Innovation for education: what will next-gen learning look like?

Innovative Education 2013
Universities are coming together, working out who’s got what equipment, where it can be shared and where they can invest jointly. Actually, they’re getting far better equipment than they could ever afford on an individual level.
Jamie Arrowsmith
As new technologies continue to influence the evolution of education, experts emphasise the importance of keeping learning centre stage...

Is education in the throws of a technology-driven revolution? Whatever the answer to this question, it is difficult to deny the profound impact that technology is having on the ways in which learners are accessing educational materials.

The fundamental design of the lecture theatre has remained largely unchanged for millennia, yet over the past half century, access to education away from brick-and-mortar establishments has grown exponentially. 40 years ago, for instance, The Open University awarded degrees to its first cohort of distance learners. Today, it is one of the largest academic institutions in Europe with more than 240,000 students.

Distance learning, massive open online courses (MOOCs) and digital badges have done much to change the face of education in the 21st Century. Factors such as mobile internet access and the proliferation of smart devices have also helped users to engage with learning in a more flexible manner.

However, to suggest that technology is the only driving force behind educational change would be to oversimplify the matter. Recent developments have taken place against the backdrop of widespread economic austerity. Governments are looking towards private industry to boost their national economies, and academic institutions are being asked to deliver graduates who are more suitably equipped to meet the demands of the modern workplace.

So, what will next-gen education look like? How can academia and industry promote efficiency, effectiveness and value for money? Whilst experts speaking at Innovative Learning 2013 were optimistic about the future of education, they warned that learning – not technology – must remain centre stage.

'Skills' versus 'capabilities'

"We are preparing graduates for a changing world," explained consultant and academic Dr Peter Chatterton. "Technology is beginning to disrupt every facet of how business and education is done, and I think that we need to ask some serious questions now. Should we still be focusing on the concept of skills?"

Teaching, argued Dr Chatterton, needs to adapt to the shifting economic landscape. We must move away from the impartment of ‘skills’ towards the development of ‘capabilities’.

"These capabilities should include aspects such as enquiry, critical thinking and knowledge building," he told delegates. "We must encourage greater student-employer engagement; this idea of ‘authentic learning experiences’ whilst students are at university. We also talk about improving communication, but I’d like to take that one stage further. I like the idea of ‘influence’; we need to teach graduates how to influence change."

'Continuous learning and development'

Of course, education is not the sole preserve of academic institutions. As companies look to improve their productivity and adaptability, the quest to create a culture of continuous learning and development has become increasingly important. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Gill White said that whilst she has never seen a genuine ‘learning organisation’ in action, this concept is more than a mere pipe dream.

In order to create such a culture, White argued that we must overcome the challenges posed by organisational policies and processes, leadership, learning and development, and attitudes and assumptions.

"Is there anything else that we should be thinking about when creating this culture?" she asked the conference. "Oh my goodness, yes, and it is simple: happiness. Over the last 20 years we have come to think that if we do this, get that, buy that car, we will be successful and then we’ll be happy. Actually, positive psychology has clearly proved to us that it’s the other way around: a happy mindset means that we will be successful."

Also speaking at Innovative Learning 2013 was the University of Nottingham’s Professor Shaaron Ainsworth, co-author of Nesta’s 2012 Decoding Learning report. Whilst Professor Ainsworth emphasised the importance of embracing the potential benefits of digital education, she also warned against the idea of a silver technological bullet for learning.

Supporting pedagogy

"Many of us here today want to change teaching," she commented. "We probably need to stop collecting evidence about how to make existing pedagogy work with current technology, and start to support all of the brilliant pedagogy I see out there. We mustn’t make technology accidentally wag the dog and we must stop using it to sugar-coat unpalatable activities."

During the course of his presentation, Universities UK’s Jamie Arrowsmith outlined ways in which academic institutions can continue to drive up standards within a climate of austerity. In his opinion, resources are best viewed in relation to access, not ownership.

"There is a huge amount that the sector could do through collaboration," Arrowsmith told delegates. "One example, whereby the need to reduce costs has resulted in a new approach, is that of asset sharing…Universities are coming together, working out who’s got what equipment, where it can be shared and where they can invest jointly. Actually, they’re getting far better equipment than they could ever afford on an individual level."

Whether talking about students or employees, people must remain at the heart of education. As exciting as contemporary technological advances might be, if they are not facilitating learning, they are essentially redundant.

People-focused education

"The institutions that get this right will not focus on the plumbing, the analytics or the technology itself," concluded The Open University’s Ranjay Naik in the final speech of the day. "It is not going to be about what’s flashy or what gets people’s attention; it’s actually going to be about the people themselves. [The successful institutions will be those that focus] on technology in relation to how it enables students to live their lives."

And this, perhaps, is the overarching message of Innovative Learning 2013. Innovative technologies have real potential in terms of facilitating education and training, but they do not constitute ends in themselves. No matter how it is delivered, education is fundamentally about learning – not the tools that allow learning to take place.

For more information about Innovative Learning 2013, visit the Public Service Events website...



You mention lectures. 40+ years ago I wrote a book, "What's the Use of Lectures?" about lectures and how to lecture; but really it was an attack on the limitations of lectures and gave ways student could learn to think by discussion even in lecture theatres. So you won't be surprised that I strongly agree with your emphasis on critical thinking and the need to devise new ways to foster it using new technologies and develop the attitudes of staff and student that need to go with it. My sister book, "What's the Point in Discussion?" analysed a lot of that.

I'm wondering whether to revise them in the light of these changes and publish them as a twin volume or whether I should leave this to new blood. Researching all the changes is quite a big task. I should welcome comments from readers who know these books.

Prof Donald Bligh - United Kingdom
Once again the crystal skull and magic beans tendency has cast it's dead hand over this website. This is a terrible shame, and lends me to believe that it's editors won't be satisfied until they've featured a geneticist working to create a centaur. Or at least an elf.

Commented Roger Breeze on
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