Technology sometimes makes people’s lives more impersonal. But in higher education it is leading in the other direction, as large group lectures are replaced with tutorials, digital resources and software-based coaching.
“We believe the technologies that are coming will reinvent higher education teaching,” says Paul Feldman, chief executive of Jisc, a membership organisation that provides digital solutions for UK education and research. “We think it will turn the whole thing on its head.”
The key idea is that technology will release staff to spend more time teaching one-to-one or in small groups. “Blended learning”, where online resources such as on-demand videos support face-to-face teaching, is already common. The University of Northampton, which follows this approach, has no large lecture theatres in its new Waterside campus – the largest room can hold 80 people, with others averaging 40.
Five years ago the University of Leeds introduced a lecture-capture system and now approximately 80% of its lectures are recorded, either as audio and slides or as video. Prof Neil Morris, the university’s dean of digital education, says staff can repackage these recordings within online resources, combining sections of a lecture with added activities. This allows students to learn at their own pace, an approach known as “flipped learning” that gives contact time to focus on discussion and interaction. “When you come to class, we’ll do some problem-solving,” he says.
There are further developments in the pipeline. Several universities are experimenting with chatbots, which answer general questions, and others have systems that use data to identify students who are disengaging from courses. Jisc is working on how similar technology can support students’ mental health.
The next few years will see advanced learning analytics systems that combine chatbot-style interaction with extensive analysis of students’ personal data, using artificial intelligence (AI) technology that crunches large volumes of information to suggest what learning tools might work for individuals. Rather than identifying a few students who need particular support, these systems would be used by most or all.