Digi-proofing the future of education

Martyn Harrow, chief executive at Jisc, highlights the key takeaways from the Digital Festival

At the beginning of March, Jisc held its second Digital Festival in Birmingham, focused on technology in further education, higher education, research and skills.

At Jisc, we believe that the full potential of digital can only be unleashed through people. The technology itself, is of course, important, but without that wider understanding, engagement and buy-in from university staff, the transformational impact of technology will be limited. So in this vein, under the strapline of ‘connect more’, Jisc brought together more than 1000 delegates including lecturers and teachers, students, research managers, policymakers and IT and library professionals, to debate the digital future of education with 90 speakers across 85 workshops, talks and conference sessions.

During the Festival I had the opportunity to talk to some of the delegates to find out what had captured their imagination the most.  A few sessions in particular stood out.  

Simon Nelson, chief executive of FutureLearn, used his keynote to talk about the future direction of MOOCs (massive open online courses), arguing that universities might now start looking to use MOOCs as ways to increase their digital footprints and as a platform for intellectual leadership as well as for online courses. He also reiterated previous predictions that universities investing in MOOCs would see people progressing onto full credit courses.

Bob Harrison’s passionate keynote on the work of the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group was another highlight for many delegates. Bob called for an ‘agile evolution’ of the FE sector, in order to better young people prepare for a digital future. He issued a call to action – for FE leaders to take ownership of the digital agenda and decide how they want to drive forward the use of technology for engaging, supporting and assessing learners.

There was also a very strong interest in the new developments coming through our pipeline of investments in innovation. The potential applications of augmented reality for learning and teaching really seemed to catch people’s imagination. Sessions on driving forward use of learning analytics, and ethical and appropriate use of analytics, were similarly packed out.

Universities and colleges are operating in an age of considerable turbulence with policy uncertainty, financial pressures, and growing international competition, not to mention greater demands from students who are paying higher tuition fees. The last few years have not been easy for them and there are further challenges on the horizon, not the least increasing pressure to deliver increased efficiencies.

I was particularly struck this year that university leaders have recognised that technology will have an important part to play in enabling universities to overcome these challenges and continue to thrive. For the university of the future, technology will be a key enabler, as core to university missions as the registry or finance. 

This is what Jisc is all about – connecting people with technology. We bring together universities, colleges, and other experts to identify and co-design digital solutions to these challenges. It makes sense to do this once at a national level for the benefit of everyone rather than a hundred times over at institutional level.

Through events like Digifiest we will continue to provide colleagues in the sector with the stimulus, support, relationships and solutions that they will need to move into this new paradigm, including opportunities to come together to discuss the challenges and opportunities technology poses for the future of education.  In doing so we’re looking to ‘digi-proof’ the sector and help the UK maintain its position as the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world. 

If you weren’t able to join us for the festival, recordings of some of the key sessions are available on-line at https://bit.ly/1BaejnO