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#Digifest19: The technology conference encouraging more human interactions

The following post was written by Amy Palmer, BILT Digital Resources Officer.

This year’s Digifest explored the theme ‘Shaping education for a hyper-connected world’, in which ideas around the digital challenges we are facing were shared and discussed. I attended three panel events while I was there and found that similar conclusions were drawn from them all: the use of technology may be increasing, it is imperative that we do not lose human interaction. This may seem obvious, but throughout the day there were moments where I felt a tension between discussions around how technology in education was becoming central to the learning experience and technology’s role in the creation of current mental health challenges facing universities.

The first session I attended looked at a report recently released by Jisc in which a qualitative study was undertaken with lecturers across the sector.  Five key themes emerged from 2-hour interviews with staff, with a number of recommendations being made. The one I’d like to highlight is:

 ‘Teaching staff are concerned to support students’ wellbeing and they take a holistic approach to student welfare. Currently, much of this work is done face-to-face. With time and space at a premium, universities and colleges could consider how digital technologies can help to support student wellbeing as well as other, less strictly academic aspects of the student experience’

One part of this statement really jumped out at me, ‘digital technologies can help to support student wellbeing’ – my mind immediately conjured a scene in which a student having a mental health crisis was faced with a computer instead of a human and the potentially damaging impact this would have. I opened the conference magazine to a double-page spread looking at this exact question, ‘Can technology ease the mental health challenge facing universities today?’, with six solutions set out, the most striking of which was chatbots – a solution recently employed by Bolton College in which students struggling with stress or self-harm are provided links by a chatbot to online information and contact details for the mental health team. I couldn’t help but feel this was more a cost-saving approach that one that had direct benefits for these students in need (but perhaps I’m being cynical).  

I was encouraged by comments made from panellists in which they emphasized the importance of human interactions, agreeing that face-to-face engagement should be maximised, but that appropriate space on campus was needed for this. Risks around disengagement from students where they can not attended were raised, but were balanced by risks of students feeling isolated and lonely when too much emphasis was placed on technologies.

The second session was a horizon-scanning panel discussion in which the 2019 Jisc Horizons report was launched. The report’s title is ‘Emerging technologies and the mental health challenge’ with panel members discussing the different ways this could be addressed. One panel member suggested technology could be used to ‘streamline human interaction’ – another concept I felt uneasy with.

It was agreed that a balance needs to be struck between the increased use of learner analytics and the potential reduction of human interactions though increasing number of online services (such as lecture capture and VLEs) and the mental health challenges facing universities. The panel members all agreed that a key take-home message from the report was that there was a need for a person-centred approach and that the technology must not replace the human, though I wondered how this would practically play out in a climate of reduced budgets, streamlining of staff, automation of administrative tasks and increased reliance on online services.

The final panel discussion I attended was on the ‘fourth education revolution’ – with the host asking the participants what they believed was ‘Education 4.0’. Responses were mixed, but all centred around the idea that education needed to be personalised, on-demand and customisable. The relationship is changing between the student and professor from one which is a transactional to a more balanced, less hierarchical one. All panel members had a background in educational technologies, but all noted that these services created more time and space for richer, face-to-face interactions.

At the end of this session a question was raised about whether we would even need a physical campus in the future, which leads me beautifully onto the final part of my day.

Jisc have created a virtual reality experience, ‘Natalie 4.0’, in which the user can experience a day in the life of a student that does not attend a physical campus. You wake up in a ‘bedroom’ at the beginning of your day and interact with tutors and students though making choices in the virtual world. The experience was eye-opening and something I believe many others in the University would enjoy – we hope to put on an event with Jisc in the near future to allow staff to try out this new way of learning!

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