It’s time to stop thinking of a technological revolution and start planning for the technological transition, says Paul Feldman

Colleges don’t compete for the basics. No principal has to think carefully about students’ access to hot running water or electricity. Once upon a time, those things seemed revolutionary. Today, we can’t imagine life without them. Pretty soon, we’ll think the same way about technology.  

Technology is already all around us, changing the ways in which we live, work and learn, often for the better. But not everyone has ubiquitous access to digital tools and that includes college learners.

When technology is embedded into teaching it can open up learning to a much wider range of people, addressing their personal needs. New accessibility requirements will provide greater support, boosting student engagement, bringing about improved learning outcomes and widening participation.

Meanwhile, across the sector, some students still lack not only sufficient digital skills, but also an awareness of just how crucial those digital skills are to their future. A Jisc survey of 13,389 FE learners, published in September, highlighted some of the issues.

Just 40 per cent said they feel their course prepared them for the digital workplace, and while the Office for Students (OfS) predicts that more than a million digitally skilled people will be needed by 2022, only 49 per cent of students surveyed agreed that digital skills were needed in their chosen career.

As for our existing workforce, a 2018 World Economic Forum report says that, by 2022, the skills required to perform most jobs will have shifted and 54 per cent of all employees will require re-skilling and upskilling.

Our sector is ideally placed to address this, but it needs supportive, strategic direction, funding and frameworks. The Independent Commission on the College of the Future, which Jisc is supporting, offers an opportunity to radically rethink and reframe colleges to deliver for the UK’s future workforce.

Our sector needs supportive, strategic direction

Part of that involves looking at the innovative work already going on in colleges, sharing best practice and embracing new approaches. Some of it is about looking at how our cities, towns and rural areas are changing, considering how people live and learn, asking what roles colleges play, how learners use them, and what their future purpose could be.

Jisc’s role on the commission’s expert panel is to help explain the potential technology offers to support teaching staff and transform student outcomes. Digital is no longer the “added bonus” that helps to elevate a college from the crowd – it is about making the best use of advanced technologies.

Enabling more teachers to free up their time – using artificial intelligence to generate reports for example – is an opportunity, not a dream. Students can benefit from interactive, flexible, personalised learning, and set and track their goals while they learn.

Imagining these scenarios and countless more, we can see a future in which humans use technology to help collaboration, cut down on paperwork and create environments in which teachers and learners can  reach the information they need, when they need it. This is a key part of Jisc’s Education 4.0 vision, and we want to help colleges start their journey to transformation now.

At this point in the work of the commission, we are asking questions, identifying tensions and exploring themes that those working in the sector tell us they want to address. The commissioners are working with college leaders and workforce, learners, employers, community stakeholders and as broad a range of people as possible to identify opportunities and challenges for the colleges of the future.

They are using a series of roundtables, workshops and public events to lead the agenda on the central role that colleges can play across many public policy challenges. They welcome input and will be publishing their initial thinking for feedback this autumn.  

We know that technology will be part of the future for colleges, but it is just a tool. We want to help create proposals in which technology, like electricity, becomes commonplace, supporting the sector’s innovative, digitally-savvy humans.