Understanding technology horizons in a new context

I started my new role as Director of education innovation and Executive director of BILT a month ago now, so thought it was high time I broke my duck on the BILT blog. However, I’m in that tricky place between ‘I’m so new you can’t expect me to understand how things work here’ and hitting my stride and rocking the Bristol committee acronyms with the best of them, so I’m still in the first stages of developing my ‘blogging for BILT’ voice.

I’ve come to Bristol from 15 years at Jisc, the UK’s technology body for higher and further education, most recently  leading on their strategy to support learning, teaching and student experience in higher education. So in a way I’ve lived and breathed all things digital for the last 15 years – I’ve done a lot of work on technology-enabled curriculum design and delivery, digital capabilities, technology-enhanced assessment and feedback, and learning analytics.

The new role encompasses many aspects of, and perspectives on, education innovation, at the intersections of individual learning and teaching and curriculum practices; university strategy, vision, direction and capacity for change; and the opportunities offered by digital technology. I’ve probably spent more time on the first two aspects in my first month here, but I wanted to share some recent Jisc work I was involved with in the technology space while it’s still fresh in my mind.

I saw a great talk by Ronald Barnett at the EUNIS Rector’s conference last year in which he highlighted that discussions around the impact of the digital age on the future of the university tends to be polarised into proselytizers and naysayers, neither really engaging in the other’s position. I thought about this a lot in my Jisc role, feeling uncomfortable being cast as a professional proselytizer. But in fact I played both parts – my role was often to highlight to my more technology-focused colleagues that technology isn’t going to solve anything by itself, and remind people of the realities of change management and academic cultures and practice, which may mean that many technologically beguiling visions just won’t work.

Jisc Horizons report

With that in mind, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to work on the Horizons report on emerging technologies and education during my last few months at Jisc, and speak on a panel at Digifest about the report in week 2 of my new role here at Bristol. The aim of the Horizons report is to:

monitor and assess how the technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution (in which emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres) are developing and to help institutional leaders and practitioners decide which of the technologies will prove most useful to them in addressing the major strategic challenges they face.

That’s a whole load of buzzwords right there, and while I’m fairly comfortable talking about either the strategic challenges or the technology, it’s linking the two in ways that make claims for the potential of the technology where things often get tricky – and oversold.

I have mixed feelings about this Education 4.0 stuff – on the one hand, it has a definite whiff of hype about it, but it does point to the need for strategic thinking in universities about key issues such as the role of universities in society and how they support civic engagement and innovation; a consideration of how lifelong learning can be supported in a rapidly changing world; focus on the skills that our graduates – as opposed to robots – will need in the future world; and how we can teach and support learning in a way that engenders the development of those skills. 

Mental health and wellbeing

As it turned out, the Jisc horizons panel meeting in December, in which Marcus Munafo and Katie Drax from Bristol also participated, was a great day of really interesting, thought-provoking discussions with a range of people from HE and FE, challenging ourselves to think beyond the immediate horizon and to consider less likely outcomes. We started on what is presented as the second part of the report: the mental health and wellbeing challenge in FE and HE, and how this may impact, and be addressed, into the future. There’s a real mix of different type of predictions and recommendations in the report, from the technology-centric (apps, chatbots, support robots), to process (review how mental health issues are declared in the UCAS process to encourage declaration without detriment), to cultural (increasingly knowledgeable and committed peer to peer support).

One of the predictions is that the wellbeing of staff and students should become a fundamental value that must be considered in everything an institution does, and should be part of an impact assessment of any new policy or activity just as equality and diversity are. This resonates with the way we’re trying to bake regard for wellbeing into the curriculum enhancement programme which is the next phase of the Bristol Futures work.

Strategic challenges and technology horizons

The other half of the horizons report looks at the strategic challenges facing universities and colleges, and assesses the potential of emerging technologies to help address aspects of the challenges, or realise opportunities.

Reviewing the challenges in the report since I started at Bristol, I’ve been struck not by any individual challenge, but by the number of different challenges which we (and other universities) need to address simultaneously – student wellbeing, financial pressures, simultaneously preparing for both TEF and REF hitting in the same year, and more generally there’s a challenge of building and designing for the future while also improving the student experience for today’s students – so balancing refits on our current site with planning for the new campus, aiming for technology which will work across the piece and will be sustainable, at the same time as developing innovative and online provision.

The technologies considered in the report are 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain, data and analytics, immersive technologies, internet of things, and robotics . The ones that have been of particular interest to me at an institutional level are those around internet of things, data analytics and in particular managing the data estate in an enabling and sustainable way – I see these as priorities for our temple quarter enterprise campus planning, and for the support of the student journey more generally. Immersive technologies are likely to become important in those disciplines which develop a critical mass of high-quality educational context. I think AI will inevitably impact on education, probably first in student information and student support – but we always need to be mindful of the human urge to connect, and that technology applications should not increase users’ sense of isolation.

We approached the technology recommendations at the Jisc workshop by looking at the technologies and deciding whether each was something that institutions should watch (without significant investment), explore (focused experiments), or implement. You can see the results in the report (p 24 onwards – or see p8 for a mapping of the technologies to the strategic challenges) or as an infographic. I’d be really interested in any comments on the report or how Bristol should be addressing any of the recommendations.

Engaging the proselytizers and the naysayers

Since I’ve come to Bristol, I’ve found myself once more flagging both the opportunities and the challenges or limitations of digitally-enabled innovations. Maybe I don’t need to present both sides; maybe now I’m not surrounded by technology people I should take on the role of proselytizer more than ever. But I see it as part of the role of BILT to facilitate discussion and open engagement between those exploring teaching innovations, big or small, digital or not, and those who wouldn’t identify as innovators or early adopters. I’d be interested in views on how best to do that.

I look forward to engaging with the BILT community!

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