What Does the Future Hold for Higher Education?
by Roberta Nicora

A child born this year will one day be able to mix and match different modules from assorted universities – say, Harvard, Cambridge and Copenhagen – each delivered through an digital learning platform at an affordable cost.

Perhaps this prediction from IBM’s Global Head of Educational Technology, Satya Nitta, might sound a bit fantastical, but many firmly believe that higher education is on the cusp of great change - arising both from technological innovation and a new, post-millennial generation of learners.

Here in the UK, 4 out of 10 students say university does not currently represent good value for money and the government are purportedly addressing concerns through the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), designed to ensure parity between teaching and research. It’s a controversial move and the upshot is that institutions will have to meet TEF criteria to justify raising tuition fees in line with the rate of inflation.

But reforms aside, any university leader will tell you that students already view themselves as paying customers with expectations of receiving the best possible value in exchange for their fees. Institutions are in turn always looking to improve these perceptions of value and enhance the student learning experience wherever possible.

Take Leah’s university, who know that she swiped herself into the Science Faculty at 9.50am today, attended her first lecture at 10am, but then mysteriously skipped the second. The module was ‘Probability and Statistics’ and Leah’s personal academic tutor notes that the last time she engaged with any related learning materials through the institutional VLE was nearly three months ago. He wonders whether Leah might be struggling with this module specifically or even at risk of dropping out entirely.

While the use of data analytics in a university setting might appear problematic, the aim is to improve the student learning experience for everyone. For better or worse, young people say they value grades over privacy and already willingly surrender their data to companies like Spotify and Netflix in exchange for an improved user experience. In Leah’s case, her tutor might arrange a one-to-one chat to determine any issues before organising the appropriate academic or pastoral interventions that will help her move forward.

Julia Taylor, Jisc Accessibility and Inclusion Specialist, points out that ‘the potential of this data for those who are disadvantaged is enormous’ since learning can then be personalised and teaching made more inclusive. But a 2016 report from the Higher Education Commission finds that ‘the UK is behind globally on the development and implementation of learning analytics’, suggesting that we look to the Open University or overseas institutions for best practice in the sector.

Our students, we know, usually respond well to personalised learning and it’s quite possible that future technologies will be used to monitor a learner’s emotional state – like points of boredom or frustration – adapting the experience accordingly with the help of artificial intelligence. A responsible use of analytics can also help to reduce barriers to learning which, in the future, might lead to a truly inclusive university experience.

Since the majority of students already think that dropout rates would improve if lecturers could use analytics to see how they are engaging with course materials, many universities offering access to a the Kortext digital learning platform are now actively monitoring student interaction with their etextbooks. As well as providing a valuable data point to track individual learning, this information might even be used to inform the design of future teaching resources or entire modules at a faculty level.

A 21st century, web 2.0 learning technology, Kortext lets students study at any time from any location. Designed to support flexible, collaborative and interactive learning, this personalised learning platform appeals to an ‘on-demand’ generation of students who value the convenience of digital learning content.

Significantly too, learner interaction with the digital learning platform resources can be monitored in real-time, helping staff to respond swiftly to any patterns identified, rather than wait for retrospective feedback from an end-of-term survey. This, in many ways, supports good practice in formative assessment through the monitoring of learner engagement and responding to needs as they arise.

While many universities aim to provide a student-centred education, powerful digital learning tools now exist to make this a reality. In the future, it’s likely that the most innovative institutions will move towards offering a more flexible, personalised learning methodology that places students at the heart of the experience.




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