening really set the tone for the two days.

Best practice examples

The purpose of this event is to share best practice. At no point did Digifest disappoint in that regard. I learned about some really insightful practice in using AI IBM Watson to support students at Bolton College, data informed student intervention and dashboards at University of Huddersfield, and driving digital literacy and employability skills at the University of Birmingham through online badges. The tertiary sector is recognising that we need to be equipping students with the digital skills and capabilities required not just for studying but beyond education into employment too.

Student centric advancement

A theme that ran throughout the conference was placing students at the centre of decisions in education. In driving digital skills, too much focus is given to those teaching in terms of training and support, design of digital tools or content. As educators or providers of educational tools we need to be delivering learning experiences that are flexible, personalised, adaptive and most importantly, user centered.

Rose Luckin, Professor of Learner Centred Design at University College London Knowledge Lab emphasised that AI has a strong part in becoming an enabler of truly putting the student first, helping us to understand, support and put students at the centre. However, it was clear that while passionate about the possibilities of data and AI, it cannot replace human intelligence. It can make decisions but not understand why and the data it uses to make said decisions still requires refinement and frameworks from humans. These are key considerations to be made in the development and iteration of our digital products and also how we support their implementation.

Five tips from 100 university strategies

One of the most insightful sessions I attended explored key themes that emerged from the analysis of 100 university strategies across the UK. They included:

1. Shift from local focus to global connectedness

Improving communication flows between institutions worldwide and acknowledging the wider catchments of learners across the globe and their differing needs.

2. Opportunities to develop attributes in the core student experience, not outside of

Embedding employability and digital skills in the curriculum, not external to through interdisciplinary modules, work based tasks and exchanges with industry.

3. Enhancing and extending the student journey

Effectively transitioning students from Level 3 or A-Level into HE and beyond education into employment or academia. Dr Rosemary Stott from Ravensbourne College presented on their keep warm initiatives but
highlighted the challenges in doing so with new students due to geographic
catchments and changes to UCAS. Universities are looking for ways to onboard
students earlier in the learning journey.

4. Transform passive teaching into hybrid active teaching

Adopting more innovative approaches to teaching that are more personalised and offer better student experience whilst maintaining appropriate transactional distance with students.

5. Fixed to flexible study pattern

Allow students to have a more flexible path of study in terms of time frames e.g fast track, deferment, study breaks and choice.

While these five trends may not tell us anything new, it provided a good framework for how we deliver education whether at strategic or teaching level in an institution and the tools we can provide to support these aims.

How to link policy and innovation

These five themes, in one way or another, presented themselves in other sessions too. But there was a sense of each as a challenge rather than an example of how educators have overcome them. This could become a frustration when the challenges are not new, and have been discussed for several years previous.

So what would improve the pace of change? Controls and regulations on how students consume their education and learning experience may mean that there is still a strong focus on virtual learning environments as opposed to other innovations. Some institutions may view leaping into real innovations in pedagogy as a risk that dilutes the brand and student experience, rather than as an opportunity to differentiate provision in a global market.

An example of how innovation can support differentiation in a global market was presented by Professor Ale Armellini at the University of Northampton. His talk focused on how the university is adopting a whole new pedagogy throughout the institution, which he brands ‘Active Blended Learning’. Essentially, the focus is not on the blend of online and face-to-face. It is more about structuring the curriculum around context rather than content. Therefore, devising appropriate learning activities that help accomplish learning outcomes and help students develop and foster the right skills.

The university is moving to the new Waterside Campus this year, where the largest room takes only 50 students, thus forcing a shift from passive lecture style of teaching to more active learning in smaller groups and ensuring that the experience that students have learning outside of campus mirrors what they have on campus. This is a monumental shift in education policy and practice which could pave the way for reform across the sector.

This particular session divided the audience on how well the university can first overcome the challenge of getting staff on board, but more importantly manage and meet student expectations. This is certainly an innovation to watch.

How Pearson can help

Pearson offers various resources and services to support these strategic trends, for example:

The one thing above all that really struck me the most is that Pearson supports learners through all stages of the educational life from Early Years right through to tertiary and professional learning. We have a wide range of solutions that support students at each stage. One way that we aspire to make this service even more supportive to institutions and learners is to more effectively join the dots in the learning journey.

Supporting students at every stage

What would it look like to help students transition from one stage of education to the next and onwards into employment? Well it might be a technology or a suite of resources that enable students to track their learning from an early age so that the learning experience is personalised and meets their expectations. We have begun to offer this on a micro level through our adaptive learning capabilities in Mastering homework and assessment software, and through our partnership with IBM Watson. These adapt to the individual needs of the learner as they are brought up to speed at HE level.

More importantly, supporting students through their changing education might look like developing tools that enable learners, institutions, parents, employers and other stakeholders to understand the attributes of each individual at each stage, so they can make the right decisions about how, when and where they are educated.

About the author

Ben Hutchens in a training consultant for Pearson’s higher education digital resources. He supports academics on campus, empowering them to get the most from their education technology. He has also worked for Jisc as an e-Learning advisor, and is a fan of Back to the Future.