The next generation will see greater changes in education than we have seen over the previous 500 years, says Lord David Willetts, the former Minister for Universities and Science. Jim Pendrill reports.
Delivering the keynote address at the start of Policy Week on how emerging technology will impact education, Willetts began by questioning whether the very idea of holding a public lecture was now under threat. “The exchange we are having tonight is no different to how medieval lectures took place. Is this type of exchange impervious to technological advances or are we finally entering a period where technology will affect this kind of experience?”
Willetts said the “mood swing” was that the technological revolution was finally reaching education, epitomised by the proliferation of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). However, he cautioned that the mood around online learning was less exuberant than it was a few years ago. “I recall visiting Silicon Valley as a minister in 2011 and the excitement was specific. Investors thought there was going to be a single educational platform and the race was on to invest in a platform equivalent to Amazon or eBay. The view now is that we are a long way from a single platform. There are a number of different providers and it is fragmented with different nation states running their own platforms.”
Willetts added that there were also increasing doubts about some aspects of online learning, such as quality control and low completion rates. However he said security and certification issues were being tackled such that, increasingly, online qualifications were accredited and there had been a growth in informal regulation. Crucially, he said universities and employers were now beginning to accept online qualifications.
In terms of how technology will change higher education, he said a consensus was emerging that having a peer group and fellow students at roughly the same stage of a course alongside you matters when it comes to the use of online tools. “All the evidence is that whatever the technological changes in the future, people will wish to feel part of a learning community. It may be people physically sitting alongside each other in a lecture hall, it may be people they can email and share notes with because they are all at the same stage of the educational course. The discipline of some kind of synchronicity is quite important for creating a worthwhile educational experience.”
Meanwhile, Willetts said the development of interactive technology was already having a huge impact on vocational training, while lessons from the success of computer gaming also had value in education. “It is well-known that computer games command attention. How do teachers engage with students and command attention? Are we going to see the gamification of education?”
There would also be an impact on assessment. “There is a growing view that quite a lot of assessment can be replaced by technology. To what extent will academic assessment be replaced? That’s an open and interesting question.”
He added that massive data sets were now available on how people learn, and this can help us understand the educational experience more too. “Put all this together and education becomes far more professional.”
Answering his opening question about whether lectures as we know them will survive, Willetts concluded that change was on its way. “In years to come I suspect the environment we are in tonight will be replaced by something more hi-tech. Think about a seven-year-old child today. When he or she come to university they really will be complete digital natives and that, in itself, will have an impact on how they are educated. That’s another reason why I expect this kind of experience we are having tonight to change quite a bit.”