Future-proofing Higher Education, 22 Cups of Coffee and Harry Potter in Nottingham

Three days, two conferences, one prediction: digital transformation for student success is the key to future-proof UK Higher Education institutions.

Held on 13 and 14 June 2017 in the heart of London’s Silicon Roundabout, Future Ed Tech brought together under one (sleek) Old Street roof institutional leaders, academics and tech giants including SAP and Oracle to discuss how to improve the student experience through the use of technology.

Oracle’s presentation by UK Business Development Lead Gemma Yussuf showcased cutting-edge AI tools for Higher Education and impressed the audience – comprised of mainly suited and booted executives, not a single hipster beard in sight – with a demo using chatbots. Chatbots, computer programs designed to simulate conversation with human users over the Internet, were hailed as a feasible replacement for everyday interactions with customer services staff at universities, such as requesting prospectuses, checking class timetables or booking open day places.

A clear conclusion from the academic panels on the first day at Future Ed Tech was that not even the infamous TEF is likely to change how technology is used to influence student outcomes.

The reason is many British universities ‘already made technological innovations an integral part of the student experience’ stated Professor Robert Allison, VC and President of Loughborough University.

However, all the optimism and focus on the power of data and tech came with a stark warning:

‘I see lots of universities investing in technology but not the people to make it work’ alerted Professor Wendy Purcell, from Harvard University.

Professor Wendy Purcell (right): risks for universities investing in tech but not in the people who make it work.

Data Protection x Digital Natives

Universities’ potential breaches in compliance with data protection law were considered another possible risk to technological transformation, in light of stricter rules soon to be implemented by the UK government (GDPR, coming into force in May 2018).

The relevance of data protection was further highlighted by experts at Future Ed Tech, who claimed that digital natives from Generations Y and Z did not seem to worry about how their details would be used by institutions.

Amongst the panellists attending the interestingly named session ‘We’ve got the data, now what do we do with it?’ debating data protection issues was David Deighton, Head of Architecture, Security and Innovation at the University of Birmingham. Deighton wisely reminded attendees of the educational function of universities, in particular when faced with the casual approaches from students unconcerned with privacy matters.

Representatives of the students themselves were invited to the second day of the conference, in order to air views on what kind of strategies and tools they would like to see universities adopting to improve their engagement. City University’s very own Sai Uppinakuduru, First Year on Computer Science degree, was one of the participants.

Together with students from Imperial College and Queen Mary, Sai discussed how institutions could improve student experience through their technology offerings. Digital examinations and enhancement of the curriculum were two of the suggestions which came up as part of the session.

Learning Analytics Magic at NTU

Twenty-two cups of coffee later, I found myself in the queue at platform 9 and 3/4 at King’s Cross in the hope it would swiftly take me to Nottingham, where was attending the ‘Transforming the Student Experience: The Role of Learner Analytics at the Modern University’ symposium at Nottingham Trent University.

//The East Midlands train I ended up boarding after mingling with Harry Potter fans, sweaty tourists and stressed commuters on an unusually hot morning at King’s Cross and St Pancras station bore no resemblance to Hogwarts Express; but it did the job well if one forgets the paid wifi.

After a couple of hours scouring social media for the edtech latest and a nice chat with an Uber driver (about how blessed northerners are in terms of low property prices, in comparison to London), I eventually arrived at the beautiful Art-Deco Grade II listed Newton Building, just in time to catch Dr Rebecca Edwards’ talk: ‘Using NTU’s Student Dashboard to open new insights into successful students and successful staff interventions’.

Some of you may be familiar with NTU’s achievements on the learning analytics field, which is currently dominated by US-for-profit-universities-led initiatives; NTU’s dashboard magic, which helps students see how their interactions with the university impacts their progress, has also been mentioned by fellow LEaD blogger Daniel Sansome in an earlier post. 

This symposium aimed to explore key lessons learnt from NTU’s experience of embedding Learning Analytics to measure student engagement across the whole institution, as well as to look into new approaches from a range of sector experts in the UK, including Phil Richards, Chief Innovation Officer at Jisc.

Over 80 representatives from 48 institutions were present to find out more about the successful interventions and impact analysis, detailed on this timeline I tweeted at the time:


Automated ‘No engagement’ Alerts

For the next phase of their project, NTU plans to focus on automating the ‘no engagement’ alerts to students, sent via their student dashboard when they fall below a required benchmark.

Previously, such alerts were sent to academic staff only, informing personal tutors’ actions. Student response has been overwhelmingly positive, hence the new development. It is important to point out that the text in the automated email to the students will be designed to vary depending on the number of alerts each student has generated.

Another development planned by NTU is the expansion of the referral function of the dashboard, following on from pilots which tested referral of ‘at risk’ students to the university support services.

In addition, as staff and students’ interactions are recorded in the system, the team wants to adapt the notes functionality of the dashboard to enable deeper analysis of the impact of staff interventions on student outcomes, leading to a number of case studies to determine future steps.

Can the UK become the most digitally advanced education nation in the developed world?

During the afternoon talks, Steve Butcher, Head of Procurement at Hefce, defined modern teaching efficiency as a combination of the use of flipped learning, learning analytics and good supporting systems.

The event’s biggest insight, in my view, confirms what I have suspected all along in my days as Course Officer when I used to liaise with over 100 international Masters students. It came from Jisc’s Chief Innovation Officer, Phil Richards, who elaborated on the role of Jisc’s Learning Records Warehouse, the importance of data, and how Jisc can support institutions adopting Learning Analytics in order to make the UK the most digitally advanced education nation in the developed world.

Jisc has been compiling feedback from the emerging analytics community in the UK, and reports show universities are now spacing out assignment deadlines in order to allow earlier interventions. Introducing more online formative assessments meant that institutions could identify low engagement students early on and signpost them to the right support to avoid risk of failure and withdrawal, improving their chances of graduation and in turn, increasing retention and progression rates for their universities – a win-win game for all participants (and no dark arts required!).

Details of all the presentations can be found here.

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