Tech for good: James Silcock

Third in a series looking at how edtech companies and education institutions can use technology for the benefit of all

James Silcock is Commercial Director at CoSector – University of London

Can you give us examples of how edtech companies and education institutions are already using technology for the greater good?

There is currently a big shift taking place, with universities moving onto the cloud. This means that all students can enjoy the right learning experience for them, dependant upon their specific needs.

Take virtual learning environments (VLEs), for example: these allow educational institutions to tailor an online platform to meet individual learning needs, and to make digital course content more accessible for all learners. Audio support can be built in for the visually impaired; if a student cannot attend a facility due to being restricted by distance, he/she can access relevant resources online rather than being there in person; different languages can also be taken into account.

… and any other examples you expect to see gaining traction in the education sector over the next few years?

An important theme that will undoubtedly gain traction in the coming years is the use of data analytics across the educational institution. Following the student journey through data analytics enables staff to monitor the user and offer support where possible. For example, if low attendance at classes or lack of activity at the library is highlighted, staff are able to pinpoint individuals at risk and safeguard those students from future difficulties, thus – hopefully – lowering student drop-out rates.

Can you highlight one edtech-for-good development that particularly stands out for you?

Data analytics is definitely a stand-out. If a student is struggling, the student liaison officer can now step in to help before it is too late.

Do you think key decision-makers and funding bodies are giving sufficient support in this field? Is there enough incentive out there for edtech companies and education institutions to pioneer and adopt technology with strong social and health benefits?

The majority of decision-makers and educational institutions are still looking at ways to understand what they need. The fact they are developing a five-year strategy for digital learning is telling and highlights they are keen to improve their offering. But it’s still early days for some. If institutions are really committed to the student learning experience, they should look to peers that have done it well and learn from their example.

The key is engagement. If an institution is able to make content relevant for the digital environment, they can open up a truly accessible platform that supports an individual – no matter what their distance, disability or language.

The short answer is: no. As a country, we’re facing challenges on three fronts: a widening skills gap, Brexit, and automation. Education institutions and edtech can play an important role in ensuring that we continue to upskill and keep pace with the huge changes we’re seeing in society. Without a coherent and ambitious plan, we risk falling behind those nations that do invest in this space.

We’ve seen what can be achieved, though. In August, in partnership with St George’s University of London and the NHS, we launched the world’s first online course educating healthcare professionals on organ donation. Arguably, the course is more important now than ever following recent changes in government legislation that mean that, from 2020 we’ll have to opt-out of being organ donors.

Elsewhere, we have created mindfulness courses – Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance and Maintaining a Mindful Life – with Monash University in Australia. Mindfulness has proven stress-reducing benefits, which in practical terms benefit society through things like a reduction in stress-related staff absenteeism.

There is clearly scope for education and technology to work together to create resources with societal and health benefits. The importance of the subjects covered and the interest in our healthcare category is a great testament to the fact that technology in education can, very definitely, be used for the greater good.