Phil Richards is chief innovation officer at Jisc.
Q. What are the key events this year that have affected your sector?
One important event was the publication of the government’s edtech strategy. I would say it was evolutionary rather than revolutionary and a good platform for incremental changes that will drive positive improvements in further and higher education. A key issue flagged was that of academic integrity, and in particular the thorny problem of so-called essay mills, where third parties produce ‘original’ work for individual students capable of passing through automated plagiarism detection systems, perhaps with such students having a view to cheating and gaining an unfair advantage against their peers who write their own essays. Jisc has looked at this area and is investigating possible short- and medium-term digital fixes, but in the long term I would suggest the solution is a radical reimagining of the way assessment is undertaken, particularly in universities.
Q. Has there been a particular edtech trend or service focus that has affected you?
In the same way that, a couple of years ago, everything was about ‘blockchain’, right now everything is about artificial intelligence (AI), as it reaches a peak in the hype cycle. We see AI at the heart of our Education 4.0 vision for the next 10 years or so, digitally transforming the way teaching and learning will take place and preparing the next generation for the radically different labour market likely to come with the fourth industrial revolution. As a trusted member organisation, a useful role Jisc can play is to try and cut through the AI hype and advise on how to steadily build the ordered data estate that is needed to get the most out of the new technologies. We’ve also been doing lots of work around ethics and emerging technologies, including participating in the All Party Parliamentary Group inquiry into data technology and ethics. At the end of the day, we want these technologies to work hand in hand with humans and to bring benefits to learners and society more generally.
Q. What has been your biggest challenge this year?
A perennial challenge is getting universities and colleges to adopt more of the great edtech that is out there on the market. Formal purchasing processes and the like can ensure public money is well spent but can be difficult for small edtech suppliers to navigate.
For that reason, Jisc’s Step Up programme, delivered in partnership with Emerge Education, was launched in May by universities’ minister Chris Skidmore.
It aims to de-risk university and college engagement with edtech startups that have passed our Step Up check, knowing that some due diligence has been carried out and the solution is procurement ready.
Q. What does 2020 look like for you and your sector?
With so much political uncertainty, it is difficult to predict. A possible scenario is that we will see the gap between the nations grow, with a larger set of higher education providers on the OfS register in England providing a more competitive marketplace, while Scotland continues to provide higher education as a publicly-organised service. It will certainly be interesting to see how the issue of student fees plays out in the general election campaign currently taking place; and also how influential the student vote will be in determining the election outcome, as traditional voting patterns are disrupted by the Brexit effect.
We know students are keen that their voices are heard, and ahead of the general election, our recently launched student voter registration service is proving popular.
● Jisc’s Step Up programme: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/rd/get-involved/step-up-programme
● Ofsted framework: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-inspection-framework