It’s no great surprise to find higher education swept up in the ‘digital revolution’. As in so many other areas, the technology is forging new ways of doing things. Broader and more flexible forms of learning, teaching, and research, sit side by side with new ways to build the relationships that underpin learning experiences.

This is nothing new, but the pressures to keep up, manage expectations and demonstrate the benefits for students will become more profound.

While ‘technology-enhanced learning’ (TEL) could never replace the subtleties of attuned and motivated people, possibilities to enhance every aspect of learning and teaching are endless.

One thing, then, is clear: to face the future confidently, the sector must embrace the cutting-edge.

From opportunities to challenges

It’s also no great surprise to find that the brave new world is layered with opportunities and challenges.

We can see already how the technology is redefining traditional notions of teaching and learning. Virtual ‘hangouts’, which allow academics and students to discuss and debate, are more or less widespread. But students can now influence the level, pace and resources available to them in a ‘live’ teaching environment, scaled and tailored to the circumstances.

A group of students at the University of Exeter’s business school, for example, set up a project through the ‘Students as Change Agents’ programme. As part of the project, students secured funding for ‘clickers’ to be handed out at lectures so that they could give live feedback on their understanding, benchmarked against their peers.

This sort of ‘co-curated’ learning, in parallel with other uses of digital technology, means that we are seeing new and more effective relationships develop between students and their teachers.

And the benefits of these innovations extend to the by-product, or the ‘digital footprints’, they leave behind. Practitioners, institutional managers and policymakers all take an interest in the data and analytics they generate.

The recent HE Commission report into learner analytics underlines how they can be used to provide insight into student behaviour and outcomes. It notes, rightly, that to use them successfully we must consider data security and ethics, and involve students in every aspect of design and delivery. (The Jisc Code of practice for learning analytics provides a useful framework for sector-owned, ongoing development in this area.)

And yet the nature and scale of the changes, the pace at which they are happening, and in particular, the place of digital literacy in industry and the job market, mean that institutions face very real questions.

High costs, or many other adverse factors, can mean that even the best concepts can gain little or no traction. Iterative design informed by staff and students can be resource-intensive, not least to ensure that both have the skills and confidence to make the most out of evolving tools.

Digital technology also significantly expands the horizons of learning for the institution and the student. For the student it makes higher learning a more feasible lifelong option. For the institution it breaks down traditional territorial boundaries.

My recent co-panellist, Bob Harrison (Chair of FELTAG group) gave a compelling argument around the need to readdress educations providers’ priorities, suggesting that the sector should be thinking as radically as selling off real estate to make way for far more investment in technical infrastructure. Whilst there is no doubt that providers are beginning to see their Estates plans as integral to their learning and teaching enhancement strategies, it will be interesting to see whether institutions begin to buck the trend of bricks and mortar growth in the coming years to favour this approach.

Our current structures, funding and regulatory landscape are needing to better take account of these opportunities. Clearly the sector must adapt but we are only just beginning to see what this might mean in practice for the future of higher education and the ways in which the sector may operate. Naturally, this leaves plenty of scope for discussion and innovation.

‘One size will not fit all’

So is there an appropriate place for ‘technology-enhanced learning’? Taking a national view, we don’t have to look very long and hard at the sector to see that it is a diverse place. No two institutions and no two students are the same. Why, then, should we expect them to have the same uses for new technology?

HEFCE’s work in this area is long-standing and has always recognised that ‘one size will not fit all’. In 2012, we began work to embed strategic change at all levels. This led to the ‘Changing the Learning Landscape’ programme, funded by HEFCE and led by the Leadership Foundation working with sector bodies.

Over two years, the programme engaged with over 149 providers’ staff and students to give expert advice and support. This helped institutions to kick start their own projects, and through their work we can see how different circumstances apply.

There were ten common themes across the projects. These focused on strategic planning and change, teaching practices, and improving digital literacy.

Sheffield Hallam created a ‘menu’ of teaching approaches, and the technology that can support them, alongside a comprehensive programme of staff support to transform practices. Leeds Metropolitan University focused on growing a student initiative to bring about equality in the classroom, improve confidence and encourage innovation through piloting the provision of tablet computers. Writtle College focused on ‘small, low cost, low risk interventions’ which then led to a longer-term roadmap for sustainable innovation.

The case studies, themes and resources for institutional projects can be found at the Leadership Foundation website.

Although the programme itself has come to an end, a network still thrives. The network provides a community practice, a forum for peer support and mentoring, and a space for sharing best practice.

The National Union of Students (NUS) and Jisc have continued to work together, beyond the programme, as part of the Digital Student project to develop excellent resources, such as a benchmarking tool for the digital student experience.

What next?

There is still more work to do to demonstrate the impact of technology on student outcomes.

Our research into student attainment poses challenges for how technology-enhanced learning can be effectively used to help close the gap in satisfaction and outcomes across different groups of students.

Our proposals for revised NSS questions seek to capture student feedback on the virtual and physical learning environment more effectively.

More generally, creating the sort of live and dynamic environment in which the use of technology can flourish means commitment. Staff, students, employers – all need to engage. And they need resources, support services and the senior management behind them.

For HEFCE, ultimately, the challenge is to unlock the technology’s potential. To do this we want to show the impact of investment in this area, and the opportunities it can create for the longer term.