Tech disruption in higher education sector benefits student success


In the last five years, disruption has been rife in many industries. The banking and retail sectors, insurance industry, and logistics have been transformed by technology; driven by the capabilities of new technologies, changing demands of customers, and rapidly evolving practices of competitors.  The higher education sector is no exception.

Pioneering disruption in the higher education sector, University of Pretoria is paying attention to world disruption trends: research, big data, personalisation and virtual learning.  Student success is the result.

According to UP digital education expert, Dolf Jordaan, learning and learner analytics, including big data analytics, and artificial intelligence will be disruptive in the education sector.

“Big data means personalisation. Big data and analytics give insight into usage, and map more than marks and attendance,” he said.

Student access to the library, lectures, tutorials, practicals, computer labs and campus wi-fi can all potentially be tracked and directly relate to student performance.

Professor Wendy Kilfoil, former Director, Department for Education Innovation, said: “University of Pretoria’s clickUP (Blackboard Learn) data is evidence that students above the third quartile outperform those below the first quartile.

Technology demands change for both student and teacher.  Access to data and artificial intelligence systems will require new teaching skills, agility in teaching methodologies as well as skilled learning designers. 

“Data and AI can disrupt and transform teaching, as they allow for more targeted interventions and relieve lecturers of more mundane aspects of teaching so that they can concentrate on more meaningful activities in class, said Prof Kilfoil. 

Data and analytics lead to personalisation and more effective AI will enable it further.

“Despite the age-old, single teacher/multiple student classroom approach, technology may meet the personal needs of every single learner in their own preferred digital environment and dynamically respond to their learning and assessment needs exclusively. Although instructional design and learning planning is the domain of the traditional teacher or facilitator, this personalisation could all happen without the regular presence of an educator,” said Myles Thies, Director of Digital Learning at Eiffel Corp. “And while there may be some clear benefits in the creation of personalised tracks of learning, is that really an educational future we want to pursue?’’ Thies asked.

Prof Kilfoil believes new technologies fueled by data and AI are beneficial to student success as they enable personalised learning environments for both the student who needs extra practice and the student who needs extra stimulation.  “We might not want to pursue a future with no human interation but using disruptive technologies to improve student outcomes is not that type of future,” she added.

“Learning as part of a community, group problem solving and collective idea creation has been proven to be a highly effective learning process and personalisation may detract from this”, says Thies.  While personalisation, as an adaptable and customised learning track for the individual, focusing on weakness and areas of interest within a stream of learning is good, critics are saying that there are some drawbacks. For instance, it may not encourage collaboration outside of the personalised stream because learners may all be at different stages in their learning and may not be able to work on similar problems collectively.

Students are always at different levels. Working together in groups digitally or face-to-face is the way in which peers help to bring other students to the same place in their learning. Effective use of delivery modes is what counts.

“I don’t believe that personalisation means never having contact with other students. It means working at your own level and own speed until you reach the same outcome as everyone else. It means working on your own some of the time and with others the rest of the time. It means the strongest students get to work on additional problems as well that will stimulate them more than the middle of the road approach often needed in a traditional classroom.

“Personalisation should never be seen as a track for at-risk students only,” added Prof Kilfoil.

“It’s really all about context and understanding who the learner is, what knowledge they need to master and whether automating some or most parts of the learning and assessment process is appropriate,” said Thies.

“Teachers, lecturers and instructors are, ultimately, the best judge of that and can never be discounted for the value they provide. Personalisation will force educators to review how their role needs to change and how adapting to and harnessing technology for the betterment of their teaching has to happen, if they are not doing it already.


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