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While digital technology has the potential to change the way in which students access knowledge, and the way in which we, as academics, engage with them in learning, it also presents a number of other opportunities and challenges. Most significantly, it allows us to use the growing expertise in big data, personalisation and artificial intelligence in order to engage with our students in a very different way.
Many universities are already developing personalised apps that provide a bespoke time table, information on submission dates and other useful information to students, increasingly in real time. Other work, based on student analytics and algorithms, linked to our knowledge of the relationships between student engagement and student success, measure all of a student’s contact points, their marks and other data, to be able to predict, and hence support, those students who are falling behind. Turning this around, such technology also allows students to take control of their own learning, to monitor their own behaviours and to see where they are going wrong and what support is available to help them improve. We already have projects, within the wider work on the digital strategy, that will enable us to develop appropriate apps, from our own data, that can support students in this way.
What such technology enables, however, is more than a benign big brother, looking over the shoulders of our students and nudging them towards behaviours that lead to academic success. The processing of data, and the individualisation of outputs, means that we are now in a position, should we wish to go in this direction, to treat every single student, across the university, as a unique individual. Of course we cannot offer them all personalised service, if by that we mean the dedicated attention of an individual member of staff, but we can personalise our service and, in theory, adapt it fully to meet each individual student’s own needs and requirements.
What I want to ask, in this case, therefore, is what impact such technologies can have on learning? Is it the case that we have the opportunity to mould personalised assessments, or even learning experiences, to play to a student’s strengths, to develop their weaknesses, or perhaps simply to meet their own particular preferences? Should student choice be seen, not just as the choice of one module among a limited selection of modules, but at a far more granular level, of different trajectories within a module, different forms of assessment, different engagements with their learning?
One significant possibility that this offers, I would suggest, is that we have the potential (again in theory) to match learning to the pace of the student. Much of our current practice runs at the pace of the slowest learner in the room. We do not have a ‘gifted and talented programme’ at the university level, as they have in many schools, and we probably do not do enough, I might suggest, to really push and support our most talented students.
The same, of course, is true of any of the characteristics from the equality legislation and we could, through much the same means, allowing for slightly different learning trajectories linked to a student’s particular needs, transform what it means to develop a truly inclusive curriculum. Technology has the potential to change so much of what we do in learning and teaching. However, we do not need to wait for the technology if we want to accept some elements of personalisation and student choice as a principle that we might want to embrace. Much of the work that we have been undertaking as part of the STEP4Excellence programme is already making some of this personalised approach a reality.