UK universities must accelerate their approach towards adoption of edtech, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 21 Feb 2017 | 5:03 pm | 4 min. read

ANALYSIS: UK universities must accelerate their move towards the adoption of education technology (edtech) as a result of the increasing demand from students and increased competition from international competitors.

The importance of technology in delivering an effective higher education experience is highlighted by a recent report published by the Higher Education Policy Institution (Hepi).

According to the report, most leaders within UK institutions now understand that the question is no longer 'whether' to invest in edtech but 'how' and 'where' to invest. This is encouraging, but there remains a lag in that investment materialising.

It is time for UK universities to step up their investment in edtech as those that do not build on existing investments in technology risk falling behind other higher education institutions elsewhere in the world.

A question of 'how' and 'where' not 'whether' to invest in edtech

Hepi's report, prepared by Jisc, which operates and procures digital infrastructure and services on behalf of UK higher education bodies, pointed out that the UK is one of the few countries that is already leading the field in the use of learning technologies.

However, a number of other countries, such as Germany, are starting to invest in education technology, and other countries that are well known as leaders in the adoption of learning technologies, such as the US, continue to invest heavily in the latest solutions too. This means that any competitive advantage the UK currently holds on technology enhanced learning will quickly be lost if UK universities fail to continue to invest. This is particularly important for those UK universities that compete, or want to compete, on a world-wide basis.

The good news is that the management of most UK institutions 'get it'. According to the Hepi report, "for most institutional leaders, the question is no longer whether or not to invest in technology-enabled learning, but rather how and where to invest for the best results".

Yet, as Ian Fordham, Microsoft's recently appointed UK director of education, has said, higher education institutions are in a "hybrid" state of implementing new learning technology.

There are reasons for this.

Embarking on a large IT project is a daunting prospect for any institution. It entails elements of risk such as-yet unknown vulnerabilities in new technology, and the threat that poses to an institution's networks and to the security of student data and commercially sensitive information. If things go wrong with the technology, the reputational damage to the institution can be severe and long lasting too.

In addition, we know that major IT projects not only take money but they take time. This is particularly true in the higher education sector, given that institutions tend to operate under a tight governance framework and need to navigate any public procurement issues.

To get to a position of implementing new technology, an institution is likely to need to go through a lengthy process. This will involve everything from building the business case for change, gaining budgetary approval and sign-off, investigating the solutions offered by IT suppliers in the market, agreeing commercial and contractual terms, and finally dealing with the practicalities of implementation including thorough testing.

However, because edtech is changing rapidly and the implementation of any major IT solution does take time, those institutions that can adapt quickly to change and take proactive steps to implement the latest learning technologies will be best placed to preserve or indeed improve their competitive advantage.

Teaching Excellence Framework

The Hepi report also referred to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – the UK government-backed scheme aimed at promoting quality teaching and learning on offer at UK education bodies by assessing institution on different aspects of teaching, including student experience and the job prospects of graduates.

The report called for digital technology to be recognised as "a key tool for higher education institutions responding to the TEF". It said technology can contribute to all three components of the TEF: teaching quality, learning environment and student outcomes. It also recommended that institutions should be asked to include information regarding how they are improving teaching through the use of digital technology in submissions to the TEF.

If adopted, this would mean that those institutions that have embraced the adoption of learning technology will perform well against the TEF. In addition, it would ensure that the implementation of digital technology makes its way onto the desk of the senior leadership teams within institutions.

The sector is already seeing technological advancements that impact on the learning environment for students. Lecture capture solutions, online assessments tools, and virtual classrooms and labs are increasingly being implemented by UK institutions. Indeed, the Hepi report highlighted that technology such as lecture capture solutions are now seen by students as mainstream solutions which they simply expect an institution to use.

However, the pace of change in learning technology is fast. An example can be seen in the way some edtech companies are looking at how holograms might make the leap from being used in films and music videos to the lecture room – enabling keynote lecturers to 'appear' in the lecture room and increase student experience and engagement.

Which technology will have the biggest impact will be specific to each institution and each course and, as such, it will be important for institutions to assess carefully what they should be investing in within their budget.

Technology should be at the heart of the learning journey

The authors of the Hepi report recommended that technology should be built-in to the curriculum design process. Such a move would mean technology is at the heart of the student's learning journey.

This is important because it would help ensure students remain engaged, that the learning environment remains relevant, and that institutions produce employable and digitally-savvy students. Those are factors that are increasingly becoming important to students when they assess what kind of learning experience they will receive from an institution and choosing where to study.

Chris Martin and Joanne McIntosh are experts in education technology at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.