Nothing left out and no one left behind

For Jisc subject specialist Allen Crawford Thomas, hearing a talk about an expedition to Antarctica was an unforgettable lesson in strategic thinking

Many moons ago, I saw the explorer Robert Swan’s talk, ‘In the footsteps of Scott’, and it delivered a message that changed me. Among the many fascinating details he shared of his expedition to Antarctica, one thing I learned was that planning is all. Before embarking on a project, make sure no detail has been overlooked or vital kit left behind. As Swan put it, once you’ve walked more than halfway to the South Pole, it’s too late to realise you’ve left your socks behind.

A challenging landscape

Equating our work as educators with that of an explorer is a stretch, but the pandemic has changed the environment we’re familiar with and we are having to adapt. Technology has changed so much of what we already do – from the way we communicate to the ways we obtain services and consume entertainment. Immersive technologies, such as mixed and virtual reality, are increasingly used to augment medical training and, soon, 3D technology will allow teachers to engage with students across the globe. Technology can transform education, but without strategic guidance, opportunities can be missed and people can be left behind.

Start with what you know

Before the pandemic struck, some of the challenges educators were going to have to overcome were already known. We knew we needed to prepare for a future in which technology connects physical, digital and biological worlds; we knew we needed to create a culture of innovation that embraces change; and we were preparing to welcome greater student diversity, delivering more flexible, inclusive and responsive programmes to meet their needs.

Digital has a significant role in helping educators overcome these challenges. However, the adoption of digital technology hasn’t always been steered strategically. It sometimes simply creates digital silos – especially in a ‘quick-fix’ scenario. Worse, when it delivers an underwhelming impact, it can leave teachers and students feeling that the outcome doesn’t justify the time and effort.

Before embarking on a project, make sure no detail has been overlooked or vital kit left behind…once you’ve walked more than halfway to the South Pole, it’s too late to realise you’ve left your socks behind

Leaving no one behind

When lockdown closed our universities and colleges, we had to overcome our reservations and take a fresh look at what technology could do. Over the past few months educators have made a tremendous effort to ensure students have been able to continue and complete their education. Now, we’re starting to look ahead – and the pandemic has created additional challenges, particularly in supporting disadvantaged and vulnerable learners.

We’re looking at a potential increase in the digital divide as not all students have access to digital devices or enjoy unlimited connectivity to the internet. How do we ensure underrepresented students aren’t marginalised further? How can we use technology to provide learners with the educational and social experiences they want? It comes back to planning: getting the right people working together enables institutions to create digital content that’s consistent and robust for all.

Pack your socks

Crystal ball gazing is never easy, but for the foreseeable future, it’s safe to say that digital technology will play a leading role in the way we design and deliver learning content to students. Therefore, in planning digital solutions, it pays to consider the wisdom of the explorer: before we start, have we got everything we need in place?

To avoid the disappointments of the past and to make success more likely, it’s vital that educators stand back and develop strategic perspective. That, as I hope Swan would agree, is the key to success – whether planning an Antarctic expedition or planning the adoption and use of digital technologies in education.

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