Technology enhanced learning is finally taking off

At its new Waterside Campus the University of Northampton is doing away with lecture theatres in favour of more flexible ‘teaching spaces’.

It’s the latest evidence of the university’s developing approach to using digital technology to enhance teaching and learning. Already, Northampton has redesigned two-thirds of its courses to support its ‘active blended learning’ approach and the new teaching spaces are part of a strategy to give students best value from face-to-face time with teachers.

There are more examples of good practice with technology-enhanced learning within UK HEIs in our new report, published with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), ‘Rebooting learning for the digital age: What next for technology-enhanced higher education?’. The report explores how our universities can use education technology to tackle some of the biggest challenges and to develop sources of competitive advantage in what is now a global education marketplace.

Middle of the table

Our research shows that, when it comes to education technology, the UK’s universities are at the leading edge of practice in Northern Europe. But it also shows that university systems further afield (notably Australia and the US) are some distance ahead of us, and that competing institutions in Europe are closing in on us fast. Which leaves UK universities with a choice – get left behind, become squeezed in the middle, or start running faster.

Pulling ahead

If we want to develop and retain a competitive advantage, as we surely do, the UK’s universities are well placed to do it. Universities and sector bodies should be looking again at the opportunities that technology presents to improve student engagement, retention, and achievement, and also to reduce the costs of delivering learning. Money saved is money earned for reinvestment in improving other areas of teaching practice and delivery. There are two main areas that I think we should be focused on.

Technology enhanced curricula

Evidence from fifteen years of project work in the US showing that curriculum redesign using digital technology can improve outcomes for students and reduce costs by more than 30%.

There are already many examples of institution-wide, excellent technology-enhanced practice in universities in the UK. Manchester Metropolitan University’s systematic programme of technology-enhanced curriculum design and improvements to its online learning environment has helped the university to achieve significantly improved National Student Survey (NSS) scores.

Elsewhere, there are pockets of good practice in which UK universities are using technology to improve learning by simulating experiments, enabling students to get more from their field trips via augmented reality (AR), redesigning assessment, and flipping learning to make the most of expensive lab and teacher-facing time.

But there’s plenty more to do and the report recommends that universities should redouble efforts to build technology for learning and teaching into curriculum design processes. We know that the sector will need an evidence and knowledge base showing exactly what works, in order that universities can make better-informed decisions. This is no easy task, but Jisc is looking into how we might develop it.

Learning analytics

At the same time, there is growing evidence from around the world that learning analytics can help staff to support unmotivated and underachieving students. In a pilot programme the Open University (OU) saw improvements in student retention of 2.1%, and at the University of New England (UNE), Australia, drop out rates fell from 18% to 12% using analytics.

So far, there has been a focus on under-performing learners, but learning analytics are a tool that can help every student to reach their full potential. A world away from the heavy-handed invasion of privacy imagined by learning analytics luddites, Nottingham Trent University’s learning analytics initiative has won an award for outstanding student support; for its success in boosting retention, improving attainment and increasing students’ sense of belonging and community.

As technology matures and datasets grow, learning analytics data will enable delivery of personalised learning, tailored to provide more support in areas where individual students are finding it hard. The higher education sector, under the leadership of Jisc, is creating a huge dataset as part of a new national learning analytics service for the UK to help generate more – and better – insights for the sector. It will subsequently be the role of education researchers to consider how they can extract maximum value from this dataset. As all this momentum builds, universities without a learning analytics system in place should think about adopting one as soon as possible.

Read HEPI Report 93 in full, ‘Rebooting learning for the digital age: What next for technology-enhanced learning?’

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