The moment the UK went into lockdown it was inevitable that digital learning would become a staple of the higher education diet in some form or another.
The latest report from Jisc and Emerge Education, Enhancing student engagement using technological solutions highlights some of the best examples of using education technology to advance student engagement in learning. Examples of technologies that could support student engagement include artificial intelligence, learning analytics, sticky and smart campuses, and virtual study spaces, and there are commercial technology providers working in all stages of the student journey, from pre-enrolment to employability.
While identifying successful practices is clearly of benefit to the sector, the one key thing missing from many of these short glances at new technologies is a discussion of why students were engaging with them and why they are successful.
For systems engaging with mental health, for instance, were students using them because they preferred it to what was on offer previously, or was it the entirely unprecedented situation, in which everyone – not only students – was forced to make more pragmatic decisions about accessing help? And in the absence of an alternative it’s difficult to say whether specific online learning technologies would be preferred to the IRL equivalent.
In some areas there is evidence of the impact of the adoption of technologies – but in the absence of contextual factors that informed the implementation of new technology initiatives it’s hard to understand whether the same might be true in a different institution. And for a report focused on student engagement, there is a notable lack of student voice. Although students’ views are reported in the rollout of some of the case studies, this is very much in broad strokes.
The proposed steps forward from the report – introducing digital strategies, investing in technically upskilling all staff, sharing good practice, collaborating with students to find solutions, and involving student experts – are all positive and progressive suggestions.
But if universities are to roll out new technologies, decisions need to be informed not only by what has worked, but why it worked. There are clearly some new uses for technology which have had an impact on problems universities are trying to solve, but evidence of why that’s the case and of how these technologies are shaping students’ experience would really help to crystallise a collective sense of how the use of these various technologies might – or should – evolve post-pandemic.