Earlier this year, MPs warned that urgent action was needed to deal with the UK's burgeoning digital skills crisis. It is thought 12.6 million adults lack basic digital skills, while 5.8 million have never used the internet at all. These concerning stats point to the uncomfortable truth that the UK’s education sector is lagging woefully behind other sectors in terms of digital and technology innovation. With digitisation exploding in the corporate world, we simply cannot afford to fall behind.
Despite the rapid rate of growth and investment in education technology, doubt still lingers around the rate at which digitisation is being rolled out in our higher education institutions. To what extent is technology a beneficial investment in an area that is already challenged with damaging funding cuts, and are we really harnessing it in the best possible way?
Healthcare: A technology Innovation trailblazer
The sheer scale and volume of data and physical records the NHS has to maintain is vast, combined with the fact that medical records are all stored in differing formats, from x-rays to handwritten notes on paper. Similar to higher education, NHS trusts also often operate independently from one another, each with its own administrative system and manager. Despite these stumbling blocks, NHS trusts have already started to invest in their digital future where information sharing and interoperability is positively encouraged.
NHS England recently announced £100 million in funding to convert selected trusts in into centres of global digital excellence. Schemes like highlight the healthcare sector as a shining example of how to embrace innovation in the midst of restricted budgets and bureaucratic stumbling blocks.
With a long term strategy in mind, health centres such as Airedale Hospital in West Yorkshire have invested in large scale technological change and are already reaping the benefits, allowing them to pool resources and work more closely with colleagues in other areas such as social services. Employees have also been fully trained on how to use the new products and services to ensure they have a thorough understanding of why these services are in place.
Innovation barriers in higher education
Unfortunately, the education sector experiences stumbling blocks when it comes to digital innovation, most notably due to the multitude of disparate databases that are used to store valuable data, making collaboration virtually impossible. There is also rarely any commonality or standard formatting due to the volume of administrators all doing it their own way to suit their own administrative style.
Data that is critically necessary for educational innovation is restricted, poorly structured or not digitised in any format. In fact, the data access issue is a highly sensitive one as institutions are under increasing pressure to protect their students online. This is not impossible to turn around however, as the issue of data sharing has already been successfully advanced in other industries, most notably healthcare.
The storage of this data is also an issue for higher education establishments, especially those that still nurture a traditional paper-based system. In these circumstances, a student’s work is rarely digitised which not only causes chaos during the assessment period and worst case, lead to work being permanently lost. In addition, it becomes harder for teachers to collaborate with the students on their work, relying on handwritten comments on paper that can also be easily mislaid.
This market is also traditionally characterised by long sales cycles, numerous stakeholders with differing visions of the best way forward and a lack of synergy of technology initiatives. As with other sectors, there can also be resistance to change from some employees who prefer more traditional methods of working. This often causes friction when implementing a new technological system.
Scope for change
Despite the barriers, change is on the horizon. With numerous colleges and universities consolidating in the near future, the need to consider digital innovations to cater for a rapidly increasing number of students is being recognised. Educational institutions increasingly compete on efficiency, value for money, and the quality of student services – all of which can be enhanced through technology by optimising business critical processes. Many potential students are now digital-savvy and are attracted to institutions that can emulate this in their learning environment.
A key part of the change process is digital training. IT professionals in schools need to act as ambassadors for digital change, clearly communicating how technology can serve to enrich education practices and empower educators to deliver more impactful classes. Effective training of teaching staff – from the rationale to invest in new technology in the first instance, right down to how it works – is the key to unlock the full potential of a digital learning environment. Not only does this benefit the students, but it also empowers staff and nurtures an environment of growth through workstyle innovation.
Slowly but surely, institutions are seeing the benefits of technological investment. Hopwood Hall College recently implemented a virtualised learning environment which enables students to dynamically access information and collaborate interactively with teaching staff. In the new virtualised IT environment, any PC can be used to access any learning resource and the solution will save the college nearly £500,000 over three years.
The education sector is at a critical point on its journey to embrace innovative technologies. Institutions up and down the UK continue to be transformed by digital, it’s time for higher education to follow the lead of the healthcare sector and recognise the importance of training educators to use the new resources available to them. Technology is here to stay. Let’s awaken teaching to the opportunities it presents, and develop an education system that can flourish in this new age.
Chas Moloney, Director, Ricoh UK
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