Tech it or leave it: James Silcock

Second in a series of seven – is teaching keeping up with edtech? With James Silcock, Commercial Director, CoSector, University of London

Broadly, is the education sector managing to stay on top of the current rapid advances of technology?

I think educational institutions are trying to keep up, but it varies for each sector. I would say higher education is doing better than further education in this area, due to larger budgets.
We’re seeing more investment in making software such as VLEs more mobile-responsive. There are also advances in VR and how it can be used in the learning experience, as well as rapid developments in AI.

Do schools, colleges and universities need to work hard to stay abreast of all these advances – or is it more a question of knowing where to focus their energies?
James: It’s really about understanding the student experience. When we bring in technologies that improve this, such as virtual learning environments (VLE) and tech that enables students to use their own devices whilst in their education setting securely, we have to really understand what the student gets out of it.

And how can schools, colleges and universities best future-proof themselves against all the changes to come?

No one really knows what changes are to come. Analytics and the internet of things (IoT) are coming through so rapidly that, rather than trying to future-proof, it’s important just to try and keep on top of these developments. The most sensible strategy is to be student-led, providing technology which supports their learners’ journey by augmenting their ability to succeed effortlessly and intuitively. That may mean operating a more flexible, agile approach to research and procurement.

Can you point to any UK (or overseas) institutions or sectors where advancing technology is being harnessed to great effect?

In higher education we are seeing more learning analytics, which enables us to understand the student journey and to identify which students are at risk of dropping out of their studies. For example, a product called Thrive analyses data on student activity, giving universities the opportunity to intervene early on in these cases. There have also been vast improvements in accessibility and making tech such as VLE available to all students – for example, those with reading or other learning difficulties.

“What both industry and commerce need are students who not only fully understand the technology available, but who also understand human interaction.”

Are developments such as gamification, bring your own device (BYOD) and virtual learning environments (VLE) being harnessed effectively?

A lot more needs to be done. Our user research has often found that if the lecturer is not fully engaged with the software, student engagement is also significantly lower. The solution to this is training and support for teachers and lecturers, so that both they and their students get the best use from the tech. 

With BYOD there are obviously security issues, which a lot of educational facilities are trying to work around. Students will be looking to bring their own devices. 

I know there are now courses where they actually supply tablets to students, which could be one way of improving security.

Are schools and universities sufficiently equipped to help their students navigate the quickly-evolving world of social media?

With each set of students, the social media of choice has changed. As more and more platforms become popular, it’s difficult for educators to keep track. For example, mirroring the aesthetics of newly designed co-study areas for students, will Slack become a popular communication platform? The best thing educators can do is to engage and work out which social media platforms are most relevant for their students.

Generally, are we equipping our students sufficiently for life in the technology-rich wider world?

I think we are. Schools are using content-rich products and VLEs like Frog and Moodle, and there’s now a lot more engagement from students being able to monitor and manage their workload online. Equally, we’re starting to see some great innovations in higher education. For example, a surgeon teaching a complex operation to students can now broadcast it live across the globe. This enhances the learning experience and improves employment prospects.

However, you can’t forget the basics, and what both industry and commerce need are students who not only fully understand the technology available, but who also understand human interaction. We risk developing a generation who are very good at interacting with their phones, less so at talking to each other.

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