‘Technology is fundamentally changing our world – it’s time to make Education 4.0 a reality’

Personalised learning and data-driven innovation hold the key to transforming our higher education sector, says Jisc CEO Paul Feldman

At Jisc, we believe that the advanced technologies at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution can and must revolutionise the way we teach, learn and prepare our students for the jobs where those technologies have already changed industry. Given the pressure the higher education sector faces – financial concerns, increased competition, a new regulatory environment, and student mental health and wellbeing – it’s enormously encouraging to see this vision start to materialise in leading-edge teaching practise.

Our vision for Education 4.0 is one that empowers teachers and learners. A vision that delivers an exciting, equitable student experience and, if done right, the opportunity for long-term sector efficiencies. In teaching, we can envisage learning that becomes self-directed, adaptive and personalised – truly student-centred where the focus is on mentoring, guiding and providing intellectual challenge. So, while other sectors are already experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) and hyper-personalisation, how can the education sector make use of the emerging technologies and tools of the fourth industrial revolution to bring teaching and learning into the 21st century?

Realising this vision involves a different pact between students and staff. A vision that puts students in control of their own learning, at their own pace, supported by intelligent, data-driven technology. Teaching staff will evolve to guide their students to become effective lifelong learners and critical thinkers, collaborators and communicators – skills that are fundamental to success in any workplace today and in the future.

Data-driven innovation

At the heart of this change is data-driven innovation. Since the introduction of the Office for Students two years ago, reporting and data accuracy has become a crucial part of the regulatory landscape. But applying data pedagogically can enable universities to support vulnerable students at risk of falling behind and allow them to achieve to their full potential, as well as enhancing their wellbeing.

Let’s not underestimate what a huge step forward this is. The University of Gloucestershire, one of the first universities to adopt our Learning Analytics programme, is putting student data that’s already collected under the spotlight. Staff can spot patterns and investigate anomalies. Tutors are starting to have better-directed conversations that could make the difference between a student failing and succeeding.

James Hodgkin, associate director of library technology and information at the University of Gloucestershire, says: “Basically, a student says ‘I’m fine’ and the tutor says ‘Well, not really’ and shows them the graph.”

And this is just one example of where we see the positive impact of artificial intelligence: through the well-managed use of data combined with staff and student buy-in. Think of the benefits this holds for distance learners, part-time students and those who need extra support.

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The Welsh Government has also made a bold move in funding learning analytics for all their universities – with this kind of strategic backing, the potential for the sector is huge.

The future of assessment 

Arguably one of the most exciting areas ready for a revolution is assessment – a huge part of the learning journey. Earlier this month we published a report, produced in collaboration with our members, which proposes five new ideas to build authentic, accessible, appropriately automated, continuous and secure assessment. Authentic is the key idea here: in a move away from the traditional essay or exam, assessments are becoming more reflective of the work environment.

Isn’t it better for students to experience safe, immersive and lifelike opportunities to learn and be assessed as they would in the workplace? At Anglia Ruskin University, students are using GitHub Classroom, which mirrors the workflow that a professional developer would undertake but in an educational context. In our vision, assessment reduces workloads and stress for staff and students because the technology knows how to mark consistently and continuously. We recognise there are huge challenges to get assessment to this point; many of which lie in the integration of data and managing systems centrally. We’re taking that seriously at Jisc, and we encourage you to work with us to get your institutions ready to start on this journey.

Are we ready?

I have no doubt that over the coming decade our vision of Education 4.0 will become a reality. Government already sees the immediate potential for tech to make a difference to the entire education system and seems committed to its ongoing edtech agenda we helped shape together. So, our challenge for our members is: are you ready for the step change we predict is coming? There are challenges, however as we look a decade or so ahead, opportunity also lies in that same timeframe, providing a broader incentive to make change now, including a predicted doubling of global student enrolments to 380m by 2030 and universities increasing transnational education provision.

We are preaching a radical vision. But across the sector we all know that technology is fundamentally changing our world and it is and will change higher education. You are already, hopefully willingly, on this journey. Our shared goals are about using technology as a force for good – delivering a student experience that matches their expectations and the demands of the workplace now and in the future. And we encourage you to work with us and accelerate change in your institutions. The potential of Education 4.0 is huge and the time really is now for us to pull together for the good of our students and our sector; otherwise we risk being left behind. We must focus on the end game – a transformed higher education world and a world-class student experience. It will come, so how are you going to accelerate and prepare your universities to adapt and thrive in the 4.0 world?

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