Two and a half days into the future

Can you see the UCL logo in this video?

Like it or not, many of the trends, technologies and issues in learning technology often drift eastwards across the Atlantic, so it is useful to attend a US conference occasionally to hear the emerging debates.

EDUCAUSE is by far the biggest US conference of IT in education, last week attracting seven thousand IT, library and learning tech professionals to a very rainy Indianapolis. Popular topics were cybersecurity, the cloud, digital libraries, organisational change and generally managing an ever more disintegrated IT environment. Learning technologies were also well represented.

It is certainly not true that US universities are universally “ahead” of UK and European counterparts in educational IT. Many of the issues arising were depressingly/comfortingly familiar but in a few areas there were interesting differences, reminding me of the famous William Gibson quote, “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed“.

A striking example was learning analytics, the monitoring of student performance, attendance and so on. In the UK collection of such data, the focus of a large Jisc project, is generally seen as benign. Some US universities however are much further down this path, trying to link performance to lecture attendance, library use, time spent in the VLE and so on. This data can be used to trigger interventions from tutors, but some questions had already arisen as to reductionism and even ethics of “profiling” students in this way. The fundamental question raised was who is this monitoring actually for; the student to improve study practices or the institution to reduce dropout statistics?

Not surprisingly several sessions attempted to identify key future trends. Number one was growing US student debt, commonly described as a “crisis”. One response may be a refocusing on competency-based education, short vocational for-credit courses from both new and traditional providers. Promoted as more affordable and career-friendly, credit accumulation enables flexible study paths (often online) and timeframes. The traditional three/four year residential degree was described as “over-engineered”, i.e. too long, too expensive, too unfocused, for increasing numbers of cost-sensitive, more consumer-minded students. The growth of “sub-degree education” and alternative HE-level providers is becoming more noticeable in the UK, too.

Whether this leads to the long-predicted decoupling of study paths and accreditation remains to be seen. In this new diverse environment universities, while still maintaining their elite status for the moment, were now “not the only game in town” and maybe not the automatic choice for a future generation of aspirational students.

Meanwhile on traditional US campuses the student demographic was subtly remixing. Students were on average older, more culturally diverse and ever more demanding of student services. Wellbeing and psychological support were becoming critical components of learning. Universities, we were told,  should take adult non-traditional learners far more seriously. I heard a frequent critique of the US trend of over-investing in glossy, expensive residential campuses at the expense of building a more agile, future-proofed and hybrid infrastructures. Distance education, it was claimed, would soon become the delivery norm in US higher education.

As mentioned above the pervasive connectivity of modern student life presents a major challenge to conventional IT services and roles as well as to academic colleagues who often struggle to accommodate the impact of technical changes, and often associated changes in discipline practices, into traditional programmes.

Maker culture” inspired by consumer-level 3D printers, coding schools and the “internet of things” should continue to impact across the curriculum, with libraries possibly playing a major role in providing maker spaces and opportunities for self-publishing. Optimists felt all this may produce the “next-generation workforce” ready for high-tech and distributed advanced manufacturing enterprises, where creativity and design will be as important as traditional attributes

It may be a bumpy ride, though. One EDUCAUSE keynote was MIT futurologist Andrew McAfee who predicted a rapid growth in machine intelligence as the effect of Moore’s law kicked in to mainstream computing. His thesis was that in many areas machines would soon be able to make better predictions and decisions than experts, and the market are already demanding that they do.

Postscript: If this futurology seems  a bit far-fetched back here in London, note a Guardian article this week; Robot doctors and lawyers? It’s a change we should embrace. But don’t worry, a recent BBC Tech article Will a robot take your job? reassured us that we Higher Education teaching professionals have only a 3% likelihood of automation!

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