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Out-Law Analysis 4 min. read

Edtech offers universities route beyond coronavirus crisis

Universities and other higher education providers have an opportunity to use the challenges they are facing through the coronavirus crisis as a springboard for transforming online learning for students in the long-term.

The pandemic has forced providers to look at the provision of teaching and delivery of the student experience through an online environment lens. However, it has also highlighted the challenges faced in trying to bridge the gap between teaching delivered in lecture halls and seminar rooms with online learning.

Collaboration with technology providers offers scope to adopt innovative solutions that enhance the student learning experience, and even offset some of the reduction in tuition fee income that UK institutions are anticipating from a drop-off in international and EU student numbers in the coming years.

Successful digital transformation projects in the higher education sector will require institutions to carefully manage supplier contracts, and navigate issues such as intellectual property (IP) ownership and data risk.

The opportunities tech presents

Being forced to rethink teaching and learning delivery in light of the coronavirus crisis gives universities a chance to draft fresh IT transformation strategies, and properly investigate the various solutions offered by suppliers.

Numerous platforms are available in the market for video and lecture capture, meetings, learning management systems, and immersive learning, for example, but they should meet certain criteria: in terms of content and timing, the platform must be able to be aligned with the needs of the provider and allow for adaptation and development over time. Open and interactive platforms promise greater innovation and sustainability. Providers should avoid relying on using short term ‘fixes’, particularly those implemented because of the pandemic, in the longer term – they may not be fit for purpose.

The onset of the pandemic and the way it is reshaping societal norms allows universities to reflect on their IT priorities, and whether previous decisions in that respect remain valid.

For instance, with an increase being seen in online traffic, it may mean that upgrades to the underlying technical infrastructure – both at network level and in the cloud – become a higher priority. There is also an increasing need to ensure there’s a joined up interface for existing and new online services, any upskilling of academics and other staff to make full use of all the new technologies being deployed, equipment refreshes and software maintenance and updates - with relevant support from suppliers as needed. There is also the opportunity to put the concept of data being an asset into practice through learning analytics, immersive technology and artificial intelligence (AI), and ultimately the development of a 'smart campus'.

Universities should also use this time to re-examine information security and digital safety. Several authorities have warned of the cyber and data risks arising from the coronavirus crisis, including around remote working. Enabling remote access to personal data, as will be the case where academics working at home access student administration systems, brings risks, as does the increased use of video technology. Universities are aware of the regulatory environments in which they operate so must work with suppliers who provide solutions that adequately mitigate risks for data security breaches.

Challenges of digital transformation

One of the biggest challenges facing the higher education sector as it looks to digital transformation is an embedded and pervasive risk adverse approach to change. Our white paper has identified the need for a culture shift to embrace the benefits of cloud computing.

Moving online also raises other concerns like ownership of IP rights. Universities need to ensure they have appropriate licensing arrangements in place to enable students to access student-facing systems. Restrictions on where systems can be accessed could have a practical impact for post-Covid plans, so any restrictions need to be considered carefully. Having clarity over maintenance and downtime arrangements will also be important for continuity of access. Online content uploaded by academics, as well as making lectures themselves available online, also needs to be considered from an IP rights perspective – whether this is something created by academics, other students or third party content.

The move to online will need to balance universities’ obligations under applicable legislation and regulatory regimes, such as the system in England overseen by the Office for Students (OfS), while addressing the demands placed on it by student cohorts.

In this respect, thought must be given as to:

  • how technology can support access to a high value academic experience and support students to access and succeed in higher education – some of the primary objectives of the OfS’ regulatory regime;
  • how online provision may impact on student satisfaction and perceived value-for-money and ultimately may have an effect on an institution’s future Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) rankings;
  • continuing to ensure compliance with their consumer law duties, including ensuring that any changes made to the terms of their student contracts, course terms and conditions and student complaint processes as a result of moving towards online course provision are done in a compliant manner;
  • ensuring appropriate processes are implemented to support the mental well-being of students given social distancing – operating in an online-only model may increase social isolation of students away from friends, teaching staff and being able to access pastoral care offered by universities.

Considerations when negotiating with suppliers

Through collaboration arrangements with technology suppliers it is vital that universities ensure that the risks and rewards of prospective new solutions are appropriately balanced.

Universities should be clear about ownership of IP rights developed in any joint initiative with tech partners.

In addition, they should ensure the risk/reward balance is appropriate to reflect arrangements as are how the costs of a technology project are split between them and their suppliers.

New IT systems and platforms should not be implemented unless they have been subject to thorough testing, and digital and data security should be at the forefront of considerations given the volume and value of the data universities are responsible for.

Lessons might also be learned from how universities in other jurisdictions are approaching digital transformation in the post-Covid era.

Chris Martin and Laura Wilson are experts in edtech at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.

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