Why the education sector is ripe for digital disruption
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Why the education sector is ripe for digital disruption

Rob Buckley – January 2015
Even as the digital era is reshaping industries of all kinds, the processes and structures of higher education remain seemingly immutable. Now a new wave of tech-driven delivery models is presenting the sector with an opportunity to dramatically enhance the quality of learning — and the results that students and businesses can expect.

The last technological disruption in teaching happened more than 500 years ago. Until then, the role of the ‘lecturer’ had been clear — the word’s source being the Latin lectura, meaning to ‘read.’ With books scarce and literacy even rarer, the lecturer educated others simply by reading from a book.

Gutenberg’s printing press transformed the mechanics of education. As books became more common and literacy increased, the original need for lecturers disappeared and instead, the teaching process was transformed into the dissemination of a much wider set of knowledge in a much more collaborative way.

In the half millennium since, the educator’s role has remained more or less the same: teach a lesson, give out assignments, test to see if the student has understood what they’ve heard or written down. But is that really still enough?

While other industries have been disrupted and radically enhanced by the application of advanced digital technologies in recent decades, education processes and structures have barely changed. And that has led a broad group of observers to predict that the education sector is ripe for digital transformation.
Imperative for change

Certainly CIOs in industries around the world think that change well overdue. The picture they often paint is of an education sector failing to provide people with the skills their organizations need. With technology now underpinning virtually every sector, ultimately, it’s the quality of the people applying and leveraging that technology that will determine whether projects — and even companies and government agencies — succeed.

“Skills are the things that drive profitability,” says David Lister, global CIO of UK electricity network provider National Grid and a member of the CIO board of e-skills UK, a partnership between industry and the UK government designed to ensure that Britain has the necessary IT skills for economic growth. “But if you look at the figures, such as the number of people coming out of universities with a technology degree, 12% remain unemployed six months after graduation, which is twice the level of the student population as a whole. So there’s a disconnect between what industry wants and what’s coming out of some universities.”

Tom Reilly, VP of learning at IT industry association CompTIA, sees a similar situation in the US. “Education is producing students to meet state and government guidelines, and it does a decent job of meeting that. The bigger issue is that it’s not producing people to take on jobs, particularly in IT.”

Two root causes — at least at university level — are the shortage of educators with the necessary skills in both teaching and the domains being taught; and the time it takes a student to learn and understand a subject in sufficient depth and breadth to be able to use it in practice.

Here, digital technology is already providing solutions that have the potential to revolutionize tertiary education — at least if adopted widely enough. And it is, again, the role of the lecturer that will mostly be changed.
Education on demand

Distance learning platforms, virtual learning environments (VLE), learning management systems and massive online open courses (MOOCs) are all ways of allowing that scarce resource — the domain expert with good teaching skills — to deliver teaching to a class over the Internet in an engaging, multimedia fashion. No longer do students necessarily have to be in the classroom; instead, they can watch video streams of lectures whenever and wherever they happen to be. The platforms enable them to interact with other students and instructors, download extra materials, upload completed assignments and more.

But ‘lecture capture,’ in which lectures are recorded for streaming as-is or after being enhanced using video production techniques, has enabled education establishments to re-evaluate the effectiveness of live lectures and lecturers. If lectures can be recorded, why does the lecturer, in person, need to redeliver that talk? Couldn’t his or her time be better used doing something else?

‘Flipped learning’ embodies this change in thinking: rather than the lecturer teaching a subject then setting students assignments, he or she first sets the homework, with the student watching a pre-recorded video of the lecture and then accessing any other resources that the lecturer makes available through the VLE. The lecturer then assesses in class how well the students have understood the subject. It leaves them to concentrate on personal interaction — either face-to-face or online through the VLE — rather than simply the deliver of a lecture.

“With online analytical technologies, you can assess how well people are doing throughout the learning module.”

Universities, such as Harvard and Stanford, are taking flipped learning one stage further. Rather than, say, a college with a limited budget struggling to find appropriate teaching staff, it can buy in small, private, online courses (SPOCs) from such leading universities, delivered on MOOC-like platforms.

“The most important component [of making that a success] is a local teacher who provides guidance, can make changes to some parts of the course, alter deadlines, add in their own material and so on,” says Anant Agarwal, CEO of Harvard’s EdX education technology program. SPOCs have certainly proved their effectiveness: 60% of students at San José State University passed its traditional electronics course, but when a SPOC was introduced the pass rate rose to 91%.

Individualised instruction by lecturers then becomes the establishment’s point of differentiation. Indeed, the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) places the entirety of its MBA course online so that potential students can see the quality of the course, learn at their own pace. It is only when they’re sure it’s what they want, do students then pay for the course and get instruction from lecturers and tutors.

Naturally, there’s the potential for students to take the course at their own pace. They can also take modules from other establishments as they see fit or if they think they’re better than the ones they’re currently receiving.
Analyze and optimize

“Classroom teaching is not the most effective way of transferring knowledge,” argues Professor Maurits van Rooijen of the LSBF. He says that lectures will always be too far ahead for some students and too basic for others.

To make that a more flexible and adaptable process, van Rooijen points to the benefits of using ‘learning analytics’ and ‘adaptive learning’ technologies, from companies such as Knewton and Smart Sparrow. These analyze how students navigate the online components of courses to see, for example, if they need additional support or the course itself needs to be improved to make it more accessible.

“You can assess a student’s competence using item response theory or other algorithms against particular learning objectives and accelerate them or provide remediation content,” says David McNally, CTO at education publisher Macmillan. “You can measure whether students do better with video, reading or other types of activities and give them appropriate content accordingly.” Through the use of artificial intelligence techniques and ‘recommendation agents,’ these can also be done automatically.

Vincent Bagué, manager of the Learning Innovation Centre at the Vlerick Business School in Ghent, Belgium, which uses this kind of technology in its own courses, says: “Until today, the information you had on how people learned was probably an assessment at the end [of the module]. Now with online technologies, you can learn a lot more about how people are doing throughout.”

“The gamification of education is not just about students playing around — it’s about students playing and understanding.”

Direct evaluation of comprehension can be applied in live teaching sessions as well. The iClicker classroom response system, used by the likes of Western Illinois University in the US, enables lecturers to ask spot questions of students during classes. This enables the lecturer to discover who has understood what and whether more or less time needs to be spent on a particular subject.

This kind of interaction is verging on gamification and is also spreading into other areas, as it makes the lessons more interesting and, therefore, more memorable. “It’s not just about students playing around — it’s about students playing and understanding. That becomes a valued part of the output,” says Ash Merchant, head of business development for education at global ICT company Fujitsu.

These techniques make the learning experience more effective, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, which are naturally easier to test through multiple-choice quizzes. “The components we use have been shown to reduce time to mastery by 50% and increase long-term retention by 75%,” says CompTIA’s Reilly.
Resistance points

igital technologies therefore offer the chance for individualized, tailored, accelerated and more effective learning for more people. So why hasn’t the education sector adopted these technologies wholesale? Opinions vary. Graeme Coomber, CEO of Edtrin, which produces digital education and technology for universities around the world, argues that universities have such an investment in their existing structures that they’re unwilling to change.  Meanwhile, Tim Porter, head of global sales and marketing at Scientia, believes that most education institutions are risk-averse. “There’s scepticism from academics and professors who see themselves as separate from management. But my feeling is they’re looking for a silver bullet, a joined-up approach rather than a series of point solutions.” Porter says that the core of the problem is one shared by most organizations: how to manage change.

It’s a view backed up by Sarah Porter, an independent advisor and researcher in higher education and former head of innovation at Jisc, a charity that champions the use of digital technologies in education. The pressures of time and budgets are such that even technophile lecturers can’t investigate new technologies as thoroughly as they’d like. “It’s hard enough even when it’s your full-time job,” she says. “You definitely need it to be a strategic approach coming from the top down and have support from the center. It really does make a difference when the vice chancellor and the senior team support digital technology [initiatives].”

Universities, colleges and schools need to take the plunge into these digital services alone. “All education establishments are challenged, so we can assist by bringing together partners,” says Fujitsu’s Ash Merchant. “By sharing best practice, we can bring the right technologies in.” Fujitsu, through programs such as its Technology Innovation Hubs and Partnerships, is able to demonstrate technologies in action so educational institutions can see what can be achieved and then implement them themselves.

The potential for education to adopt new technologies is certainly there, as is the spirit. “All our staff at the top end are pushing [for more],” says Marc Griffith, head of academic practice and learning enhancement at the University of Derby in the UK. “They’re all looking for new and exciting ways of teaching, new ways of doing things.” Now what’s required is the right push, and the role of the lecturer will be redefined again — perhaps for the next 500 years.

• Fujitsu will be among the 770 exhibitors showcasing innovative education technology and services at BETT, the world’s leading learning technology event at London’s ExCel, January 21-24, 2015. 
First published January 2015
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