The Future of Education: Finding Solutions to the Challenges of Digital Learning
In Spring 2020, remote delivery became the primary—if not only—mode of learning in almost every education institution, at every level of the sector. Almost overnight, it had become business-critical and widely realised. It was a remarkable achievement. Now, it must transform into a sustainable high-quality, agile, and fit-for-purpose learning experience—a much harder task.
Success will depend on how institutions navigate the vast array of complex challenges they are faced with. Many of these challenges specifically relate to the context of COVID-19 and how to make learning work well in a pandemic. But there are other challenges: they are legacy, inherent, and are often the result of the evolution of digital learning itself. The background to these is important to consider, because rapid digital evolution is in tension with the much slower pace of organisational and teaching practice change.
The Evolving Landscape
Before I joined ITGL in May, I had worked in higher education in the UK for 25 years, specifically supporting, enabling, and progressing digital learning at an institutional level. Firsthand, I had witnessed and engaged with the slow development of the digital learning landscape, and the challenges that came with it.
In the early days, the focus was the design of bespoke e-learning software for specific projects. The challenge here was translating ideas into engaging resources. With the advent of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), attention shifted to the use of digital tools as integral to the curriculum, where consistency was important—but hard to realise. Technologies arriving on the horizon were researched for pedagogic application, then piloted and implemented; some became integral, some used in niches, and others fell by the wayside.
In the meantime, the human experience also evolved. Our personal and professional relationship with technology adapted, and we developed new behaviours, enhancing collaborative working and styles of communication. It became important to understand human digital capabilities and attitudes, to evaluate what it means to be a student and a teacher in the digital age. We began to redefine and build new understanding of physical and digital spaces, and champion the importance of responsibility, ethics, and inclusion in this environment.
Some of the key challenges facing institutions stem from this rapid evolution; they are not tangible or particularly related to the technology itself, but rather, our relationship with it.
The Complexity of Digital Culture
The digital culture of institutions can often be far from ideal, and I think there are two aspects to focus on here.
The first is the confidence, capabilities, and attitudes of staff. Experience has shown that maintaining the advance of teaching in line with the progress of technology—and human behaviour—is incredibly difficult. This state is dependent on teachers feeling confident, enabled, and supported in their use of technology, and therefore motivated to engage in digital development. In normal circumstances, institutions find it hard to prioritise this challenge as it is tricky to quantify and remedy at scale. It requires sensitive understanding of staff confidence and capability; the re-articulation of institutional mechanics, significant resource, and careful strategy to create an environment where constructive and collaborative digital cultures may flourish.
In some ways, COVID-19 will have helped to move things along. The situation placed everyone in a similar position; capability had to be ignored in order to address the task at hand, prompting collaboration and problem-solving across teaching teams. As such, it seems reasonable to assume that less confident individuals will have modified perceptions of their own digital capability, and teams will have been empowered by what they saw was possible.
That does not mean to say that digital capability and confidence are no longer an issue—far from it. The option of ignoring digital technology may have been removed, but that makes it now more important than ever to have clear guidance, support, and resource in place.
The second aspect to address is the ambiguous language used to talk about the space, place, and mode of technology in education. From the conflated definitions of “distance learning” and “distance education”, to the vagueness of “blended learning” and “hybrid learning”. Each phrase is open to interpretation and means something slightly different to different parties. Confusion like this creates friction and impedes progress, and so agreed and accepted definitions used within quality standards and regulation are needed within institutions. With that would come clarity in expectations for students and staff. Without it, a systemic problem remains, where effective communication and strategy are undermined from the outset.
Strong leadership and effective institutional communication are also critical. Leaders not only have to listen and respond to student and staff needs, but also be bold in their decision-making and provide honest and consistent messaging. The institutions that will likely fare better in the months ahead will be those that set realistic and honest expectations about what the student experience will look like, and how it will be delivered. This also means being upfront about how this will change in the face of further COVID-19 restrictions.
Finally, cross-institution collaboration is vital for coherent digital transformation; there is magic in boundary spanning leadership that is collaborative, synergistic, and self-aware. It’s important because, all too often, “digital” is carved up across siloed departments, a legacy of its historic development: IT, educational development units, estates departments, communications teams, and so on. It requires departmental leadership to be somewhat vulnerable—something I’ve heard mentioned frequently in the COVID-19 discourse.
So now to the digital landscape itself—it is fluid and characterised by rapid evolution of technology and digital tools.
The range of options and functionality available to institutions is vast, and so they are forced to make choices about which to use and how to support them. Core, business-critical tools that help achieve strategic aims and set out the way that an institution operates are usually well supported through various channels. Some tools, perhaps common alternatives to core versions, or that enable alternative ways of working, may be keenly endorsed rather than actively supported.
Other more niche tools, either experimental or suitable for a specific context, may be tolerated—after all, there are few technologies that cannot be used for pedagogically sound learning. As such, institutions rightly allow for a palette of options; the learning journey involves exploration, problem-solving, and critique, and so flexibility and choice are key. However, these shades of endorsement can create a confusing landscape where tools are used inconsistently and in conflicting ways, a particular challenge when colleagues often struggle to find their starting points and can feel overwhelmed. It is also worth noting that occasionally, digital tools will establish themselves via the back door as shadow technologies and strategists may find themselves either needing to manage them out, or retrofit to accommodate.
With many tools offering similar—but subtly different—capabilities, it can be awkward to find the right tool that meets the requirements. As we have found during this pandemic with virtual meeting and classroom technologies, ease of use, accessibility, functionality, and security have all been flagged as issues across the range of options, with conflicting or unhelpful comparisons drawn. Personal preference is one thing, but where there is no overarching digital strategy to set out infrastructure and pedagogy, the consequence is that individuals and teams will pull in different directions.
A further challenge frequently encountered by learning technologists is where a “shiny” or popular technology is identified as the solution to a given problem, without that problem and its context being fully understood. This not only wastes time and effort in trying to get the tool to do the task required, but can lead to unnecessary workarounds and complexities in the solution, or worse—a complete failure of the project. Similarly, where a small, highly contextualised piece of practice is held up as the best way to do something, the institution then attempts to scale it up without critical analysis.
Hand in Hand with Your Solutions Partner
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges. While it’s tempting to think that all institutions are broadly the same, they are of course each unique. The character of an institution is shaped by its people, strategies, and systems by the prevailing digital culture and the language that is spoken there. These factors have a significant bearing on the way that technology is adopted and utilised, and on the ultimate success of the solution being deployed. It is important that solutions partners recognise this. These nuances inform the necessary design and tailoring of solutions for the context, not forgetting that through appreciative understanding of the context comes the added benefit of deeper, more trusting relationships between partner and institution.
This level of understanding is not always easy to achieve. Strategies may be public, but culture, language, and uniqueness can often only be garnered through exploration and conversation. At ITGL, it is a priority to spend time talking with, and listening to, leaders and practitioners from our education clients, understanding their perspectives and contexts. When I arrived, I brought an extra level of personal experience of the education sector, complementary to the knowledge and understanding of our technical and client success teams.
In listening, I heard institutions express the value of a partner like ITGL, who doesn’t simply sell a solution and move on, but uses their understanding to tailor solutions to the problem at hand, implement them successfully, and then work with the client to amplify the value further down the line. ITGL crucially works exclusively with the Cisco, believing that a broad portfolio of technology built on a common foundation of interoperability and technical excellence provides the perfect building blocks for coherent solutions, more so than a multi-vendor collection of individual best-of-breed products.
I learned that we had enabled schools to rapidly deploy Cisco Webex collaboration tools: Webex Teams for communication; Webex Meetings for teaching, conferencing, and events; physical collaboration devices like the Cisco Webex Board, Desktop Pro; and the larger Room series, allowing greater interactive collaboration. By drawing on our technical expertise and educational knowledge, we were there to support the rapid move online, working through the critical issues of remote access and cybersecurity.
We collaborated with colleges as they evaluated solutions at their own pace, identifying critical success factors and navigating their institutional contexts. I saw my colleagues at ITGL praised for their dedication and ability to anticipate and troubleshoot problems as they supported universities through the UCAS Clearing process.
Looking forward to longer-term strategies, our clients are busy. They are considering the elements of safety on campus, exploring thoughts around intelligent wayfinding and the flexible use of space. Each client has their own priorities, and ITGL is working closely with them, helping formulate ideas and drawing on our Intuitive Campus vision. Meanwhile, we are carefully monitoring the rapid developments from Cisco as they adapt and innovate to meet the need.
It’s unlikely that education will return to what was, until recently, considered “normal”; the sector must undergo a seismic shift to cope with the direct aftermath of the pandemic, and be fit for purpose beyond it. Rather than disappear, the legacy challenges will be magnified over time—and to ignore them risks both reputations and viability. However unwelcome and difficult COVID-19 may be, it does present an opportunity to take a big leap forward and capture a spirit of openness and appetite for change, to collaborate in using technology to make the way we work, teach, and learn better than ever before.