Learning and teaching, reimagined

Digifest, now online

With Jisc being an aggregator of much that happens in the digital education space across the UK higher education (HE) sector – from the Janet network and learning analytics to exploring the intelligent campus and the digital capabilities framework – their annual Digifest is typically the live event where a lot of this work gets showcased. Digifest in 2020 was one of the last big events in the HE edtech calendar before the pandemic forced all in-person events online, and was described then as ’the edtech event for middle and senior-level managers and change leaders in further and higher education’. The event supposedly ‘celebrates the power and possibilities of digital technologies and how they’ll be shaping the ways we teach, learn, live and work in the 21st century.’ If that’s the sort of thing that rocks your boat, then Digifest would be a smorgasbord of insights into the present and future of digitally-enabled higher and further education.

It’s one of those events that had long been on my radar but which I’d never quite managed to make it to. When I first discovered it, I wasn’t a manager, and now that I am, there’s a pandemic on anyway. Luckily, the 2021 version of Digifest is not only being held online, but is also free to attend. This year, then, it’s a front row seat from my own house.

As the video above suggests, Digifest 2021 will be held in a virtual environmentthat will allow (you) to explore, interact and talk to delegates as if (you) were at a physical event.’ Despite my work as an Educational Technologist, I try to maintain an on-balance critical approach to the digitisation of pretty much all aspects of the human experience that we are undergoing in the 21st Century. I also find myself attending quite a lot of online events in these pandemic times, when many organisers have thrown open their virtual doors and we’ve no longer had to get on a train to go to a gig. This means there’s a lot of online events to add to the Teams meetings, Zoom training sessions, FaceTime calls and everything else that makes up the digital day in 2021. However, I must admit that I’m quite curious about and rather looking forward to attending Digifest. I picked up a bit of a buzz about it from former colleagues that did manage to make it to previous ones. I was also intrigued by how the 2018 event had opened, with a live music performance by musicians collaborating in real-time from different locations. This was acheived via an audio-visual streaming technology called LoLa (Low Latency), running on the Janet network. Impressive stuff that demonstrated some of the potential of the Internet for higher education, in my eyes. So, I’m ‘going’ to Digifest 2021. And if you’re interested, here’s a video of the LoLa performance from 2018.

Universities and disruption

HE has long been talked about as being ripe for disruption by what was possible to do with the digital technologies that were running riot across other sectors. Shirky stated in 2012 that ‘our MP3 is the mooc’, anticipating that massive open online courses would lead to the unbundling of a university education in the same way that Napster had unbundled songs from CDs. The following year, Barber et al (2013) claimed in ‘An Avalanche Is Coming’ that higher education required deep, radical and urgent transformation to survive the changes that were coming as a result of the the technological and economic conditions of the early 21st century. Well, in 2020 and probably to everyone’s surprise, that long-promised transformation hit all of HE globally in one go, as universities across the world closed campuses in response to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and shifted the bulk of their core operations online at scale and speed. A sector where the pace of change was often considered to be glacial took the promised avalanche on the chin. And while, if we’re honest, it’s been a profoundly traumatic experience for staff and students alike, so far the sector seems to have at least survived being forced online.

From the Black Death to World War One, higher education has tended to be profoundly impacted by but nevertheless survive massive societal disruptions, nevertheless coming out the other side rather changed by the experience (see Taylor 2018, Egan 2020 and Dodwell 2020 for more). Despite wider population declines from the Bubonic Plague, the few medieval universities that existed saw long term enrolment increases with Oxford and Cambridge both setting up new colleges, and a broader curriculum shift from a theological world view to a more science-based one. Before WWI, universities were run as private institutions dependent on fee income and philanthropy. University ‘contributions’ to war efforts such as the conscription of staff and students led to financial crises that ultimately drew governments and universities into a closer relationship than they had been prior to the outbreak of the war. HE in WWI also saw noticeable increases in the number of female teachers and changes in courses offered, such as in modern languages. In the 2020s, we find universities moving their digital operations from relatively niche to forefront and pivotal. We also find heightened demands for factors such as decolonising the curriculum or for universities to play a greater role in helping to tackle the climate emergency. One thing that seems fairly safe to assume is that change is here, now, and that HE in the not-so-distant future will likely look very different from the even recent past.

Imagining the future

Late last year, Jisc published a report called ‘Learning and teaching reimagined: a new dawn for higher education?’ that sought to understand the response across the sector to COVID-19 and to explore the future of digital learning and teaching. The report looked to the coming academic year 2021/22 and to the longer event horizon of 2030. Recommendations included for universities to make strategic investment in digital learning and teaching, as well as to think radically about the scale and scope of their educational activities, and to prioritise blended learning approaches wherever possible. They also developed a set of four possible scenarios to inspire ’thinking about what a preferable future for higher education might look like’.

Prof David Maguire of the University of Dundee imagined recruiting a PVC-Digital, a new focus on learning design, and the development of several virtual worlds for preparing graduates for real world workplaces. Tim Hinchcliffe of Advance HE saw the sweeping away of location-anchored universities to be replaced by a cloud-based and nationally networked higher education. Stella Jones-Devitt of Staffordshire University envisaged ‘inquiry communities’ replacing schools, with staff, students and industry partners collaborating to tackle real-world problems, while Maren Deepwell of the Association for Learning Technology saw expansion in the demand for learning technologists and increased cross-sectoral collaboration in areas such as accessibility or learning analytics. Dr Nick Barrett at the Open University anticipated new legislation – a Higher Education Reform Act – that would create a new free-market system arising from a few years of sectoral wreckage. Other contributors saw exams being replaced by alternative ‘authentic’ assessments, a closing of the skills gap with career mobility beginning from home, or many other possibilities. These envisaged scenarios run from relatively minor changes in practices (given what we’ve experienced in the last 12 months) to wholesale revolutions in post-compulsory education. We can’t know from the vantage point of today which ones of these scenarios (if any of them) will come to pass, but consideration of them can at least help us to think about the kind of HE we want as we emerge from this shock to the system.

Here at City, we are not only on the same change wagon as everyone else, but we also have a handful of other factors to throw into the mix. These include a new President coming in June, a new building for City Law School (once we can start trickling back onto campus), and a new name for the Business School this Spring, to cite but a few factors to add to the shifting sands of our pandemic moment.

What’s your vision of the higher education of the near future? You can add a comment on this post and put a City spin on it, or you can add your own vision on the Jisc site. And if you have no idea what’s coming, perhaps you’d like to join me at this year’s Digifest online and find out what others are thinking of. See you in the front row.

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