Envisioning the future of HE with Jisc

Paddy Smith catches up with Jisc CEO Paul Feldman to talk about the company’s own development journey, and where tech is taking HE

Most people in HE will have heard the name Jisc. But could you tell us a bit about what you do as an organisation?

It is tough to describe Jisc because we formed from 11 different organisations, now 12, and we’re about to have the 13th. Lots of pockets of things have grown up over the years so it’s hard to find that coherent thing that links them all together and sees why they should all be in one place.

For me, I talk about us being the digital body for UK research and higher and further education. So it’s about supporting the sector through use of technology.

My hope is that over the next few years we will become the single IT body supporting higher education and research. For me that’s the thing that brings it together.

The key thing we do and probably the most essential thing we do is running e-infrastructure for colleges and universities and the research councils. The one everybody knows is Janet. That’s at the heart of everything we do. It’s the biggest thing we do and the most expensive. It’s the biggest in the world, it’s the best in the world. There’s a range of services that are built on top of the fact that we run that network, so we run the cybersecurity that protects the sector (which we can only do because we have the network).

Then we have things like eduroam that is probably one of the most valuable things to academics – their ability to travel the world and get wifi anywhere in the world. Some universities left [Jisc] for the New Zealand equivalent and they soon came back when their academics complained about not having eduroam. It’s these little things that actually make some of the biggest differences. It’s that range of key IT services that makes researchers’ and academics’ lives so much better than they would be.

What about all the data that comes from this kind of technology advance in HE? Are we drowning in it?

I don’t think there is such a concept as too much data.

I think our ability to manage that data historically has restricted the need to collect data. There’s no point in collecting data that you actually can’t use, but I think that technology now has got to the point where you can’t have too much data, in my view.

Yes, the data needs to be collected well, it needs to have integrity and it needs to be well protected, but our ability to really delve into and mine that data and get the messages the data is giving us have never been greater, and machine learning will allow us to do that in better and better ways. That can only work through having rich data sources.

In terms of the sector, I think HE is behind other sectors. The more commercial sectors, because they’ve been able to see the payback, have invested much, much more in data than higher education has historically.

Universities up and down the country are doing digital transformation. They have appointed people to do this and I think the leading universities – and there are quite a number of them – are really doing digital transformation properly. To do that they need to be treating their data properly. We’re seeing that trend happening. It’s happening in individual institutions. As a sector, that data is essential. The OfS [Office for Students] talks about wanting to be data-driven in their regulation so they will be demanding data, and institutions need to understand their data to match the regulatory push that OfS will put on them.

In related news: Jisc’s Active Edtech Challenges seek to boost the future of tech-augmented research

I think policy decisions have been taken historically based on less good data than we’re able to do today. But again, it’s understanding the data and what the messages are.

I think there are some quite dangerous assumptions that can get made from data and there are some very bold statements that are made. The LEO [Longitudinal Education Outcomes] data is a really interesting source, but it is a survey at the end of the day and surveys come with a set of health warnings. There’s a real opportunity to take that data into places that aren’t credible, and I think it’s about really understanding the quality of the data collection and how far you can actually rely on that to make decisions. I think it’s indicative and useful for taking policy decisions in the DfE [Department for Education], for OfS to help understand the quality of institutions to an extent, but it is to an extent, and it’s important not to use it as a gold source of data because every survey has flaws, and understanding those flaws can help take the best decisions.

Jisc has written about a concept called ‘education 4.0’, and technology’s place in it. Can you tell us a bit more about this development?

There’s a lot within [Education 4.0] that can help really make the student experience even better than it is today. So there are lots of students getting a great education but it’s quite an impersonal education, whereas we believe technology can really transform things and give every student a personal learning journey that’s tailored into their needs.

And really, I suppose to modernise the whole piece. It’s not an unknown concept that the way we teach at universities hasn’t fundamentally shifted almost since the 12th century. The way we do things still has its feet firmly in the way it’s always been done, whereas these technologies have the opportunity to really shift that whole educational process, that teaching process, and the learning process, and that’s what education 4.0 is about.

It’s really getting us to think about what that could be. We are talking about something for 15- or 20-years’ time. Some of the technologies we need just aren’t there yet, but they’re coming, so it’s directional at the moment. You think back 20 years: it was the millennium. You just think how different the world is now to what it was then. But actually, it’s taken us 20 years to put some of those things in place. We had the internet at that point, we had the world wide web. We are only now starting to see the high street transformed because of things that happened 20 years ago. So you need to start thinking now about the technologies that are going to transform the world in 20 years’ time. You need to start aligning yourself.

It takes time to actually train your lecturers and to understand what the lecturing job is. I think the lecturers coming out now, the postdocs that are just starting lecturing, will have a very different experience in 20 years’ time and we need to help them understand what that looks like so they can be ready for teaching in 20 years. And help them transform and reinvent themselves through that period. And we need to work together to develop those sorts of capabilities.