Insights from the Higher Education Advisory Board

15 Nov 2021
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Insights from the Higher Education Advisory Board

Introducing Ahead by Bett

Ahead by Bett'is the brand-new event dedicated to Higher Education leaders launching alongside Bett 2022. In this article, we're excited to share some key insights from our Advisory Board as we continue to explore how the sector has tackled disruption in the past two years and what tools we'll need to forge a path to the future.


Who makes up the Ahead by Bett Advisory Board?

At Ahead by Bett we rely on our network of educators and innovators from around the world to inform our live and digital content. Our Advisory Board was carefully selected during our 2021 research phase and brings together senior representatives from a range of universities, Higher Education associations and innovative organisations to shine a light on new pedagogies for the sector. We're very excited to introduce you to our esteemed members of our inaugural Advisory Board and you can find out all about them'here.

Our Advisory Board meets monthly to dissect the radical disruption and transformation the sector has experienced since March 2020, which has led to many institutions changing their approach to teaching and learning forever. The changes that Higher Education educators have experienced on the ground ' and online ' herald a new age of education for universities. Having previously been focused on the legacy of traditional degrees and a buzzing campus experience, Higher Education institutions are now observing a new wave of learning models which challenge preconceptions about how we learn.

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Trends and challenges in the sector

From our conversations with the Advisory Board, we've identified challenges and trends which have emerged from the accelerated disruption and transformation of the past two years. In 2022, universities will need to pivot from crisis response to the development of new, robust strategies for high quality learning provision in order to succeed. We've consolidated five highlighted learnings from 2021 below:

'1. Digital capabilities and the skills gap

Looking across the sector, Higher Education technology leads have been excited to see a drastic increase in digital skills and capabilities amongst staff. However, our Advisory Board noted that many of these skills have been acquired by osmosis, and at a rapid pace. This begs the question of whether gaps exist in the skills of both students and staff, and whether now is the time for senior leadership to explore what might plug those gaps in order to ensure a stronger digital provision.

In many cases, there are additional facets of the education experience which may have been initially ignored in the rush to continue to provide access to learning during challenging times ' questions such as, what assistive technologies fit within our infrastructure, or what skills should we be assessing and how? Some members of our Advisory Board have even developed digital capability services, which provide a self-assessment model for staff and students to understand what gaps may exist in their knowledge of digital practices. Advisory Board member Lisa Gray, joining us from Jisc, has shared'Jisc's digital capabilities review here.

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2. The shifting role of students in learning design

The movement from the known to unknown has led to significant changes in the behaviour of students, with some discussion still to be had on whether these are positive or negative outcomes. However, one unexpected development from increased remote learning has been the participatory role that students are beginning to play in the learning experience. Once tasked with simply absorbing knowledge and outputting information, students are increasingly taking on the role of co-creators or learning designers, leading to a challenge-based learning structure which promotes active, agile approaches to learning. In other words, students are being encouraged to question their own approach to 'learning how to learn'.

In a world where digital capabilities, resilience and challenging the status quo are of the upmost importance in order to thrive in the labour market, the need to develop these abilities in the student population has never been greater.

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3. Driving sustainable digital transformation

Drawing on the Advisory Board's collective experience, we've come across numerous examples of universities showcasing ambitious and innovative methods of tackling the challenges brought about by the sudden shift to home working. However, with some form of high flex, blended or hybrid learning expected to remain part of every university's provision, our Advisory Board noted that it was also important for these new ways of working to prove sustainable. In the rapid shift to alternative models of learning, educators and leaders across the sector took on increased workloads and unexpected approaches to work. Now, with many of these changes here to stay, it's essential to re-evaluate our approaches to digital transformation in order to ensure these changes are sustainable.

With a long-term move towards more digital education being on offer for students, it's up to senior leadership teams within universities to examine what features of their new practice should be developed further and which should be discarded. In most cases these questions span the wider culture and structure of institutions, affecting assessment, the student experience and data privacy to name a few.

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4. Unchartered territories of cybersecurity in Higher Education

It's impossible to ignore the increased attacks that the Higher Education sector has faced in terms of cybersecurity, with many institutions having to rebuild from scratch as a result of ransomware attacks on their data and infrastructure. As our Advisory Board noted, hackers need only get lucky once to get what they need; universities must get lucky every day in order to protect themselves. This leads to an ongoing battle to ensure security systems are strong enough to cope with attackers and that the correct disaster recovery measures are in place. Lessons from the business world feel particularly relevant here, with some universities picking up on risk assessment strategies from industry professionals to inform their practice.

With the impact of cyberattacks being felt across every group within a university, from insurance to data to operations, this is certainly an issue which should be a priority not just for technology leads, but for universities as a whole.

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5. Reimagining the student experience

In the UK and around the world universities have put plans in place to have students and staff return to campus, and for many these strategies are already taking place. However, it's clear from the lasting effects of the pandemic, and from the continued change in the behaviour of students and staff, that things are not about to return to 'normal'. In fact, with the radical upskilling and shifting around learning styles, student expectations and additional opportunities brought about through remote working, it's likely that there will be further changes to the ways we work. While these changes have affected the way that students experience local universities forever, nowhere has this been more disruptive than for international students.

Universities must revise their approaches to student recruitment, both at home and overseas, and review how they can provide ongoing access to learning today ' will international students of the future be offered wider opportunities for learning? Will an onsite campus experience become an optional feature for university? And what about the social-emotional and cultural learnings that students pick up whilst completing their studies?

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Final reflections

As the above suggests, the challenges facing the Higher Education sector are myriad and complex. This is not an exhaustive list of everything senior leadership teams will currently have on their to-do list, but it certainly reflects the rapid pace of transformation that has taken place in the sector in only two short years. With some semblance of normality beginning to peek over the horizon in some areas of the world, now is the time to ask that all-important question: what tools will we choose to forge a path to the future from here?

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Recommended Content

  • Jisc's online drop-in meetups provide a space to ask questions about best practice in digital inclusion.
  • Welcome to Ahead by Bett! Take a look at our themes for a sneak preview of our content.
  • We explore issues relating to the use of e-assessment in Higher Education
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