Perspectives on the Future of Education: Ed Leaders Weigh-In, Part 9

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This blog is one in a series from higher education thought leaders. Andy Jaffrey, Head of the Office for Digital Learning at Ulster University in the U.K., offers insights on the future of education, and how technology plays a role in learner success.

How will teaching and learning practices over the next 10 years have to evolve to serve the learners of the future?

My greatest hope for teaching and learning practices is that we will see an investment in people, and in particular academic development. If I think of this question from the perspective of a student and the type of qualities that I would hope our students develop over the next 10 years, the qualities do not look much different then what they are now: critical thinking, analytical reasoning skills, team working skills, information literacy, ethical judgment, decision-making skills, communication skills, problem solving skills, and a wide knowledge of liberal arts and sciences.

From my own perspective, I expect to see teaching happening in less formal environments. I expect to see more collaboration between subject disciplines. I expect to see more project-based learning, and I expect to see changes in assessment design and reduction in formal examinations. All of these things are already happening, and I expect them to continue to evolve.

What role will technology like analytics and data play in improving outcomes for learners in the next decade?

I think we will all continue to be involved in educational analytics projects, but I hope that we will approach these projects from a more informed ethical and privacy position. We should be careful about bias in our predictive models, and we should challenge black box models that we cannot interrogate. The educational experience is complex, and many of our analytics and data projects rely on arguably crude proxy measures that we accept as they are easy to interrogate. The scope and quality of the data we typically use in learning analytics projects is often limited, and we need to think critically about any short-term solutions that ignore this limitation.

I see value in the use of data in curriculum and learning design processes, and I would like to see greater convergence between educational theories and learning analytics. The interdisciplinary nature of educational analytics means that those involved might come from areas such as business intelligence, artificial intelligence, machine learning, educational technology or statistics. It is my hope that more Educators are involved over the next decade and that we remember that learning is a social process and it is my hope, as educators, that we will resist attempts to reduce learning to algorithms.

How will the University of 2030 be different than today?

I am going to actively resist the temptation to have a game of buzzword bingo but I do expect us to be continuing to improve access to education for more people, I expect us to be offering more flexible programs to give students greater choice in how they study with us and I do imagine that the blend of curriculum delivery will continue to evolve to make more use of digital technology.  I expect greater interdisciplinary collaboration in teaching and research, and I expect to see more project-based learning and employer engagement. Indeed, all these things are already happening, and I do believe in evolution rather than revolution.

At the start of this new decade, Ulster University will open a new city center campus in Belfast, an investment of over $250 million, and all our expectations are that we will be doing more active learning in the new space. I expect that we will need to bring cohorts of students together in more flexible ways both on and offline. Our work with project-based learning is reliant on bringing those without institutional identities into our buildings and systems in flexible ways and if we think about our expectations for the next decade, we will need systems that provide greater flexibility in managing teaching, learning, and assessment. This represents challenges for virtual learning environments, building management systems, timetabling and attendance monitoring to name a few, and I do expect to see more use of integrated technology to better manage learning in physical and virtual spaces.

What role will technology partners play in helping shape the future of how education is delivered?

I think that partnership is the correct terminology for the relationship between technology vendors and universities. We need to be partnering with those who are embedded in the higher education sector and who are actively identifying solutions to our problems as they arise. I think of Blackboard Ally, I have read articles that suggest that the solution may not have been on many of our radars if we had been surveyed and I think that’s true, yet it is something that solves a problem. I don’t believe that a technology solution solves the issue of accessibility in curriculum delivery, but Ally is a tool that contributes to a good solution.

I also think that technology partners can help institutional projects get to a pilot stage quicker than we can do alone. Ulster recently partnered with Blackboard on a two-year predictive analytics pilot that helped accelerate internal work on governance and ethics around learning analytics. Whilst the pilot has ended, the legacy of this project is informing our next stage of development.