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Despite 20 years of digital hype in education, the shocking truth is that classroom experience for most College students has changed relatively little, very slowly compared to - say - the explosive growth of smartphone use, social media, e-commerce and video streaming for entertainment. So what of the future? One thing is for sure: education is continuing to fall behind the world that we are supposed to be educating people to live and work in.

Most teaching is still face to face, by lecturers, in lecture theatres or classrooms, using mainly slides, backed up by flipcharts / whiteboards.  Even more shocking is that we have still not fixed some of the biggest problems we had 20 years ago in lecture halls and classrooms, as we will see below.

Growing complaints by Millennials: "poor value and experience"

Sadly surprising then, that a staggering 60% of 18-34 years olds across America no longer think that 4 year courses are worth the money. US Higher Education institutions have seen 6 straight years of falling enrolment.

Students often complain about lack of access to lecturers outside the classroom, poor quality learning experiences, and low numbers of teaching sessions per term, considering huge fees they have to pay.  And as we will see, they also often complain that the digital world is often getting in the way of their learning.

How to create "magic" at almost zero cost to IT budgets

So what of the next 20 years?  

The key is understanding how to create real "magic" for students, rather than just delivering yet another digital learning platform, or IT solution or administrative tool.  Yes many of these can be very useful, but there are more pressing issues.

The really great news is that the greatest educational IT "magic" can be delivered at almost zero cost, at astonishing speed, compared to most College IT projects, if the whole Faculty and administrative staff seize the opportunity and work together with a common purpose, focussed on the students themselves.

The future of education is of course about ideas, intellect, innovation, inspiration - but it is also about getting the basics right.  You can have the smartest Campus in the world, with multiple interactive learning tools, virtual classrooms, collaborative platforms, AI-enhanced automated coaching, and so on, yet miss the greatest lessons of all.

Vitally important too, to cater for the different needs / culture  / expectations of the rapidly growing proportion of older students:  30-60 year olds who may be working full time or part time or taking a career break.  We need an entirely new mindset in designing digital learning experiences for this constituency, who are usually highly motivated, very focussed and very intolerant of wasted time or cost.

Listen to what students are telling us to sort out now

Just look at shocking but typical feedback from students in lectures with more than 70 participants:

51% find it hard to hear

41% find it hard to read what is on slides or on flipcharts

34% are distracted by noise from outside the room

50% are distracted by their own devices

45% are distracted by what appears on screen of other student devices

These things can mostly be fixed within a few weeks, with simple steps.

Practical technical solutions to major student issues

Hard to hear?  The most important single thing for IT departments to fix is the sound system in all larger rooms. 

Hard to see?  I am shocked how often I find lecturers still using typefaces which are impossible to read except for those in the front row.  The most important second thing for IT departments to fix is agreement with all lecturers about minimum standards for all display materials, typefaces and so on. Or give lecturers much larger and higher resolution, daylight screens.  We may find such things amusing when an eminent Professor rattles on for an hour with completely obscure and unreadable slides, or whose face is in darkness in a dim room, but such basic techno-defects and teaching errors are deeply damaging to the learning experience, really annoy students and destroy reputations of great experts.

And let's make sure our display tech allows the lecturer to pace around the room easily without stepping out of a small spotlit area into gloom. 

Distracted by competing tech?  Engage the students with clearly heard words, delivered with real passion, world-class content, great visuals - and agree with each class how they are going to use (or not use) the huge number of personal devices they have just carried in.

60% of students wish that their teachers used lecture capture, and free, web-based content more often. Again these things cost almost nothing, so let's do them. The tools for capture cost next to nothing.  Publishing slides, uploading a fixed camera feed to a secure cloud platform, links for each lecture to extra reading.

Changing culture amongst Faculty

As I say, many powerful digital innovations require zero IT investment.  Take for example a college-wide policy that all Faculty will be available via - say - WhatsApp, to all their own students, with an expected response time to short comments or queries of less than half a day.  And that each student is entitled to a face to face meeting or video call with their appointed guide on a very regular basis.

It's easy for a CIO to say (correctly) that they suggest things but Faculty carry on as before.  Maybe this is linked to the fact that in around half of all Higher Education institutions, the CIO is not a member of the senior leadership of the College or University, so influence is weakened.  

CIOs can take the lead - on behalf of students, campaigning for change

Yes, it requires strong leadership at every level.  It also requires that CIOs take a really broad view of the whole of the College, contributing valuable insights to improve every aspect of the instutution.  As in large corporations, the reason why so many CIOs lack access or influence is that the Dean or CEO feels that their CIO is mainly a technical expert, without much to contribute to overall vision and strategy.  We need to make a stronger case that IT is so fundamental to the very survival of the College that IT needs to be welded into every strategy discussion.

Investing budget in vital but invisible things like security

Now there are other areas of College IT that require much larger IT investment, are invisible to students, but absolutely mission critical. The most important in many cases is protecting reputational damage from high-profile cyberattacks and data loss.    But the low-budget steps above will do more than anything to help transform the student experience, build social media reputation, attract enrolments, and help increase IT budget for these less visible but important things.

What will teaching be like in 2040?

By 2040 there will be an even greater divide between virtual and physical.  

As in the music industry, sport and entertainment, there will be a huge premium for breathing the same air in a communal experience and a massive discount for what is just digital streaming of information, images or video.  Colleges will promote the value of interacting in small communities of other students, on a learning journey with some of the world's greatest experts, which will change their lives forever.  

Expect more distance learning modules at very low cost with a lot of free content as "tasters" for the "real thing".  

Quality of visuals in classroom teaching will improve a lot - with time / costs of generation shared between communities of institutions on an exclusive basis, for example key case studies, or video training resources, simulations and other things.

Lecturers will come under far greater pressure to prove their value, not only in the classroom, but also in their generous availability to engage in conversations, whether virtual via messaging, or video or face to face.  

Presence and attention will become key measurable: what proportion of your students were mentally present for what proportion of your session with them?  How many were disengaged, planning a night out, or messaging friends, or shopping online?

A significant feature of many courses will be pure mental engagement without digital enhancement - in other words, collective agreement for an entire group to go on a mental journey together, remaining offline for an agreed period of creativeness or reflection.

At the same time, expect proliferation of outstanding learning tools - enabling students to take hold of their own destiny, with less dependence on the particular lecturer, module teaching quality.

Lecturers will find themselves being publicly graded in real time, by anonymous class members on platforms which are the traveller's equivalent of TripAdvisor.

But the real key, as today, will be relationship / emotion, connecting with passion as well as hunger for knowledge.  Digital tools will be graded depending on how well they achieve this.

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