Students: I’m worried about you

I’m worried about students and I’m worried about education. There has been a move over the past few years that has seen students lose site of the reason they attend University. Perhaps I’m just an idealist.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Nelson Mandela

Learning to Pass the Assessment

This is the shift that frightens me most. I have heard a number of students, undergraduates and postgraduates, question why they are asked to complete assignments and work that do not contribute to their final marks. For example, a student was quite affronted that they had been asked to create a blog when they only needed to pass the dissertation to complete the course. There seemed to be no understanding of the skills that a blog develops. Particularly those of reflection.

Another student stated that they could only be tested on the content delivered in their lectures. Therefore, there is no point doing the extra reading and activities suggested by their tutors.

We can find the roots of this attitude in secondary and further education. I remember being told we’ll learn about this today because that will be something that may come up in your GCSE exam. We have been conditioned to learn to pass tests that assess very narrow, specific knowledge.

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark. Michelangelo

Independent Learning

The amount of work students are supposed to do independently seems to affront them. “Why am I paying 9k a year to not be taught by someone”. The idea that they should not be spoon-fed is seemingly new to them. Yes, all independent learning should be guided. Students shouldn’t just be left but they must develop the skills to learn independently. Maybe we need to make that clearer to them on application to manage expectations.

We are supposedly developing people to be productive members of society and in their employment. A big part of that is independence and initiative.

Tuition Fees

The introduction of Tuition Fees saw a change in the approach of students to their studies. I have heard many times “is that what my 9k a year is paying for”. I started university in 2007 and was one of the first cohorts of students to pay tuition fees. Granted mine were a more reasonable 3k a year with the additional grant repayments.

Tuition fees have introduced the idea of education being value for money. That University is better because with that course I get an extra hour of contact time, a free coffee and a hug once a week. Yes I’m being facetious. What happened to learning for learning’s sake?

I have always enjoyed the gym analogy. You don’t become Arnold Schwarzenegger simply by having a gym membership card in your wallet. You join the gym, work hard, put the effort in and you might become Arnold Schwarzenegger. It won’t be quick and it certainly won’t be easy.

You get what you put in to education. If you work hard, you’ll see results.

NSS and League Table culture

The NSS and the multitude of league tables have compounded the tuition fee effect. Students are now balancing their course choices with the overall position of the university. When you look at the numbers there is often a hairs breadth between universities on the table.

It has led to a number of knee jerk initiatives, often ill-conceived, with the aim of driving universities up the table. Yes there is the desire there to increase quality, never a bad thing, but it has a worrying dark side. The Guardian has suggested that  University staff will be held to ransom by student consumers.

We’ll do what they want, however unreasonable, so we don’t upset NSS.

Monetisation and the “Knowledge Economy”

The current government is hell-bent on monetising education. Creating what they describe as ‘choice’ for students. Given there are 127 institutions listed on the Complete University Guide do we really need more choice?

We’ve seen some of the controversy surrounding private providers with University awards statuses. If you didn’t see it watch the dispatches investigation on YouTube.

Choice does not denote quality. Will it force universities to up their game. Definitely. It may even result in more specialised courses and widened participation. Though a serious question mark still hangs over how they plan to ‘police’ and measure the quality of Higher Education institutions.

I spent an hour at one of our open days talking to a student about which university they should go to. I’m not a career councillor so I talked from my experience of choosing a university and the sort of things she should consider in her decision-making.

I don’t think more choice will lead to quality and I don’t think it will make students decisions any easier.

Should we employ staff who don’t have digital skills?

Job Interview Image

The question posed in the title of this post is a fair one. Why are we employing people who don’t have the digital skills that are needed to cope in today’s ‘digital world’? It’s a question raised with increasing frequency and one that deserves some serious thought.

I should start by saying that I fundamentally disagree with anyone who says that we shouldn’t employ people without the digital skills we ‘need’. I will spend the rest of this post explaining the various thoughts that lead me to feel this way but as an educator I cannot agree with it. I exist to develop people. You wouldn’t throw a child out of class for not knowing something when they walked in, that’s why we educate them, so they leave knowing more than they did when they walked in. Why shouldn’t that apply to staff?

Supporting people

This is the point that bothers me most about this question. Have we totally lost all empathy for people? Is technology really that important that we stop caring about the people we employ and work with? I hope not. I certainly haven’t. People first, technology second. See my post from the UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capabilities event.

There is nothing more satisfying than helping someone gain a new skill. It’s one of the reasons I love what I do. Employers have an obligation to develop their people. If they don’t they have failed.

Apparently a lack of digital skills is costing the UK £63billion. Perhaps the issue is not just in HE.

Widening participation

We talk a lot about widening participation for our students. Striving to ensure students from all backgrounds have access to education. Why doesn’t this principle apply to staff?

What do we ‘need’?

So part of the argument is that staff ‘need’ a specific set of skills. What are they exactly? Who determines what they are? Who is the authority on this?

Let’s take academics in the first instance. Is knowledge of Microsoft Office skills enough? If they can do Office and Twitter is that enough? I don’t believe it’s possible to create a list of things we think staff should be able to do. Their work can be incredibly broad. Technology is constantly changing and so do the goal posts.

How do we measure it?

In an interview how do we glean someone’s skill levels? Sit them in front of a computer and watch them perform some basic tasks? That’s a potential answer. Yet again we have to ask what will the test consist of and who will design it?

Institutional Priorities

I had a great conversation with someone who said “I look for members of staff who will bring value”. They did not feel that digital skills were necessarily a priority for all roles.

Academics have a wide range of responsibilities from teaching to research. Institutions have to balance these priorities when employing new staff. If an academic is a capable teacher and researcher does it really matter that they don’t use Twitter? We can help people to get the skills they need to do their job.


Technology is not always relevant to people. Why should it be? If I know how to teach and research do I really need to know how to use Padlet? I would argue that we need to ease people in to the use of technology. It’s not helpful to vilify people. That will only serve to alienate people from technology further.

I’ve grown up with technology. Although, it’s worth noting that when I first went to school there was one computer for the whole school. I didn’t get a mobile phone until my teens. Not everyone grows up surrounded by technology and it’s naive to believe that everyone has the same experience.

Read my follow up post But what about staff that won’t or don’t want to engage in CPD?

Exponential Growth, Technology and Higher Education

I recently attended a lecture by visiting professor, and Gadget Show presenter, Jason Bradbury. The lecture was titled “The Thousand Year Decade”. The premise being that we will experience the same rate of progress of the last thousand years within the next ten. What does that mean for technology and what effect will that have on Higher Education?


“For the vast majority of human existence, it was safe to assume that the world in which you died would look pretty much the same as the one in which you were born.” Big Idea: Technology Grows Exponentially


Exponential Technology

Even in my lifetime (never ask a woman her age or hazard a guess) I have witnessed technological progress that has happened at an ever increasing rate. The first PC my family owned involved loading every piece of software you wanted to use on to the PC individually from multiple floppy disks. (It has been so long since I have written the words floppy disk I had to double check the spelling.) Now you can buy something no bigger than the palm of your hand at a third of the cost, with more computing power and a universe of software and features.

What is most interesting is that the rate of progress is constantly increasing. The graph below shows the rate of technological ability in fifty years. “Fifty years out, the technology … is a quadrillion times more advanced than today”.


Predictions for the next 25 years

By the late 2010s, glasses will beam images directly onto the retina. Ten terabytes of computing power (roughly the same as the human brain) will cost about $1,000.

By the 2020s, most diseases will go away as nanobots become smarter than current medical technology. Normal human eating can be replaced by nanosystems. The Turing test begins to be passable. Self-driving cars begin to take over the roads, and people won’t be allowed to drive on highways.

By the 2030s, virtual reality will begin to feel 100% real. We will be able to upload our mind/consciousness by the end of the decade.

By the 2040s, non-biological intelligence will be a billion times more capable than biological intelligence (a.k.a. us). Nanotech foglets will be able to make food out of thin air and create any object in physical world at a whim.

By 2045, we will multiply our intelligence a billionfold by linking wirelessly from our neocortex to a synthetic neocortex in the cloud. Ray Kurzweil’s Mind-Boggling Predictions for the Next 25 Years

So what does that mean for Higher Education

“Your brain is programmed to be linear. But in these next few decades the rate of change is growing so fast that almost everything we can conceive can happen.” Peter Diamandis

Jisc has attempted to map the future landscape of Higher Education now, in 3 years and beyond. Flexibility, adaptive learning and personalisation are all recurring themes.

Jisc - Key Landscapes

Change is inevitable and rapid. Higher Education needs to be adaptable and flexible, keeping its eyes firmly on the horizon. As technology changes so must our curriculum, infrastructure and research. The problems that once seemed insurmountable will be solvable. How can we capitalise on these new technologies? How do we keep ahead of the sector?

Institutions need to be ready to support staff through change. Resource needs to be allocated to digital technology and digital capabilities. Particularly for the training and nurture of digital skills. Ray Kurzweil predicts a point known as The Singularity “when the exponential growth of the power of computers and technology hits such a speed that it fundamentally changes the world, and humans’ role in it.”