The impact of technology on Higher Education

In 1998 the dot-com bubble was expanding, the word “web” had slipped into common parlance, Windows 98 was being sold as an internet-ready piece of software and many of the students who entered our universities this year were born.

These digital natives – now studying at our universities  –  have grown up in a technology-rich  environment that comes with many benefits and disadvantages. They also come with the expectations that a digital environment creates: instant feedback, interactivity and much more.

Many of the advances in technology that these young people have come to think of as perfectly natural were developed at our universities.

Alan Turing was a staff member at the University of Manchester and Tim Berners-Lee is a fellow at Oxford University. With the pioneers of information technologies at our institutions, we are ideally placed to lead the way in technology-based higher education.

Every day, researchers at Russell Group universities are pushing the boundaries of technology. Work in new and highly specialised fields is changing the way we interact with the world around us. And developments in everything from robotics to virtual reality are revolutionising the way that we educate students.

The Edinburgh Centre for Robotics houses the Robotarium. This centre is producing innovation-ready graduates who are moving the field of robotics forward and have the skills to take these advances through to the development of new products and companies.

Scientists and engineers at Cardiff University are creating a highly realistic virtual environment where surgeons can train to carry out vital medical procedures which will reduce the risk to patients in operating theatres around the world.

These world-class facilities are using technologies and teaching methods that would have been unimaginable twenty years ago.

Our universities have embraced technology as a way of changing the way higher education is delivered. Many of our members are partners in FutureLearn, which uses online technology to provide Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCS) to students across the planet. Others have developed MOOCs outside of this model like the University of Oxford, which announced a MOOC in partnership with EdX that will start in February 2017.

Marking and feedback has been keeping pace with technological development and a number of Russell Group universities have utilised opportunities emerging in this area in order to enhance the student experience and better meet expectations in this aspect of their studies.

Many of our universities now use audio feedback systems, which a study conducted by the University of  Liverpool showed are more likely to help students understand where to improve when compared to written feedback.

Keeping pace with technological developments requires continuous investment, and high levels of collaboration between the experts in learning technology and academics with subject specific knowledge. The delivery of new technologies does not always go according to plan with sites crashing or servers falling over. However, the path of true progress never was completely smooth.

The fact is that technology, as with many other industries, has changed the face of higher education forever. Russell Group universities are seizing the opportunities that this presents. By leading the field in developing new techniques, and introducing them for the students our universities are well-placed to harness this breath-taking pace of change.

Author: Dr Wendy Piatt
Director General of the Russell Group