Sarah Porter, head of innovation at JISC, shares her view of the future “Seven predictions for our technology-enabled universities”

The JISC Inform online magazine carries a useful insight from Sarah Porter, head of innovation at JISC, in which she shares her view of the future to help you think strategically. The original post is under HEFCE copyright, which grants Creative Commons Non-Commercial Non-derivative re-use, and I received permission from JISC’s Press and PR Manager to “reuse and purpose the article”.  However, I am not in a position to grant others to further re-use the content, so unfortunately if you wish to re-use any of the content below that is in blue (teal, technically), you will have to request permission from them yourself.

We have seen unimaginable change to the global environment in the last 50 years – and technology of various kinds has been at the heart of much of this change.

This understates the situation, in my opinion.  An important aspect is that the rate of change is increasing, and that the advent of the Internet, more specifically the Web, has provided a step-change in that rate.

Sarah Porter, head of innovation at JISC, is uniquely placed to observe the developments across UK higher and further education. She says, “Technology offers tremendous advantages in some contexts – it can connect people across huge distances, help to cure illnesses, assist food production and help us to explore and solve problems. But, at the same time, technology can have negative impacts – and also unforeseen consequences.”

Sarah believes that in the present, education is at something of a turning point in its relationship with technology, so here she sketches out some predictions for the future to help you stay ahead. (…)

Seven predictions for our technology-enabled universities

1. The concept of ‘digital’ will fade

Digital devices and content are already becoming a pervasive part of our lives.

It appears that the concept is already fading, depending on your experience or ‘generation’.  Many people in the late teens are not making the same distinctions between digital and non-digital as those who lived more of their lives before the ubiquitous presence of digital technologies.  I am hesitant to describe them as Digital Natives, due to the current predilection for pouring scorn on that term, but I don’t think it would be right to necessarily describe them as Digital Residents either – they can operate as Digital Residents or Visitors, but don’t see a need to distinguish between digital/virtual and ‘the real world’. 

2. There will be even more personalisation of technology

Users will will increasingly have integrated devices that they use for many different social and leisure pursuits as well as for their education and their paid work. Smarter devices will be worn, and be voice- and even brain-activated, giving the user the ability to access content and services from the networked, immersive environment of multimedia content in which they move.

And in addition, it seems likely that there will be Augmented Reality solutions which allow the technology to give the user a more personalised view of the ‘real world’ by adding extra detail.

3. The boundaries between formal research and scholarship, formal education and training will become increasingly blurred

As the ‘network effect’ – the connections of people with all kinds of content at a global level – continues to expand, how content is created and shared will continue to grow. Content and learning opportunities will be contributed by ‘anyone’. Users may contribute to informal learning networks through content that they share, either as part of their formal research or as informal interest – for example, charitable work.

I think that the headline point on this one is misleading.  The paragraph describes it much better – the boundaries between formal and informal will be lessened, and I think we might even see informal, distributed assessment of evidence (e.g. online Portfolios showing your work and skill set).  This one is already quite well established – the role of the ‘expert’ as a knowledge provider is arguably less important, although the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ is certainly not infallible.  Indeed, due to the hyper-connectivity available, the basic premise behind the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ – that of independent observers producing a better estimate of the truth on aggregate than individual experts – is unavailable.  The independence is not achievable in a world where communication is so easy, everyone can essentially view each others’ opinions before adding their own voice.

4. The ‘added value’ of face to face educational experiences will start to break down

As the quality of online content improves, and social technologies become ever more sophisticated online learning will become a mainstream option, using, for example,high quality, low cost, multi-person video conferencing on mobile devices. In a world where flexibility and choice are valued increasingly, and where people are increasingly comfortable with complex social interactions through technical environments, students and their parents will be less focused upon a face-to-face experience and more interested in the other benefits that can be offered in terms of choice, quality of support, flexibility, employability.

This is contentious.  I believe it is true, and would argue that in many cases the perceived value of the  ‘face to face’ educational (or general communication) experience is based on received wisdom rather than personal empirical evidence.  However, I am well aware that many people hold as a fundamental truth the idea that face to face will always be better.  I believe that it is less contentious to argue that the other benefits mentioned will outweigh the (perceived) benefit of face to face interaction.

5. The digital environment will provide more opportunities for institutions to provide an enhanced and customised student experience

Intelligent, data-driven systems will work with the student to support them, to analyse their learning behaviour, to propose resources that may help with areas of weakness or further develop areas of interest. Interactions between learners and tutors will be recorded and stored to allow review and replay. Data analysis will help tutors to provide customised learning plans, to identify particular capabilities as well as weaknesses or gaps and use these to suggest employment tracks, industry placements, mentors.

I think this is almost bound to happen, and I know there are many people working towards this already.  In addition, this will allow for increasingly advanced ‘artificially intelligent’ personal tutoring system to be developed.  It is particularly potent when the learner is able to provide feedback on any shortcomings in the model that the ‘system’ has made of them (a technique being used by those developing Open Learner Models).

6. More organisations will accredit chunks of learning

As the formal boundaries around knowledge break down, and the ability to provide a good educational experience without needing to invest in real estate becomes achievable, modular accreditation will grow. There will be more partnerships between commercial and non-commercial organisations, courses will be made available in more flexible formats, and on line course materials will be supported by distributed networks of high quality support organisations – providing academic and pastoral support, support for employment, and for many students providing practical experience of employment, peer networks and mentoring by distributed networks.

Again, I see signs of this happening already.  It also makes sense on an economic basis, as it opens the door to people with less money to be able to gain accreditation for a small piece of work, rather than having to find the funding for a whole course.

The peer networks and mentoring by distributed networks is an element I also think is now almost unavoidable, once some issues to do with validating user identities has been adequately dealt with.

7. Organisations will think about services, not systems

The organisational processes will only survive if they make the provider more competitive, able to offer higher quality experiences, more focused on the changing needs of the end beneficiary – and whoever is paying for the educational experience. Institutional systems will need to be highly flexible and able to conduct real-time transactions with many partners and beneficiaries. As professionals, we will need new skills in order to understand the potential and risks associated with new and sometimes unproven approaches. We will need to have the right balance of flexibility and agility to be able to cope with the demands of this exciting but challenging environment.

Organisational processes don’t respond particularly quickly to environmental pressures, so this might take some time to come true.  Organisations adapt themselves to preserve their own existence, and individual processes within them are often highly resilient to change.  Obviously, that might not always be desirable!

The need for flexible, agile processes is something we have highlighted in our project, and which the new Vice Chancellor, Sir David Bell appears to echo in his work so far.  It is hard to imagine “the institution” being sufficiently flexible without staff (and students) having the necessary digital literacies to be able to not only use the systems which are present now, but to be able to adapt to new systems as they start to be used.  That is not to suggest that the new systems will be hard to use (we all rather hope that new ones will be easier than the previous generation, perhaps in vain), but they nearly always require some adjustments.

The future is bright… and it is almost certainly digital – and we need to be ready for it.


About patparslow

I am a researcher in the School of Systems Engineering, working in the fields of social media, digital identity and learning. I have previously worked in IT training/education, land survey, civil engineering, IT support, and as a software engineer.
This entry was posted in Digital community, Meetings & Events. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Sarah Porter, head of innovation at JISC, shares her view of the future “Seven predictions for our technology-enabled universities”

  1. Dave Bowman says:

    There is some interesting stuff in here, but not particularly adventurous and disappointingly lacking any timescales. How about these 5:
    1) There will be no more than 80 traditional HE universities in UK and these will have minimal public funding in 25 years.
    2) The highest reputation degree programmes will be based around collections of the best academics globally, these will often be niche, charge the highest prices and will be commercial and international in 10 years.
    3) The majority of undergraduate education will be from a small (less than 10) large global education providers, blended with local presence (existing colleges) and open content in 15 years.
    4) Closed systems (e.g. VLE) will be obsolete as more content, discussion and operation is outside the silo model in 10 years.
    5) Bring your own device will be taken for granted, perimeter security will be redundant, services will be accessed almost irrespective of location and will be shared between collaborating and competing organisations in 5 years.

  2. patparslow says:

    Thanks Dave,
    1 & 2 are probably not directly related to the technology-enabled point, and I don’t feel I am in a position to speculate on them.
    3) This sounds possible, if rather depressing, and potentially it is facilitated by ‘the technology’. It may actually be made more difficult by the outcome of 4).
    4) This is probably already true in many ways.
    5) The first half of this is basically already true as far as I can see. The shared services would seem likely, but I’d put a figure of 10 years on it.

    • Dave Bowman says:

      Hi Pat,
      I took the subject as universities & technology together, and I appreciate the distinction you’re drawing. For me, technology cannot be considered in isolation from political, economic, social etc.

      As with most progress elements are depressing, and elements are not. If the globalisation leads to world class, then good, if it leads to dogma and standardisation, then not. It’s worth looking at Sebastian Thrun and Udacity.

      Regarding whether things are already true, my position is that ideologically aspects may be true, but in reality around the hundreds of organisations in HE&FE these are far from true. My predictions are about mass acceptance, hence the lag in the time expectations. For example, although many people have moved beyond the concept of a closed VLE, I have yet to see that across the majority of institutions. The day I no longer see universities and colleges buying new instances or upgrading existing VLE’s then I will take that as being true!


      • patparslow says:

        Hi Dave,

        Thanks for the reply. Specifically on the VLE side, I was less thinking of the institutional view, and more of the students view. What I see happening is smaller numbers even accessing the VLE as a repository, but then sharing the contents on other media with classmates, and discussing/learning in other spaces too. Time will tell, I guess 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *