What does the college of the future look like?

This is a guest blog post written by Ben Whitaker, Dan Fitzpatrick and Steven Hope, hosts of the Edufuturists podcast. Together they deliver training across the world on education, technology and leadership, as well as continuing to serve in various education settings.

Einstein is reported to have said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” If that is to be believed, and we conclude that it is, we need to think differently about the problems that need addressing in our education system. Alvin Toffler surmised that, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write; they will be those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”. To that end, how we learn, unlearn and relearn - or think, unthink and rethink - is of vital importance in schools and colleges.

Texthelp in conversation with Edufuturists

In an exciting independent review known as The College of the Future, there are sentiments that resonate closely with the Edufuturists’ ideas about preparing students for the future. 

There are seismic shifts happening across the UK - from demographic changes, to technological revolution, from the changing demands of the labour market, to climate change and all of the wide-ranging changes that this will in turn entail. This will mean significant change for the college sector – but these are also challenges that colleges can help us to meet and manage”. 

Within this, five key themes are discussed;

  1. Role, scope and focus of colleges: an essential service to people and employers in every community
  2. Teaching, training, learning and assessment: lifelong, flexible learning for the future world of work
  3. Workforce and leadership: investing in innovative and collaborative people
  4. Funding, governance and accountability: a sustainable system which engenders trust
  5. Relationships: colleges at the centre of coherent skills ecosystems

So, in building on this foundation we ask ourselves, what does this 'College of the Future' look like?

Offering and managing a plethora of courses and pathways

In 2017 we saw the reform of A-Levels, and in 2020 we will see the advent of T-Levels and the beginning of discussions over the future of Applied General qualifications. In this context, serious questions to be asked are ‘will the T-Levels be effective in the current political climate?’ and ‘how will we cater for entry level and foundation studies?’. There has been an increased focus on apprenticeships, GCSE resit courses, and more and more colleges are becoming university centres; in fact, one-third of English students aged under 19 who enter higher education through UCAS studied at a college. Therefore, the college of the future will need to be able to manage learners on a variety of pathways, many of whom will be on diverse routes either simultaneously or consecutively.

Learning will become increasingly collaborative and learner-led

Innovative educational establishments like the Agora school in Roermond, Netherlands, empower their students, whose ages range between 12 and 18, by giving them control over their own education with the ability to explore and learn about topics that interest them. This means that students may choose when they learn, with little need for a timetable, on the acclaimed phenomenon model of learning. Similarly, Jolanta Gonalowska, director of Learning Innovation at IE Business School in Madrid, describes one of their methods, the WOW Room, in the following way, "With this project, we are revolutionising the learning experience through AI, simulations in real time, big data analysis, interactive robotics, emotional recognition systems and the presence of experts via holograms, among other things." Indeed, the IE team have done some amazing projects, including creating their own cryptocurrency with their learners! 

Could colleges become centres for industrial problem solving?  This is echoed by the team at Promethean, “With the world of work already demanding softer skills from individuals and a culture of collaboration from its workforce, the time to start introducing the principles and moulding the personalities in the classroom has arrived. We cannot prepare our pupils for the future with the tactics of the past”. Employers such as Google are no longer recruiting based on qualifications and GPA, but on GCA (General Cognitive Ability) and one’s ability to grow and lead at any level. This forces us to question what impact this will have on a system built on qualifications and acquiring grades.

Colleges and teachers will make use of AI, Big Data and Machine Learning to enhance the student experience

Researchers at Cognilytica have outlined the benefits of AI and Machine Learning for schools and colleges, namely;

  1. Customised tutoring and study programs to help those students struggling with basic concepts
  2. Relieving administrative burdens (such as the process of getting settled into campus life and learning your way around, finding out about various student groups and familiarising yourself with the locations of classes) through innovative chatbots and digital assistants such as Ada from Bolton College
  3. Augmenting, not replacing educators and administrators
  4. Allowing teachers to see in real time which students need more instruction, which students need to be pushed to the next level, and provide a helping hand for assigning and grading homework and tests

Data analytics, using data warehouses or lakes to be able to look at big data and then using this to identify the likelihood of students leaving early, not meeting expectations, and/or being at risk, could be game changers in the sector. Many institutions have a deluge of data but don’t know what to do with it. The tools that interpret this and then inform planning decisions will be truly useful. One good example of this is WriQ, which uses a powerful algorithm that instantly assesses each student’s writing in Google Docs, replacing the time-consuming task for teachers of assessing written passages manually. This will help teachers provide meaningful feedback to improve their students' writing over time.

Classrooms will be blended and personalised

In his excellent fictional foray into the future of the FE college, Head of FE and Skills at JISC, Paul McKean, suggests,

Through the library windows you see students working in collaborative groups, researching coursework and checking their progress through online quizzes and games. You observe computer-aided differentiation, with a small group of learners, supported by machine-based learning. From the different tasks in hand you see "the system" recognises individual’s strengths and areas for improvement and it’s stretching and challenging the most capable while providing constructive scaffolding for less able learners. The librarian is adding the latest e-books to the online library catalogue and directing his team to add the titles to curriculum VLE courses. He’s pleased because all learners can access digital resources at the same time, whenever and wherever they are. And, because he no longer handles book collections or access management tasks, he has time to give learners personalised support. In the staffroom, tutors have time to put real thought into marking because the technology has done the legwork – the cognitive language assistant pre-marks the assignments and identifies any attempts at plagiarism.”

Increasingly, our colleges must offer a range of blended courses, where there are some in-person sessions, some video conference sessions and some totally online learning where students work independently. It still takes a teacher - there is no suggestion we are going anywhere soon - but giving students ownership and autonomy over their learning, without seeing the teacher as the font of all knowledge, will be absolutely critical in the future.

A closer relationship with employers than ever before

The focus of the Education Inspection Framework has shifted dramatically and although we don’t build colleges to meet OfSTED requirements (that is indeed a fruit of good roots), we must pay some attention to this. The idea that “learners are ready for the next stage of education, employment or training” and that the environment “clearly support(s) the intent of a coherently planned curriculum, sequenced towards cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills for future learning and employment” are based on the expectation that “leaders engage effectively with learners and others in their community, including – where relevant – parents, carers, employers and local services.”. All of the new Apprenticeship standards and T-Levels are developed in partnership with industry to ensure that a curriculum is fit for the job market when learners progress into it. Indeed, Labour Market Intelligence plays a significant role in business and curriculum planning in FE colleges and this will only increase.

One national issue where this is becoming increasingly apparent is in the digital skills shortage. In a recent article, the conservative estimate of the digital skills gap was given as 40,000 with a cost of £22 billion in the UK. Chris Pockett, head of communications at the engineering company Renishaw, commented, “We work with thousands of kids each year and clearly most of them will never work for Renishaw, but a broader talent pool is going to benefit all of us”. Indeed, the article goes on to state that “the company’s approach to the digital skills gap has seen a huge expansion of its apprenticeships and graduate-entry programmes, which gives Renishaw the chance to train staff in exactly the disciplines where it needs them most.”. This is further evidenced by Deloitte who argue that only 16% of executives believe their teams have the capabilities to deliver their digital strategy. These statistics, along with other LMI data make it necessary for colleges to work closely with employers to scratch where the employers are itching both locally and nationally.

All of this makes it abundantly clear that although predicting the future is often a futile activity, preparing students for a world yet to be determined is the inimitable job facing our colleges. We cannot wait for an economic upturn, political stability or definitive curriculum planning but we must remain flexible, responsive, innovative and technology-aware regardless.

Check out the Texthelp podcast with Edufuturists

Resident Edtech Strategist at Texthelp, Patrick McGrath, met with the Edufuturist team to discuss more on the topic.

If you would like to hear more from the EduFuturists, check out some of the other resources we have created with them this year. You'll discover more about the contemporary challenges of remote learning and the opportunities that edtech presents >>Check it out<<